Most of the traditions and rituals of Xhosa people are all about what they’re wearing: the hang of the hat, the colour of the dress, and the bibs, bracelets and beads suspended from their bodies. Few words need to be spoken to convey the status of a person in Xhosa society.

Did you know?

A new Xhosa male initiate wears a cloth cap and red ochre on his face.

To outsiders attending a traditional event anywhere in Xhosa country (the old Transkei in the Eastern Cape), the crowd simply appears to be very colourfully clad.

Young maidens will be draped with ochre-coloured blankets; a tribal elder will walk past wrapped in his blanket, with his face covered in white clay; a married woman will linger at the stall, carrying a large beaded bag and puffing on a long-stemmed wooden pipe.

Xhosa traditional dress comes in various shades, shapes, sizes and hues – each with its own particular message.

In the silent but unmistakeable stylish language of clothing, you can see that a lady is married because her head is covered. If her turban dips below eye level, it means she has just married. Only young girls may go around bare-breasted.

In most Xhosa communities, it is all about the headpiece. The more elaborate the hat, the more senior the wearer.

Mama Tofu, a Xhosa cultural expert at Ngxingxolo near East London, explains about Xhosa traditional dress.

'Do you see how I am dressed? Look here: long skirt, no slit in front. I wear a marriage bib. These two aprons here? They show I am a widow.

'When a new wife enters her husband’s household, she must not be nosy and look around. She can move the doek (Afrikaans for ‘cloth’) up off her eyes only when she has had her first baby.'

The beadwork on a Xhosa woman says many things about her status in life and her surrounding community.

Similarly, Xhosa men possess certain traditional dress items.

Goatskin leggings are worn at a man’s first sacrificial killing of a goat. His necklace of turquoise beads connects him with his ancestors.

The goatskin bag – carried by both men and women in Xhosa culture – has been made with great skill and patience.

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