As part of the ‘JungleVazi’ fashion series, today we explore female adornment as experienced by women from different cultures throughout the years.
In most African countries, a person’s home area, ethnic group, age, marital status, number of children, economic status and a lot of other elements in their life was communicated through items of clothing and adornment. This was more prominent among women. The most common ways of beautification was through make-up, scarves, piercings, accessories, beaded clothing, scarves, printed clothing among others.
Make-up was a traditional African practice among most communities more so among women with examples like Egypt where paint was used by women to paint their lips and Kohl~ a preparation made from soot or a substance called antimony to paint their eye lids. Africans also had nail techs that probably went by other names as seen through the Egyptians who as colored their finger nails using reddish orange dye prepared from the leaves of henna plants and also among the Swahili where the practice of henna application was wide spread.
Veils, Head Cloths and Scarves
Modesty was something that some communities like those from North Africa insisted on among women through the wearing of veils and scarves to cover their heads and long robes. Among the Tuaregs for example the veil was both functional to keep women cool during hot weather and mandatory to hide women especially those who are not married from the public eye. This was also practiced by other Islamic communities where a hijab or Burqa-Nijab would be worn as a sign of modesty, privacy and morality. Among communities in Southern Africa however headdresses were more elaborate; the Basuto of wore woven conical hats while the Pedi women had magnificent head clothes tied in spectacular styles and the Fingo tied turbans. Among the Herero women wore high headdresses; a turban was usually worn at the age of 18 to signify readiness for marriage.
In the African society just like in today’s society there were family heirlooms that were passed from a mother to her daughter an example is the Ndebele wedding veil called Nyoga which was attached to the brides shoulder and trailed to the ground. With every handing over the length would be increased. It was made purely of beads and had different designs which carried with them a special meaning. Just like family recipes are also passed on crafts were passed on and practiced in the creation of adornment for women. A good example is the Ndebele marriage blanket (Nguba) worn by a woman on the wedding day and for ceremonial events that came after the marriage. The blanket was made by the bride to be inspired by her ancestors under the supervision and instruction of older women in her ethnic group.
Beaded Skirts, Blankets and Wraps
The need to make our status known in society is something inherent from our ancestors, it is probably done differently today but the principle remains the same. Among women in Africa adornment was the significant factor used to identify your status without having to utter a word. For example among the Ndebele women wore beaded skirts whose shape and size would communicate the status of the wearer. The larger the size and the more the parts it had the older the woman and the more important the roles she played in the society.
Among the Fingo blankets called Ambayi or Ibayi which were not only used as wraps but also to cover babies also sent a clear message of status. This is also seen in the Ndebele beaded blankets which were heavily beaded and were usually a sign of wealth and beauty. The beading of this blanket was done over a long period of time and would mark the major events in the beader’s(Woman’s) life and was thus a symbol of social status and testified of a woman’s artistic abilities, considerable financial resources and high social standing.
In some communities like the Maasai and the Kikuyu of Kenya women shaved their hair while in others more so among West African societies plaiting or braiding of hair was very elaborate with hairstyles. A number of these hairstyles are still being used in modern fashion across the world.
Some African women started using perfumes way before the industrial revolution started among the Bushmen for instance, women carried a shell of Kalahari tortoise around their neck which was used to carry aromatic powdered root and a piece of soft leather with which to apply it to the neck and shoulders due to the long hours spent out in the sun. The Aromatic powder would not only cool their bodies but also leave their bodies with a good smell.
The stages in a woman’s life were very significant and some were marked by ceremonies and special dressing. Among the Maasai for example girls between the age of 12 and 16 decorate the upper part of their ears with beaded earrings and wear elaborate necklaces during the. After birth, during the naming ceremony the mother is usually dressed in soft lambskin or goatskin stitched with beads. She also wears many necklaces and earrings and heavy ocher makeup to mark the ceremony. Mature women can decorate the lower earlobes and wear long metal chain (usually referred to as the emonyorid and coiled brass ornaments (Isurutian).
If you thought African men were not romantic you are mistaken they would also buy gifts some of which formed part of the women’s adornment. Examples are the Thembu leather purses which were usually gifts were given to women by their husbands especially when they came back home after a long trip. They were made of leather and were used to carry paper money and were also considered objects of status. Among communities in East Africa the Khanga also referred to as Lesso, were also used as a gift from a man to his wife or to the female relatives of his in-laws. Children would also buy them for their mothers and they would also be given as gifts from one lady to another as a sign of friendship. Khangas were considered important and each carried with it a special saying or proverb written in Swahili.
Female adornment has changed with time as a number of women in Africa have adopted some clothing, hairstyles and accessories from the western world. This is especially for the ones living in the urban areas. Some have still maintained their culture and wear their traditional accessories and attire but it is becoming less popular with time.