Countries that have endured some form of foreign or colonial conquest often find themselves in a constant pursuit of building national cohesion.
This is because extended foreign domination comes with the imposition of new cultures, erosion of indigenous traditions and the creation of a new hybrid identity that seeks to undermine their own historical sense of self and being – what can be referred to as cultural imperialism.
In Africa, the quest for a national identity in the post-colonial era usually entails the promotion of a “national dress”.
It is something that countries like Eswatini, Lesotho and Namibia have done quite well in Southern Africa. Father from home, the nations of West Africa have been quite adept at fashioning an identity through dress.
Zimbabwe has for decades tried – and failed – to fashion a national dress.
Now a new effort at this has seen the government launch what it calls a “national fabric”, whose main aim is to instil a sense of pride and identity among Zimbabweans.
At a recent event headlined by First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa, with her husband President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his deputy Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga in attendance, the national fabric was unveiled.
It bears the black, red, green, yellow and white of the national flag, with the Zimbabwe Bird – the bateleur eagle – and the country’s iconic chevron pattern prominent on the design.
President Mnangagwa said the national dress was an expression of the social and cultural identity of the people, an identity that bore being passed down from one generation to the next.
“National costumes preserved traditional art and crafts, which are an important part of a country, region or culture, heritage and also a way of learning history, living and evolving art form that could give one a glimpse into the culture of a country or group,” he said.
President Mnangagwa went on: “Our valuable traditional and cultural heritage must be preserved and developed to foster a sense of national identity, pride and unity. It is necessary to reformulate cultural values and valuing processes to move with current trends by merging culture and its meaning found in material objects.
“The national dress will be recognised as one of the many valuable material culture objects essential for signifying and expressing subtle cultural value and social relationships. It details the intimate links that exist between people and their tradition and this lies at the core of our national identity.”
Across Africa, the significance of a national dress has become a celebration of the diverse cultures within nations whose boundaries were arbitrarily established by the colonial powers at the Berlin Conference that divvied up the continent amongst themselves without any regard to local realities.
At the same time, national dresses have also become serious fashion statements whose appeal has cut across borders and oceans to capture the imagination of the world.
In South Africa, it is easy to identify ethnic origin or identity from dress, and this is true whether one is Zulu, Xosa, Ndebele, Venda or Shangaan, among the diverse groups that make up the Rainbow Nation.
Zulu women are well-known and identified by their iconic adornment with the circular shaped hat called the izicolo.
According to South Africa Culture Trip: An Introduction to South Africa Traditional Dressing, Zulu women wear different attires at different stages in their lives. These are mostly grass-red skirts embellished with beads. The men often wear animal skins and leather outfits.
Namibia also has a proud identity recognisable anywhere in the world thanks to its national dresses. Most well-known is the Herero dress and head-wrap called otjikava, which is shaped like cow horns as a proud symbol of that group’s prowess when it comes to animal husbandry.
The people of the Kingdom of Eswatini are also unmistakable and stand out anywhere in the world with their colourful red, yellow or royal blue loin cloths. These are often decorated with large black-and-white cowhide traditional shields, and the chevron pattern that holds much cultural and religious significance across Southern Africa.
African national dresses are now being worn and embraced by Africans in the Diaspora who want to closely identify with their motherland.
The 2018 Hollywood blockbuster movie The Black Panther did much to boost the profile of African traditional dressing from across the continent.
This movie – along with the 2020 Beyoncé production titled Black is King – did much to take African traditional dress beyond just Africans in the Diaspora, but also to non-Africans who are increasingly seeing the beauty of the continent’s fashion sense.