Namibia's Herero: amazing fashion derived from early 20th century German colonizers

Wired has a gorgeous gallery of photos from Conflict and Costume, a new book by Jim Naughten documenting the Herero tribe of Namibia, who fought an early 20th-century action with German colonizers, and wore captured German uniforms as trophies. The women adopted the ankle-length dresses of German missionary women, and adapted them into gorgeous, patchwork garments that are worn with headdresses made to look like cattle-horns.

The Herero women adopted the German missionaries’ Victorian-style floor length gowns, but they eventually incorporated the vivid colors and cow-horn-shaped headdress (to represent the Herero’s respect for cattle) you see today. After a woman is married, she is expected to make most of her dresses, often from the offcuts of other garments. These voluminous, patchwork outfits are considered every-day attire, while dresses made from a single material are reserved for special occasions. In the book’s introduction, Lutz Martin writes: “Rounded to resemble healthy cows, the dresses contain up to 10 metres of cloth, despite summer temperatures reaching 50 degrees celsius.”

To get his portraits, Naughten immersed himself in Herero culture. He and his guide traveled from village to village, asking permission of the elders to photograph. In turn, he would be invited to weddings, funerals and ceremonies where would he set up his equipment and snap shots of passersby against the Namibian landscape. Naughten said he lost track of how many people he photographed (it was a lot), but he does recall that most everyone was excited to show off their garb. “The man in the yellow suit has to be a favorite,” Naughten wrote. “For walking in front of the camera/lighting set up without saying a word, posing so perfectly for one shot, and then walking off smiling.”

Conflict and Costume: The Herero Tribe of Namibia [Amazon]

Photos: The Amazing Costume Culture of Africa’s Herero Tribe [Liz Stinson/Wired]



  1. Unfortunate that Jim Naughten didn’t bother to record the names of his subjects. He gets a “gorgeous gallery of photos” published in Wired and bb – the Herero tribe gets what?

    1. Are you sure he didn’t record them at all, or that they just aren’t included? Maybe they weren’t introduced, and he wasn’t given much option of interaction? I don’t see this as concern trolling, so much as difference of interests. When I take pictures of people it’s because I find *them* interesting. So I get it. In a way though, that can be MORE dehumanizing.

      At the same time, this isn’t me, and it’s specifically about the clothes. The word “supermodel” just means “model whose name you actually know” after all. That’s not an accident. The rest are human clothes hangers (said without contempt… I actually was one.)

      No, there are things here that smack of “look at the funny natives” but I don’t know that it is really the photographer’s fault. Once an image is taken people can use it in a lot of ways. If you look at the pictures *only* as pictures, and just don’t read any text… do you feel like they are disrespectful of the people?

      I think that is a better measure of the artist than what captions various journalists included or didn’t include.

  2. So instead of worshiping the Bringers of Cargo, these guys kicked their asses? You gotta respect that.

  3. Love the photos; don’t love the tone of the Wired article.  I appreciate the fact that Cory’s headline seems  more sympathetic, and does not have the takeaway of “look at the funny black people”, as the Wired headline does.  Somehow, the way Wired labels their garb as costumes seems particularly smug and dismissive to me.  Perhaps Wired just needs to hone their skills a bit in the ethnographic reporting genre.

    1. Saying these are “costume”, i.e. a recognizable style/culture of clothing, is not at all the same as saying these
      are “costumes”, i.e. clothes put on to appear as someone/something else.

      “Costume”, in this context, is actually entirely respectful and appropriate. You’ll see books intended for fashion/costume/textile professionals and historians with names like “A History of English Fashion and Costume 1000-1900″, and museum departments named things like “Costume and Textiles”. Also the book linked above, which this article is based on.

      “Fashion” is an industry that involves publications and named couturiers, or at the very least rapidly changing styles – a fairly recent development, historically speaking. “Costume” is used for historical garments (the Roman toga is “costume”, not “fashion”), and for the traditional ethnic garb of a people, especially in the context of ‘national costume’ or ‘folk costume’, which tends to remain quite stable, not follow trends (see:

      So the kimono is the national costume of Japan, the kilt is the (men’s) national costume of Scotland, and this is the tribal costume of the Herero. It’s no less respectful to go “check out the Herero tribe’s amazing costume culture” than it is to go “check out these amazing kimono”.

      1. For that matter, Cunnington and Mansfield’s noted multi-volume Handbook of English Costume series doesn’t even mention fashion in the title.

      2.  Label me as too politically correct, then, but I still read “Costume Culture” as being said with a smirk.  For me, it’s just the semantic difference between cultural costume and costume culture.

  4. the man in yellow has panache. I’ve never had occasion to use that word before, but I think it applies here.

  5. The history of German influence upon this country is disturbing. Surviving and claiming incorporation the oppressor’s insigna shows continued resolve if not grit. 

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