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Monday, August 13, 2018


Read this book and you will never be able to look at isishweshwe, whether as a smart outfit at the races, practical working clothes, part of a cultural ritual or even a humble oven glove in quite the same way again. (Review by Margaret von Klemperer - Courtesy of The Witness)

Next time you pull on that serviceable old sunhat or set off to choose a new outfit for a bride’s traditional visit to her husband’s home, demurely dressed as a suitable daughter-in-law must be, stop for a moment and look at the isishweshwe fabric in your hand. Printed indigo, brown or red, it is seen as an important part of the indigenous culture of Southern Africa. But what is it really?

Back in 2005, the Jack Heath Gallery on the local university campus hosted The Isishweshwe/Amajamani exhibition as part of a conference on Dress in Southern Africa. The conference was convened and the exhibition curated by Juliette Leeb-du Toit, then teaching at the Centre for Visual Art. Growing from that, Leeb-du Toit has written a book, isishweshwe: A History of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa.

It is the culmination of years of academic research that took her all over the world, from the dusty recesses of rural trading stores where ancient bolts of fabric still lurk, to family-run textile factories in Hungary, to museum storerooms in Africa and Europe and to folk festivals in Germany where smiling blond girls dance in wooden clogs and long skirts made from familiar-looking blueprint as they celebrate a romanticised vision of European peasant culture.

Whether you call it isishweshwe, isishoeshoe, ujamani, blueprint or a host of other names, it is not indigenous to South Africa, and has only been manufactured here since the 1950s. But its first appearance on the African continent was long before. Very early “proto blueprint” from around 900 AD has been found in Cairo, and in the 15th Century blueprint was making its appearance as trade goods from India and the Far East. Soon after that, indigo-dyed cloth was being made on the Cape Verde islands for barter in the slave trade, a dark episode in the fabric’s history.

Hard wearing and attractive, blueprint moved from its probable Asian roots to Europe. Raw indigo dye travelled the world in huge quantities, so much being traded that it was used as ballast in ships as it moved around the globe. Peasant communities all over Europe took it to their hearts, and blueprint can still be seen in rural Eastern Europe as well as Spain and Portugal. Perhaps that shade of indigo blue does something to the psyche – think of all those indispensable indigo jeans in our wardrobes. Princess Magogo, the mother of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, noted that in Zulu cosmology blue is associated with the divine as well as with spirituality, calm and coolness. Maybe that’s why we all love it.

But there is a political aspect to blueprint, and not just in its links to slavery. It has been through unpopularity in Hungary, where it became associated with the disliked Romanian part of the population. In Africa, missionaries were determined to see their adherents dress in Western style to the extent that blueprint was known as “mission print”, and can be seen as representing colonial domination. Voortrekkers wore it, and after the Anglo-Boer war and the ugly history of concentration camps, Boer women used it as a statement of their nationalism.

However, in its Southern African context, blueprint eventually came to be seen as a statement of Africanness – gone were the days when both slaves and their owners wore it. The fabric plays an important role in Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana cultural identity, sometimes associated with marriage, childbearing or mourning. Herero women in Namibia and Botswana use it for their spectacular, distinctive outfits – fabric and style both rooted in the colonial era. As Leeb-du Toit points out in her book, it can be seen as manipulation by colonisers who wanted to sell more fabric from their factories, or as a form of emulation by upwardly mobile local societies which would then morph into an act of defiance against the coloniser.

She also points out that, back in the 1970s when the apartheid regime was at its height and hippy culture held sway in Europe and America, liberal whites wore it as a form of protest that also tied into the contemporary fashion for ethnic dress. Leeb-du Toit recalls wearing it herself – and admits a possible naivety in doing so – but says it was often welcomed by African wearers who saw it as what it was meant to be: a sign of solidarity. But there were others who saw it as pretentious posturing.

So – a solidarity statement or cultural appropriation? Hard-wearing peasant dress or high fashion? Read this book and you will never be able to look at isishweshwe, whether as a smart outfit at the races, practical working clothes, part of a cultural ritual or even a humble oven glove in quite the same way again.

*isishweshwe: A History of the Indigenisation of Blueprint in Southern Africa by Juliette Leeb-du Toit is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. – Margaret von Klemperer