No other fabric defines South Africa like Shweshwe does. Rhodé Marshall shares its complex history.
Walk the bustling streets of central Joburg’s shopping district and you will see Shweshwe and its riot of colour every where – the famous fabric is both a touch of home and heritage, and loved around the world.
Also known in the Sesotho language as shoeshoe for King Moshoeshoe from Lesotho, the fabric is a great example of how a cloth, popularly worn in blue, brown and red, has been passed from one generation to another over centuries.
While it wasn’t worn in my community, I remember it being ever-present in local fashion magazines, TV shows and around shopping malls worn proudly worn by older women. There was always something proudly African about the striking print and patterns.
Of course, these days it’s now a globally celebrated fabric and has become part of a fashion movement that is modernising the use of the formally traditional print.
A recent conversation with a friend on whether, as a white woman, she could wear Shweshwe without her appropriating black culture raised an interesting point. She was concerned that cross-cultural dressing would make her come across as pretentious.
What many don’t know is that this distinctly African fabric actually has its roots in Europe and was introduced to us by German immigrants in the mid-1800s as a white-patterned fabric with rich, earthy colours.
Looking into its history, you’ll find that this fabric has saturated the wardrobe of numerous South Africans regardless of their race or culture from Khoi-San people, slaves, soldiers, settlers to Voortrekkers, at one point or another.
Visit the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein you’ll discover quilts and bonnets containing Shweshwe worn by the Boer women.
It is representative of an intercultural past with Pan-African, Eastern and Western dimensions and it testifies to a history of encounters and exchanges between humans across the globe.
Variations of the fabric originate in and continue to be worn in the Germany, Czech Republic, Holland, Hungary and the US.
Crossing Cultural Lines
And that raises the question of who the fabric really belongs to, if anyone at all?
My answer to my friend – and anyone who wears it – would always be that it’s best to ask yourself what you’re trying to say in wearing it; within that lies the answer to whether you can freely wear clothing largely associated with another culture or whether you would be harmfully crossing cultural lines.
So yes, Shweshwe does have a colonial connection – and that does make us Africans feel somewhat conflicted, especially as it’s something that we love – but where do we draw the line?
Defining South Africans
What I find solace in is that despite that painful association, Shweshwe’s beauty and how it has developed with the people of South Africa over different generations during important periods of their lives, trumps the negativity.
It’s like it has been touched by the united spirit of Madiba. In a way we made this cloth culturally significant in how we use it and the meaning attached – despite it coming from Asia and then Europe. No one thinks of that when they see the cloth.
They think of Africa. And Africa encompasses exactly what this cloth represents … difficult journeys, sturdiness, warmth and variations of colour and design. Like no other print, Shweshwe has come to define us as South Africans.