Fabric, Fashion and Identity - The story of IsiShweshwe

Iziko Museums of South Africa

The story of IsiShweshwe is a long and complex story of intercontinental trade and cultural exchange. Although it's roots are linked to colonialism, it is also tied to missionary movements and political resistance. 

IsiShweshwe and Colonialism
The cloth known as amajamane, amajerimane or isishweshwe has its origins in the East, and was originally made from cotton and blue dye from the indigo plant. Through trade, it spread to different parts of the world including the Cape, where it was initially worn by slaves, Khoisan and colonialists. The earliest origins of isishweshwe can be traced back to the craze for colourful indiennes (Indian cottons) which spread like wildfire across Europe from the mid-1600s. The complicated techniques for making multi-coloured indiennes in Central Europe were eventually adapted to the use of one colour only: indigo.  

Overalls worn by a domestic worker.

One of the oldest artefacts in the isishweshwe collection, this dress is an example of 'Indienne'. It is made of Indian cotton (chintz or calico) and has a continuous pattern of delicate intertwined stems bearing leaves and flowers. The dress originated on the Coromandel coast of India in the third quarter of the 18th century. Indian chintz was extremely popular throughout the eighteenth century, and was imported into the Netherlands by the Dutch East India Company, thus making it available at the Company's halfway station at the Cape. 
Simplified resist-dyeing techniques were used to create a fabric of small, white, regularly spaced patterns on a deep blue background. This was known in Germany as 'blaudruck' (blue print). This fabric was transformed into garments for work-wear and peasant-wear, and became associated with European regional and Protestant dress, as well as expressing nationalist sentiments. When German missionaries and traders immigrated to the Eastern Cape and other parts of southern Africa during the mid-1800s, they brought their 'blaudruck' with them and traded with those they came in contact with. It became popular amongst women on mission stations. This fabric was later adopted by IsiXhosa women in the Eastern Cape to produce garments. 
Origins of the Name 
There are two competing accounts for the origins of the name isiswheshwe. Some say that it is onomatopoeic and simply reflects the sound of the material swishing with the movement of the wearer. Others argue that it was named after the Sotho King, Moshoeshoe who was given indigo-printed cloth as a gift by French missionaries in the early 1840s.
IsiShweshwe and Political Resistance
Just as the identities of its wearers have changed over many years, the fabric has evolved from its first context as a trade item and missionary-inspired garment. It was used extensively as a political statement against apartheid in South Africa, and even as a show of solidarity by liberals and left-wing groups.

It is common to see Nelson Mandela's face printed on an isiShweshwe garment.

Teaching Needlework

In the mid-1980s, as part of a campaign to encourage a means of income amongst women in the apartheid-era Ciskei homeland, Marie Peacey was invited by Nico Ferreira, then Chancellor for Lennox Sebe (President of Ciskei), to teach needlework. For a period of 13 months, she spent alternate weeks at the Ciskeian Small Business Corporation in Mitford, where she taught women to make mola applique squares, which she then assembled into jackets, waistcoats, etc., for sale in clothing boutiques.

Albertina Sisulu, known as Ma Sisulu, was a South African anti–apartheid activist, and the wife of fellow activist Walter Sisulu.

In the 80s, wearing isishweshwe printed fashion items was a sign of solidarity from white South Africans, liberals and left-wing groups.

isiShweshwe across Africa
IsiShweshwe  is currently produced by Da Gama textiles in the Eastern Cape, but it's use is not isolated to South Africa. It has been incorporated into various customs and traditions across Africa.

The Dress of Makoti

This is an example of the dress of makoti. To show respect and submission to the authority of her husband and parents-in-law, traditional practice dictated that a newly-married Xhosa woman would wear her ikhetshemiya (headcloth) low over her forehead, keep her shoulders covered, cover her hips with a blanket and wear a isishweshwe skirt and apron. She should stay with her parents-in-law for up to a year, a period during which her behaviour conveyed that she adhered to ukuhlonipha traditions of respect. Aspects of this practice are still present but are being eroded with urbanization. Head cloth, blanket and towel on loan from Siphokazi Mesele, nee Lindelwa Pamela Mbola, who wore them when she was makoti.

Swazi Man's Amabutho Outfit

This is an example of a Swazi man's amabutho outfit. The Sidvashi (skirt) can be red, maroon or brown isishweshwe, and must be covered by a majobo (lionskin) of leopard, duiker, reed buck or even baboon pelt, worn at the front and rear. In this case the pattern on the isishweshwe is libululu (snake) - the Swazi king's favorite.

Herero women in Namibia, with their distinctive headgear, use isishweshwe.

Dress by Malian designer Meiga Abdoulaye. He derives inspiration from his home, Timbuktu.

Contemporary isiShweshwe in Fashion
In recent years, IsiShweshwe has emerged on the international fashion circuit, and it is increasingly worn as everyday dress across the African continent. It is used today by many as daily and fashion wear. 

Dress designed by acclaimed South African designer Amanda Laird Cherry.

Dress by Cheryl Arthur, designer for Afro Diva for the Iziko Museums of South Africa IsiShweshwe collection.

Skirt designed by Lisa Jaffe of the Lysof Design School.

Wedge shoes designed by Amanda Laird Cherry.

IsiShweshwe accessories, like these purses made by the Etafeni Centre for Thunga, are popular with locals and tourists in South Africa.

The Iziko Museums of South Africa’s Social History Collection comprise unique, precious, very rare and culturally significant collection(s) of artefacts. These include furniture, art, textiles, ceramics, anthropological items, historical objects, maritime archaeology and paper collections. They are historically and culturally significant in terms of representing South Africa’s cultural diversity as well as with regard to their value, aesthetics and rareness. They range from artefacts from the early Stone Age, slavery and the colonial period to the struggle against apartheid and the achievement of democracy. In addition, some of these collections, from antiquities to the present, are from around the globe, linking South Africa with other countries.

The Iziko Social History Centre

The Iziko Social History Centre is situated in Church Square, Cape Town. It is housed in the magnificent former National Mutual Life Association of Australasia building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Masey in 1905.

Iziko’s Social History Textile Collection

The isishweshwe collection forms part Iziko’s social history textile collection. A large part of this collection was donated by Dr Juliette Leeb-du Toit, an art historian who studied the cloth in the South African context over many years. She had conducted extensive research into its origins, significance (both past and present) and had investigated the development of its meaning, within various branches of South African culture, from its earliest roots to its present status.

Iziko Museums of South Africa
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Created by Lynn Abrahams and Sarah Schäfer.

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