Victorian era women prided themseleves on their extravagant dresses comprising of large hems, numerous petticoats and elaborate sleeves. They would accessorise with lavish trimming of ribbons and lace.
When the Herero women adopted this culture however, they chose to personalise it and make it their own by adding horn-shaped headgear in matching fabric. this headgear completed the dress and the dress has since become one of the most iconic traditional attires in namibia.
The dress is symbolic and regarded as the proper dress code for married Herero women. a woman who wears the dress shows that she is ready and willing to take up the responsibilities of her home and will raise her children to respect their heritage and their elders.
Herero women take just as much pride in their dresses as the Victorians did, having them designed in all variations and playing around with beautifull bright colours. it is always such a marvel to watch the kaleidescope of colours on the herero dress when attending weddings, funerals or various other social gatherings.
Changed over the years to reflect the preference and style of new generations, just how far the boundaries can be pushed in making the dress more appealing to the young but still traditionally appropriate, is quite a debate. these days, designers play around with patterns to the customers’ specifications, making each dress unique.
McBright Kavari is one of the namibian designers who are giving the Herero dress a face lift. Having won the Best Herero Dress competition three times in a row, he has been designing it very differently to traditional norms. He certainly pushes boundaries. this has won him praise and in some quarters, criticism from those who believe it has been modernised too much. that it is in danger of losing its essence at the cost of being trendy.
the young designer says opinions of differ from person to person. “Some elderly people like the new designs as they are, but some feel it is wrong,” says McBright. He urges the pessimists to appreciate the work of designers such as himself who are only trying to promote
the Herero dress. the outspoken designer says that he would even make a mini-styled Herero dress if a customer requested it. this is part of a concerted effort to have the dress appeal to an international market.
He has a large clientelle base of young and old, and his expertise are sought after, even by women who are not otjiherero speaking.
a photo of one of his designs, recently posted on Facebook caused quite a stir with some people complaining that the young designer is simply going too far in terms of the design of his dresses.
one comment read: “omukaendu womuherero kamunika ongoro veetu arikanee. “ (Herero women’s knees are not supposed to be seen.) another person called it an insult to the culture while others defended the design by saying that it is a ramp outfit which can easily be altered, saying the designer is only showing creativity and that people should differentiate between fashion shows and reality.
one person pointed out that the headpiece looked different in the past and that it has become more pointy with women using folded newspapers to achieve a shapely and more polished look. this is part of the modernisation of the headpiece and does not mean that it has become culturally ‘wrong’.
Kavee Veii, a married Herero woman who takes pride in her traditional attire and says that designers can play around with different takes on the design of the shoulders of the iconic dress, but stressed that the hem should be left as it is.
“I wouldn’t wear a Herero dress that showed my legs. the dress can be spiced up but if your legs are shown, it’s not a Herero dress anymore.”
one thing that is certain is that change will remain the only constant in life. traditions and cultural attires have to be respected always and preserved but at the same time, mordernity will always play a role in pushing the boundaries of traditional designs.