Heirachies of Womanhood and the Apron's of Nguni Women

Learn about the process and meanings behind beautiful aprons made by South African Nguni women

Jocolo / Marriage apronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

Attire that talks

In many South African cultures, clothing is more than functional and it is more than aesthetic. It is used as social code, to denote status and mark phases in the wearer's life. Women's aprons are exquisite examples of how clothing and items of adornment are used in this way.

How does clothing convey meaning?

While the works are beautiful in and of their own right, the meanings they express are of equal significance. Colors, shapes and patterns all denote meaning in the production of aprons. Read on to view these meticulously crafted garments and learn about their meanings.

Ibhayi / Isikoti / Shoulder ApronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

1. Ndwende Marriage Shawl

A shawl draped over the shoulders of a married woman from the Ndwedwe area. As scholar Thenjiwe Magwaza shows, Ndwedwe society, like most rural traditional societies, has a tendency to concretise abstract concepts, a thinking which gives dress a strong symbolic value.

Ibhayi / Isikoti / Shoulder ApronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

2. Mapumalo Marriage Shawl

Like the Ndwende, Zulu people from the Mapumulo area also wear marriage shawls. Mapumulo shawls can be indentifued by the beautiful white beadwork and specific colour combinations they use.

Isicwayo / Front/ Pregnancy Apron by Ntombikayise okayiboni SibisiOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

3. Msinga Pregnancy Apron

An Apron worn by a Zulu woman from Msinga expecting her first child.  A wild antelope has to be hunted by the family and decorated in the colours of the area.  Care is taken not to have geometric designs. The apron is worn with the head of the antelope facing downwards to welcome her first born child. Upon birth some beads are removed from the surface of the skin to make her first girdle. The skin become a blanket for the child. It is completely inspired by the traditions of San and Khoe people, only in this case, the white beads refer to the ancestors. 

Umbhaco / ApronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

4. Xhosa sangoma's skirt

Throughout South African cultures traditional healers or sangomas exsit. Sangomas are powerful and skilled healers who work with plant medicine and can communicate with the ancestors to heal and help their clients. Xhosa sangomas often wear a skirt like this one.

Ubheshwana / Front apronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

5. Ubeshwana (Nongoma Front Apron)

This colourful garment is the Front Apron for a young girl from the Nongoma area. Nongoma is known for the  Umkhosi woMhlanga or Royal Reed Dance Festival which takes place in early September every year. The Reed Dance is performed by Zulu maidens to celebrate the Zulu nation.

Isidwaba / Marriage skirt by Mrs K. XabaOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

6. Isidwaba

Traditional Zulu marriage skirt made from one of the marriage  lobola cows which has  sacrificed by the wearer's father and blackened with carbon and fat as a show of respect to the ancestors. 

Isidwaba / Marriage skirtOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

7. Amangwane

A picture of a magnificent Amangwane marriage skirt with tassels and leather belt all reminiscent of the 60’s. The husband wears a similar leather belt with tassels as well. It is the traditional wear of the people from the Drakensberg since migrant labour became the normal way of supporting the family.

Jocolo / Marriage apronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

8. Jocolo

Marriage apron of Ndeblele woman worn for wedding and special occasions. The Ndebele were widely dispersed over huge white farms a major war and created an entirely new form of dress and ceremonies that were intended to result in the unity of the Ndebele Nation. They painted their houses in designs signifying events, abstraction and eventually what they wished their future houses and villages to be. They then transferred this pictures on to their items of dress. 

Ligabi / Young woman apronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum


A Lighabi is a front apron worn by a young Ndebele women who have reached maturity. By wearing this apron, a young woman indicates that she is ready for marriage

Inkciyo/Under apronOriginal Source: Phansi Museum

10. Tsonga Initiation Apron

Amongst the Shangana Tsonga, ceremonies happen in an Nhanga, a guarded women’s initiation hut. Secret musical rites of passage take place in these spaces which, along with other rituals and lessons, render youn girls eligible for lobolo, bride price negotiation.

Credits: Story

Paul Mikula
Similo Gobingca
Zinhle Khumalo

Evocations of the Child:Fertility Figures of the Southern African Region - Elizabeth Dell

The Secret of Beads: Imfihlo Yobuhlali - Hlengiwe Dube & Anthea Martin

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
I Am Because You Are
A celebration of South African creativity, community, and craft
View theme
Google apps