Traditional South African Attire

Updated July 19, 2017

If you want to know about South Africa, learn the dress code. Where other countries might have a one-size-fits-all national dress, this is not so in the Rainbow Nation. South Africa's history has left a legacy of traditional apparel as diverse as the people who have settled there. Recognising different types of traditional dress is a step toward appreciating a nation rich in history.


The huge area that became South Africa experienced immigration from both sea and land as far back as the 15th century. The African migrants were from a large number of tribes with different cultures and styles of dressing. These groups fought among each other and with the European settlers, who had their own attire and customs. All of these forms of dress are used in celebrations today.


Probably the most well-known people of South Africa are the Zulu. Their dress is recognisably bright and colourful, especially that of women and girls. Unmarried young women wear beadwork "izincu" bands around their waists, ankles and elbows, as well as beaded headbands and necklaces. This use of colour is to display their status as single. Married Zulu women wear more sedate "isicholo" hats and "ibhayi" shawls. Zulu men traditionally wear different animal-hide coverings, depending on their marital status.


Xhosa traditions are distinctive, and tribal dress reflects this. Young women looking for husbands go bare-breasted to show their comeliness. Beadwork is again heavily used in women's clothing, and different garments reflect a woman's status within the tribe. Beads are also used on accessories such as tobacco pouches, which are carried by women with married sons. Male attire includes brightly coloured blankets or cloaks dyed with natural ochres. Male horsemen in some groups wear distinctive conical-shaped hats.


The Venda people from the northern areas of South Africa have unique ceremonies, such as rainmaking. As part of this ceremony, a male rain dancer wears a skirt of grasses, along with a helmet mask and arm and leg bands made of feathers. Female tribe members play the snake dance on "djembe" drums while dressed in traditional loincloth, while other female initiates perform the dance wearing animal skins, tassels and a feather in their hair, indicating their maturity.


The Voortrekker tradition is celebrated by the Afrikaner community. These early Dutch-speaking farmers wore simple everyday clothes, but liked finer outfits for celebrations. The Voortrekker bonnet, as worn by women, is the signature element of this style. Other female items are the apron and colourful neckerchiefs with ornate brooches. Males wear broadbrimmed felt hats and waistcoats of silk, satin and velvet.

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About the Author

Based in Newcastle upon Tyne, Phil Wharton has been editing and contributing to magazines and newspapers since 2001. His articles have appeared in “Bread and Roses” magazine and “Industrial Worker.” Wharton holds a Bachelor of Arts in humanities from Manchester Metropolitan University, an NCTJ Certificate of Journalism and is currently researching for a PhD in politics at Durham University.