Women in different stages of their lives wear different attire. The older they get and as they are married, the more they cover their bodies.
An unmarried girl (intombi) wears only a short skirt made of grass or beaded cotton strings, she wears nothing on top regardless of her size, weight, small or large bosom. Zulus do not contribute any sexual meaning to the naked breast, but rather to back of the upper thigh. She then spruces herself up with beadwork. They also keep their hair short.
When a young woman has been chosen or engaged, she lets her hair grow and covers her breasts with a decorative cloth as a sign of respect to her future family, it also indicates to the community that she has been spoken for.
Married women cover their bodies completely, which signals that she is off limits. She wears a heavy knee length cow hide skirt. The hide is treated until it is relatively soft, then the leather is cut into long strips and sewn together.
Over the skirt, a cloth that is decorated with predominantly red, white and black is worn or draped over. Beads are also worn over this.
Married women also cover their breasts with either material or skin, although nowadays they tend to wear vests or beaded bras.
When a woman is pregnant she wears an ‘isibamba’, a thick belt made from dried grass, covered with glass or plastic beadwork, to support her swelling stomach and its additional weight.
Traditional dress for men consists of animal skins and feathers; the kind of skins indicates the status of the person wearing them.
The tufts of a cow’s tail (amashoba) are worn on the upper arms and below the knee to make the person appear broader than he is.
The apron worn by men to cover their buttocks is called ‘ibheshu’, it is made from calf-skin, so it is soft and easily processed. It comes in two different lengths:
- Young men wear one that is knee-length as it is more practical for fighting, hunting and dancing;
- Older mean wear one that reach their ankles as they do not readily partake in those activities.
A headband is worn by married men
Leopard skin is worn only by the royal family, ‘izinduna’ (generals) and chiefs. The amount of leopard skin worn is limited to the status of the person — the King may wear as much leopard skin as he wishes, and a chief may be entitled to wear only a headband. The average man may wear a little leopard skin on his wedding day.
Nowadays, because of westernization, not too many people own ‘ibheshu’ or traditional attire but rather a westernised version. These pants are called ‘umbhulaselo’ which are pants that have patches sewn on decoratively. It is thought that they originated when pants were wearing out and to give them a new lease of life patches were sewn onto them, but it was done in such a way that it seemed like they were designed to look like that and were not simply mended old pants. These are usually worn with a waistcoat decorated in the same manner, or a vest.
Married women also wear hats or ‘izicolo’; traditionally they were made of grass, and more often than not intertwined with red or white cotton thread. The size and shape of the hats differs from clan to clan, but the largest are found in the hot valleys of the Tugela River. Here they measure up to a metre in diameter as protection from the sun. They were traditionally sewn into the hair – the bride’s hair would be straightened, herbs would be applied and then the hat would be sewn into her hair so it could no longer be taken off and over a period of a few months would rot on her head. Her hair would then be washed and the procedure repeated. During her husband’s long absences, a woman could not take the hat off and pretend to be unmarried. Nowadays, though, hats are generally not sewn onto the head, and are only worn on special occasions.
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