African shweshwe fabric, or seshoeshoe as it is also called because of the role that King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho played in his role in popularising this colourful printed fabric – is famous for its versatility and durability. While it has long been a staple fabric for makoti, or newly married Sotho women, it has become a popular choice for traditional wedding dresses, durable daywear amongst Xhosa ladies, and has now found its way into the worldwide market in high end fashion. We look at the amazing range of shweshwe dresses which demonstrate the adaptability of this traditional African fabric as it evolves alongside African culture.
Traditional shweshwe designs
isiShweshwe takes it to the runways
So what is it about this fabric that has captured the hearts and minds of everyone from young African brides to top fashion designers for their dresses?
ShweShwe is unique – it carries with it not only a deep European and African history, but also manages to speak volumes with its versatile and colourful designs. The original indigo-dyed fabric has its root in Dutch wax printing, and was incorporated into African culture around 1790 by the influence of King Moshoeshoe of Basotholand, now known as Lesotho. Accomplished in military strategy, he was however notable for this diplomatic attitude towards his beaten enemies, offering them land and protection if they joined his growing Basotho nation. Receiving a gift of what was then known as blaudruck (blue print) or serejamane (German print) from missionaries, he encouraged the incorporation of the material which would eventually take on his name into traditional clothing, and for over 200 years seshoeshoe has been evolving in its significance to various African peoples, becoming absorbed into and developing with their traditional culture as it still does today.
Makoti dresses for new brides:
A new bride (centre) wears the full traditional makoti attire. Photo credit
In Xhosa culture, the wearing of a shweshwe skirt as part of her makoti attire is deeply ingrained in the symbology of a woman’s changing role in society. During a ceremony known as utsiki, she receives her new clothing which includes a black head scarf, tartan or shweshwe blanket over the shoulders, a long-sleeved top, towel wrapped around the upper body, a woollen scarf around her waist and the traditional long seshoeshoe printed skirt, although the stringency of adherence to the full formula varies among communities. During this ceremony she may also be given a new name, which symbolises her transition from a young girl towards becoming a woman, and she may wear the outfit for anything between 3 months to a year, and in some cultures until she has her first child. As former chieftainess of Amambombo in Keiskammahoek, Nosiseko Ngqika explains:
“The change of dress code is a symbolic transition to welcome a young girl to womanhood – the first of a number of stages a married Xhosa woman assumes over the years. She may no longer do some things she used to do when she was still a young unmarried girl. When a makoti proudly wears her attire anyone can easily see that she is married.”
Part of the practice is to teach the young woman to embrace her culture, and gives her a dignified place in the community on her journey to becoming umfazana (young woman), and eventually umfazi omkhulu (woman elder).
While many couples will have both a ‘white wedding’ and a traditional wedding, some brides choose to blend the two by choosing an elaborate shweshwe dress for their wedding day which incorporates both the gloss and glamour of a European wedding and the colourful shweshwe prints so important to their African culture:
Shweshwe wedding dresses blend traditional African and European culture
And seshoeshoe continues to adapt and grow with the requirements of its wearers, evolving into durable daywear and expanding into accessories such as hats, bags and even upholstery and soft furnishings, while still remaining popular in traditional dress. For those of us who won’t have the makoti experience, we can still add a touch of African flair to our everyday attire with shweshwe clothing and accessories:
Again and again, remarkable shweshwe shows its ability to unite cultures through its unique aesthetic appeal!