Review by Bill Torbitt
Released during February by Merrell Publishers is fashion photographer Jim Naughten’s latest book, Conflict and Costume, where the author compares the ethereal to the historical, and in the deserts of Namibia captures the spectacular dress of the Hereros.
It’s a truism that it takes a foreigner to notice the distinctive and even unique features of a country that the locals take for granted or barely notice at all.
It took an English arts student, Jim Naughten, who rode a motorcycle through Namibia in the early days after independence, and has visited the country several times since, to observe not only the formal dress of Herero women but also that of the very different attire of the men, and not only to observe it, but to make a photographic documentary and turn it into a book.
The author states: “I would say that Namibia is one of my favourite countries in the world for many reasons. But in a nutshell, I’m awestruck by the beauty of the landscape and I’m endlessly fascinated by the people who live in it, and by their history. I have visited Namibia a few times before and the Herero dresses always struck me as extraordinarily beautiful and evocative.”
While many tourists snap pictures of Herero women in their traditional dress, Jim Naughten delves into the history, why and wherefore of the costumes. The Herero people of course suffered terribly during the German occupation – it was the first genocide of the modern era in the official UN definition of the term. Of the 85 000 Hereros at the beginning of the occupation only about 15 000 survived.
The remainder were massacred after the disastrous battle of the Waterberg or chased into the wastes of the Botswanan Kalahari where most perished of hunger and thirst.
The question we must ask is why on earth the Herero seem to have adopted the colonial dress of their oppressors. Were they bowing under colonial pressure, or after the departure of the Germans, were they subtly satirising them or, to use the British colloquialism, ‘taking the mickey’ out of them?
It seems that the nineteenth century missionaries were offended by the Herero dress, or lack of it – they probably dressed in a similar way to their northern cousins the Himba – and sought to cover them up like demure Victorian ladies.
But the Herero women took these basic white dresses and turned them into rainbows of colour and style. And, of course, the most eye-catching addition they made to the costumes of their former mistresses is the distinctive headdress, with the two ‘horns’, which may offer a little shade from the African sun, but are probably a reference to horns of cattle, the embodiment of wealth and well-being among the Herero people.
It is actually a fallacy that Herero women wear their extravagant costume on a daily basis.
I had never seen the Herero lady who has worked for our family for twenty years in traditional dress, and I assumed she must be a modern person who discounted the old customs.
But when she was invited for a very special occasion – my wife’s 50th birthday party – she arrived in all her white and lavender finery. She could easily have made the pages of Jim Naughten’s book.
The men’s costume is a different story entirely. When the leader of the Herero nation, Samuel Maherero, who had escaped the genocide and fled into exile, died in Botswana in 1923, his body was brought back in an iron coffin for a ceremonial burial in Okahandja.
His funeral was led by 150 mounted soldiers followed by a procession of 1 500 Hereros dressed in salvaged German khaki military uniforms.
The son of Maherero was apparently not happy with this style of turnout, but the tradition stuck, and has remained the ceremonial dress of Herero men to this day. It is usually worn once a year in late August, when this procession is re-enacted, and represents a defiant statement of the survival of the Herero nation.
It’s intriguing that Herero and Himba dress are inspiring modern fashion design.
To quote the words of a young American/Ghanian designer, as reported in Vogue magazine: “The shoe-turier brand and the designer have collaborated in the creation of two deluxe shoe models: a leather sandal with stiletto heel and fringe dedicated to the Himba culture, and open-toe ankle boots filled with beads, a tribute to the modern Victorian Herero style”.
This is gratifying; though how Herero dress can inspire boot design is somewhat of a puzzle.
In practical terms, one must admire the ladies’ stamina in wearing six or more layers to padded crinolines or ruffles when the temperatures are hitting 40 degrees Celsius. Perhaps for the 21st century someone will invent hi-tech dresses that will incorporate ventilation or air-conditioning, like astronauts’ suits.
Jim Naughten’s book showcases photographs of Herero men and women of all ages, in costumes of many variations depending in the imagination and resources of the wearer. They are taken against a stark desert background, which emphasises their distinctiveness, colour and character. It is a beautiful production, and a worthy addition to the record of Namibian history and culture.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 Flamingo magazine (Air Namibia's in-fligt magazine).