By Lauren Kansley
Worn by domestic workers and supermodels alike nothing encapsulates the African story quite like the iconic Isishweshwe material.
The dense blue, sturdy fabric can trace its heritage back to the 1800’s and is still worn as everyday dress by contemporary African women.
Embraced as a national fabric and costume, it holds a unique importance in the history and culture of our country.
A new exhibition at the Iziko Slave Lodge in Cape Town, ‘Isishweshwe: Material Women?’, aims to demystify the origins of this fabric and chart its evolution as a symbol of oppression to one of identity.
The print became mainstream a few years ago thanks to the commercial exploits of fashion houses like Stoned Cherry, who incorporated it into fashionable designs and accessories. Unsurprisingly most modern women associate it with a typically African style of dress so many would be surprised to know that the print’s roots are firmly set in Europe and Germany in particular.
The exhibition begins by explaining how the printed fabric was brought to South Africa by Germans centuries ago and quickly became a marker of colonial influence and Christianity. Missionaries encouraged indigenous woman to cover their bodies with western style clothing and the bales of Blaudruk fabric they had brought from Europe was used for this. In fact the Xhosa word for the fabric ‘Ujamani’ means German.
The print is less popular in Germany these days, although it still forms part of folk costumes worn on traditional occasions. During apartheid the fabric was adopted by white South Africans who wanted to show solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement.
This change in attitude is a telling example of how an icon of poverty and oppression can transcend its dark roots and instead be regarded as something positive.
These days the fabric comes in a variety of colours and designs which is inspired by local flora and fauna. And while knockoffs can be purchased at almost all fabric stores the authentic method of printing the Isishweshwe material is still being practiced.
In fact the desire to have the real deal is so intense that dirt poor woman will save an entire year for just one garment. If you haven’t visited the Slave lodge for a while the ‘Isishweshwe: Material Women?’ exhibition is a perfect excuse to do so, especially if you are even remotely interested in design of all kinds.
Other exhibits to look forward to at the museum include the ceramic, silver and antique toy collections.
The Labels exhibit pays homage to South Africa’s rich musical history through the display of 5000 photographs of record labels.
* Visit www.iziko.org.za for more information.