Heritage Month: South African cultures and their fashion

MASTER: Internationally renowned South African artist and queen of Ndebele art Esther Mahlangu has designed panels for a special edition, top-of-the-range BMW.

MASTER: Internationally renowned South African artist and queen of Ndebele art Esther Mahlangu has designed panels for a special edition, top-of-the-range BMW.

Published Sep 19, 2020


Our diversity is what makes South Africa one of the most beautiful countries in the world. With 11 official languages, each culture embraces the essence of what it means to be an African through food, music, dance and fashion.

This Heritage Month, we take a look at some of the traditional clothing worn by our beautiful nation.


For Xhosa women, the most common traditional wear is umbhaco. It is a long skirt and apron made from printed or embroidered fabrics. The Xhosa attire includes beaded necklaces, called ithumbu.

Xhosa regalia. Picture: lwaziphotography


Worn by married women as a sign of respect to one’s husband and his family, isicholo is a flared disk-shaped hat. This hat is accompanied by a thick, cowhide skirt which has been softened with animal fat and charcoal, called isidwaba.

Men wear a front apron, known as an isinene, and a rear apron, ibheshu, to cover the genitals and buttocks.

Isicholo. Picture: Instagram/@zulu_traditional_love


This culture is big on colours and beads. Worn by married women, idzila is an accessory placed around the neck, arms, and legs. Their colourful blanket, umbalo, is also for married women. And then there is the signature beaded headband known as amacubi.

The main item of clothing for men is an iporiyana. Decorated with beads, it hangs on the neck. They also wear animal skin called karos to keep warm.

Gogo Esther Mahlangu wearing Ndebele regalia. Picture: Supplied


The Vavenda wear munwenda, a multi-coloured striped cloth that comes in two pieces – a top and a bottom. It is paired with beads such as lutomola tsie, mapala, tshithivho vivho, zwifudzi, magidipho, and makunda. They also have musisi, a skirt-like garment made from the munwenda material.

When greeting, Venda women normally lie down as a sign of respect. Picture: Elle Makushu


The most iconic clothing item in the Xitsonga culture is xibelani. It is a knee-length skirt typically worn by Xitsonga women. It is made from a bolt of cloth, a fabric called salempur, about 18m long. They also have a top called a yele that they wear with a tightly fitting T-shirt.

Hlulani Masingi wearing a xibelani. Picture: Instagram/@shangazine


Tswana women wear an apron called a khiba, with a skirt called a mosese. Men wear a kaross, a blanket made from animal skin, to cover up.

Tswana- inspired dress by Makhosi Nkosi. Picture: Instagram/@khosinkosi


They wear a traditional Basotho dress called the seshoeshoe. However, a statement piece is the Basotho blanket, worn by both men and women over the shoulders.

The Basotho blanket. Picture: basotho_designs


The Swati culture is complex as their clothing style varies according to age and gender. Some items are reserved for specific ceremonies, such as the incwala or the umhlanga (reed dance).

However, married women wear skin aprons and skin skirts. They also have another apron they wear under the armpits; after the birth of their first child they put the same apron over one shoulder and style their hair in a bun. Married men wear loin skins.

Swati traditional dress. Picture: Instagram/@zamo_dlamini


A sari or Punjabi is synonymous with Indian culture. The sari is a 6m stretch of fabric, which is beautifully wrapped around the waist and then draped over the shoulder. It's worn for prayers, special occasions like weddings and at funerals as a form of respect. The Punjabi is a long or knee-length dress paired with pants. It's very comfortable and can be worn dressed-up or dressed-down, depending on the occasion.

Indian women generally accessorise with sparkly bangles and some wear a nose ring.

Men usually wear a kurta, which is a loose, knee-length collarless shirt. There are casual and formal options.

A sari. Picture: Instagram/@indian_fashion

Check some of the best South African traditional food recipes to try on our website, www.iol.co.za.

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