One indigenous South African tribe that has gained global prominence over the centuries is the Bantu ethnic group known as the Zulu tribe. With their rich landscape, history, beautiful scenarios, majestic craft, culture, and abundant wealth yet untapped, the Zulus of South Africa are a distinguished people. Even more distinguished is the Zulu way of dressing; though it has been watered down by modernization, there are still a whole lot of Zulu traditional dresses that have relevance even in the face of civilization.
The 10-11 million people of Zulu roots whose major home is in the province of KwaZulu-Nata are considered to be the largest ethnic group in all of South Africa and it goes without saying that their mode of dressing will rub off on other tribes in the country. The clothing style of the Zulus greatly depends on diverse factors; for instance, a single girl dresses differently from a makoti, an older Zulu woman would be expected to conform to some strict dressing codes, and we are yet to factor in the men’s mode of dressing. In all, the Zulu people are stylish and their traditional occasions are always adorned with beautiful designs that reflect their ancestral heritage, even in recent times. For this piece, we are focusing on the modern attires worn by Zulu men and women.
A Timeline of Zulu Traditional Dresses For Women Before Colonization
As the life of a girlchild under the Zulu tribe comes in stages, the girl’s mode of dressing is expected to change as she moves from one stage to another. From the innocent little girls to the grown single girls, the engaged, the bride, the makoti, and the older women, Zulu women have different attires for different occasions and stages in life.
An unmarried woman is known as an intombi and prior to civilization, her only apparel would be a beaded cotton string or a very short skirt made out of grass, regardless of her weight, size, or height. The intombi’s body will then be spruced with beadwork with the hair kept short. The Zulus never ascribed any sexual meanings to exposed breast as an intombi leaves her breast uncovered; their sexual interest only lay in the upper thigh. Other adornments of single girls include izincu (long strips of twisted beads) usually worn around their waists, ankles, and elbows. All these accessories make the ladies look fashionable and confident in their own skin.
A Zulu woman will only allow her hair to grow after she becomes officially engaged, at this stage, she uses a decorative cloth to cover her breast to show respect to the man in her life. This is a glaring indication that the lady is already spoken for and all hands should be off.
According to the Zulu traditional attire code, a makoti or married woman will need to cover up her body completely using a heavy knee-length cowhide skirt. Draped over the skirt is a cloth predominantly decorated with red, black, and white beads all over. Married women of old leveraged animal skin or material to cover their breasts but presently, they go for beaded bras.
The Zulu pregnant women are not left out, they wear a thick belt created from dried grass (isibamba) and are covered with plastic beadwork or glass as a means of support to their swelling breasts and additional weight. These apparels served the Zulu kingdom for decades before civilization changed everything, nevertheless, the Zulu attires in modern times still reflect the old traditions of the great people.
Zulu Traditional Attires For The Modern Woman
The foregoing is a clear picture of the Zulu traditional dresses before colonization but the modern Zulu men and women now wear improved versions of these attires. The following are some of the modern attires worn by Zulu women today. Look out for the colorful appearance of most of these outfits as that is one thing the Zulus are known for.
1. Yellow Patterned Skirt With White Tube
One of the things civilization did is to stop certain traditional attires that show private parts of the body. As such, some apparels that are worn by the Zulus that would naturally leave the breasts bare now have pieces of clothing that cover sensitive parts. The Zulu traditional dress above is closer to the bared breast-attires of the Zulu intombis (single Zulu girls without any romantic commitments) but in this modernized version, the single girls wear a short bust tube to cover the breasts as opposed to leaving them bare.
The short skirt made of grass is replaced with this patterned yellow Zulu wrap-around skirt. The beads are the only things that did not change with this attire as they are still evident on the young lady’s legs, her waist is also heavily adorned with colorful beads, and so are her neck (with the neck ring) and hair. The intombi in this picture has her wrists festooned with several decks of beautiful beads (izincu) and even her upper arms are not left out. She completed the look with a pair of simple Zulu traditional footwear in matching colors.
2. Red Patterned Zulu Skirts with White Sleeveless Top
This Zulu traditional attire provides more coverage than the previous one; though the red wrap-around skirt may be of similar length with the same pattern as the yellow one, the vest affords the intombi a bit more coverage with its sleeveless arms. The waist beads and neck rings are also similar, albeit more colorful in this image and the young lady is wearing leg beads on only one leg.
Rather than the material used in festooning the upper arm in the previous image, this one wears colorful arm beads instead. The animal fur headband common among Zulu warriors is not only worn by the men as the women also use them as embellishments. In this case, the brown-colored animal fur headband with a whitish center complements this intombi’s attire as she completes her look with a pair of white sneakers
3. Zulu Ladies In Traditional Imvunulo Attire
These are traditional Imvunulo attires for young girls and older women. The signature Zulu beaded skirt is evident here for both makoti and intombi. However, while the intombi tops her attire with a white vest, sporting a beaded apron and cape, the makoti comes with that beaded bra that is common among married women alongside a heavily beaded neck ring. Both women wear the Zulu head bead to complement their adornment and the makoti is distinguished with some unique beads that jingle with movement on her feet; Her arms are equally beaded.
4. Cream Zulu Traditional Patterned Skirts, Sporting Brown and Cream Beaded Accessories
Zulu intombis have some really becoming attires. The girls in the picture are quite beautiful in their uniform traditional attires – their above-the-knee patterned white skirts come with a bold horizontal brown line at the base and tiny vertical ones at uniform intervals. Their tops are sleeveless white vests and their footwear is white to go with the tops. The highlight of these attires are the cream and brown beaded accessories – this is evident in their headband, neckband, and small handbags to match. Zulu young ladies are always on point when it’s time to dress up nice.
5. Zulu Beaded Tulle Dress
As far as Zulu traditional dresses go, this heavily beaded Tulle dress in the picture is apt for any event. All the colors of the rainbow seem to be evident on the bodice of the dress, but orange which happens to be the brightest is chosen as the color of the combination material; though any color can go, depending on choice. The net material used in making the skirt is cut very short above knee-length and the colors of the beads on the bodice are complemented with the heavily beaded necklace and wrist beads reflecting the same colors. The lady’s hair is bound with a matching beaded headband and the best part of her gamut of beaded accessories is the girl’s purse sporting similar colored beads in exactly the same pattern. If you like a lot of colors in your attire, this outfit will speak volumes for you.
6. Zulu Inspired Modern Dress For Intombi
Apparently, you can take a modern outfit of your choice and turn it into a beautiful Zulu dress with all the trappings. This Red Zulu umblaselo is all shades of modern but it is obviously inspired by the tribe’s ancient cultural attires and emits some palpable cultural vibes. The wearer of this strapless short gown is clearly an intombi as the upper part of her body is left bare. This frock-like dress is made with plain red satin material with blue, yellow, and white designs at the chest and helm.
7. Blue and White Attire For Maid of Honor
Anyone who attends a typical Zulu traditional wedding will agree that it is always suffused with all the colors under the sun. The Zulus make good use of bright colors at normal times, but during weddings, they take it overboard. However, you can’t go wrong with any choice you make as they turn out as beautiful as ever. The image above is a perfect depiction of a maid of honor at a Zulu wedding
The pleated short blue skirt is heavily beaded with red, green, yellow, and white beads, and a replica is evident in the neck ring, matching both the skirt and the accompanying beads. A snow-white short-sleeved top completes the outfit and the bridesmaid’s hair is festooned with matching head beads.
8. Zulu Bride Sporting African Print Traditional Wedding Outfit With a Red Isicholo Hat
Perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the Zulu traditional dresses and attires are the big wide hats commonly referred to as the Isicholo hat. These hats come in different bright colors and are befitting of any occasion. Engaged ladies who are set for their Umembeso ceremony wouldn’t match out without an Isicholo hat as it is this part of their adornment that announces who they are.
Instead of the beaded skirt that a Zulu bride would normally wear, the lady in this picture chose to be different with a colorful print attire that looks quite becoming. Her Isicholo is slightly beaded on the body and at the rim, and the color matches the red in the bride’s print attire
9. Zulu Bride in Black and White Imvunulo Traditional Wedding Attire
Ancient Zulu brides wear a leather skirt commonly referred to as isidwaba with animal skin known as isicwaya to cover the breasts. The Isicholo hat seems to have survived the effects of modernization but other bridal apparel like goat’s hair fringe worn around the neck seem to have receded with the passage of time. However, some brides cannot afford to appear without carrying their Assegai (the small-sized knife symbolizing virginity).
The Imvunulo traditional wedding attire of the Zulu people can be traced to ancient times when members of the tribe used to cut and sew animal skin together to make the old version of the skirt in this picture. However, with civilization, they have advanced from skin skirts (isidwaba) to patterned materials but the idea is still the same. This Imvunulo attire in the above image is made in black material and cut in the usual short-length fashion – above the knee. The accompanying apron is heavily beaded in the traditional gamut of colors and for her top, she is wearing a very short white sleeveless vest covered with a beautiful leopard skin bib. Every Zulu bride is expected to wear a lot of beads and the lady in the picture did not disappoint – her neck, wrists, and hair are heavily beaded.
10. Colorful Imvunulo Traditional Wedding Attire
This Imvunulo traditional wedding attire is a bit more colorful than the previous one. As opposed to black, the skirt is a beautiful blue with a shorter apron heavily beaded in brighter colors. There is evidence of matching waist, neck, and arm beads. The top as usual is in white underneath a brighter colored bib made from leopard skin. the best part of this Zulu traditional wedding dress is the Isicholo hat which is in matching color with the skirt. The other hats we have seen so far seem a bit simple but this blue headgear is too beautiful for words.
The base is heavily beaded with a triangular overflow of beads on strings dangling on her face, but the upper part of the hat has a design like the tail of a peacock surrounding it. The colors in the peacock tail are reflected in the overall colors of the attire and that is exactly what makes it special. Besides, it goes without saying that her Umembeso would be a memorable one.
11. Black and White Zulu Imvunulo Traditional Wedding Attire
Another version of the Zulu traditional dresses for weddings is the black and white version of the Imvunulo attire which is equally beautiful. The only noticeable difference is that, while this one favors the monochrome colors, the previous Imvunulo attire would run the entire gamut of bright colors. The design may be relatively simple but it is favored by many. Here, the only visible colors are the monochromes (black and white).
The short-patterned skirt is in black while the beaded apron comes with a mixture of black and white. The material for the short-sleeved top is in tiger stripes (called Ndebele print dress) with feathers festooning the arm. The same soft feathers are evident in the bride’s Isicholo hat which is in black with beads dangling in front. On her heavily beaded hand, the bride holds an Assegai (a small knife symbolizing her virginity). This outfit is favored by ladies who are not fans of bright colors.
12. A Bride In White Zulu Wedding Attire With Bridal Squad
Even when they are not putting in a lot of effort, Zulu brides and their maid of honor always appear colorful and beautiful. A shift from the short patterned skirt of the Zulu brides is the mermaid gown which has been popularized by many. Those who don’t feel like using the skirts have a plethora of choices in wedding garments with Zulu undertones. The bride in the picture above is definitely looking good in her snow-white gown with a long tail.
The bodice of the apparel is heavily beaded with an overflow falling down to the hips on both sides. Her white Isicholo hat is also beaded and the usual overflow of beads is evident on her face. The makoti’s bridal train is a colorful one with the adornment of the girls reflecting the colors of the bride’s beads.
13. Bridal Squad In the Zulu Traditional Wedding Attire
The image above sports a typical bridal train for a Zulu traditional wedding. The bride’s maids are all in white with touches of other bright colors like yellow, red, blue, green, black, and so on. The beaded belts of the Zulu which are also called waist beads look very attractive on the ladies with some overflows dangling down on their short pleated skirts. The ladies are also heavily festooned with arm beads, neck rings with colorful capes, and each of them has the beautiful signature head bead of the Zulus.
14. Zulu Makoti In White Traditional Attire
The skirt for Imvunulo traditional wedding can also come in white color as evidenced in the image above. This bride also went for the monochrome colors but with white as the dominant shade. The black or perhaps a darker shade of brown is only visible in the apron that is a bit longer than the knee-length skirt. The bride’s leg and arm beads are in black and white in equal proportion while her Isicholo hat comes in a matching hue to what she has on her apron, but there is evidence of white marking on the hat. Though the short-sleeved shirt is majorly white, the upper part of its chest is also dark brown in color. The makoti covered herself up with a transparent white shawl for a better effect.
15. Zulu Bride in Colorful Attires and Shawl
This is another Zulu bride covered in a blue shimmering shawl. The Isicholo hat, the beaded skirt, belt, neck ring, and head beads are all evident and the bride’s look is reflected in her maid of honor who is adorned in similar apparel but in green color.
Zulu Traditional Dresses and Attires For Women
We have run a gamut of some of the Zulu traditional dresses for the intombi and the brides on their wedding day, let’s take a look at what a Zulu woman would wear as they advance in age and status. One thing is still clear here, the outfits are as colorful as they come.
16. Zulu Inspired Wool Blend Cape With Earrings to Match
The fashion designers among the Zulus are obviously going to town with a range of beautiful designs that took roots from the ancient dressing mode of the tribe. The cape that was previously made with a lot of colorful beads strung together is now sewn with materials. A good instance is the one in the picture – a black cape embellished with a run of colorful treads at the helm.
The inner dress looks more like a skirt and blouse but it can equally be a long-sleeve gown, however, the high point of this Zulu-inspired adornment is the pair of matching earrings that serve as finishing touches to her overall looks. In the making of this apparel, culture meets style and the result is just too good.
17. Colorful Blue Attire For Married Zulu Women
According to the Zulu tradition and culture, once a woman assumes the role of a makoti after her traditional wedding, she is expected to cover all parts of her body. This is taken as an overt sign of respect to the man who took her hand in marriage and at the same time, it gives a loud signal to other men that she is taken. With the wedding done and dusted, the new makoti will start wearing certain colors of beads around her skirt and on her hair to announce her new status to the entire village.
The lady in the picture is an epitome of a Zulu makoti – her skirt length runs way below the knees, her belts are heavily beaded with those suggestive colors, and her neck ring and short cape completed the makoti’s attire. The new wife’s Isicholo hat is very simple without much adornment.
18. Beaded Skirt and Beaded Bra
While gracing occasions in Zulu land, older women can appear in the beaded skirts and beaded bras but in the olden days, they only used skin or cloth as coverage for their breasts instead of leaving them bare like the single ladies. The beaded bras are the normal modern brasiers sold in the market but the Zulus festoon theirs with beautiful beads both on the cups and a dangling part below the breasts for a better effect.
The older Zulu women in this image went for the yellow patterned skirt with very bright designs – the beads come in green, red, blue, orange, and so on. The women’s necks and arms are also adorned with beads and their Isicholo hats complete the attire with matching beads.
19. Beaded White Tops On Colored Skirts
The patterned skirts of the Zulu traditional dresses can come in variations as evidenced in this picture. These Zulu women are decked out for events and occasions in their bright-colored apparel. The beaded belts are the same for the two women on either side in green skirts but the middle mama’s belt is obviously a shift from the others with beautiful colored beads around the waist and dangling down. Their white tops are covered with beaded capes – two above the bust line and one touching the line of the beaded belt. There is equally a smattering of beads on the white blouses. While the two women on both sides completed their looks with headbands, the woman in the middle has a beautifully designed green Isicholo hat with patches of cream-colored flowery lace materials.
20. Covered up Attires For Older Zulu Women
As earlier mentioned, a Zulu woman must cover her body after she becomes a makoti. However, advanced age demands another code of dressing with Zulu women. At this stage, a makoti must have finished having children and her kids must have come of age. These advanced Zulu women in the image covered all parts of their bodies with different kinds of clothing and thanks to the extra heavy material used in the form of a shawl, it is difficult to say exactly what they have on. There is also evidence of the Zulu signature Isicholo hats. This kind of apparel is usually worn for special occasions and can also be used for daily outfits, depending on preference.
Tracing the Zulu Attire For Men From the Pre-colonial Zulu Kingdom
In the pre-colonial Zulu kingdom, the Zulu traditional dresses for women greatly differ from what is obtainable for their men. To cover his genitalia, a Zulu man wears the umcedo (underwear), around the waist goes the ibheshu (made of calfskin) which performs the same function as a pair of trousers. Additionally, the amambatha is draped over his shoulder and his head is normally adorned with a warrior’s headband known as umqhele (this is usually worn by married men). In a bid to appear larger than his real size, a Zulu man wears an amashoba (made from tufts of a cow’s tail) below the knees and on his upper arms. A man from the Zulu tribe uses the imbadada for his food.
The calfskin processed ibheshu which feels very soft to the touch comes in two lengths. The knee-length ibheshu is for younger men as it is more practical for energetic activities like dancing, hunting, fighting, and so on. The older Zulu men who no longer partake in these vigorous activities favor the ankle-length ibheshu.
A typical outfit for an ancient Zulu warrior consists of four pieces and they include; Umghele (Headband), Mbata (back and chest cover), Ibheshu (Back Cover), and the Slene (Front Cover)
The material used in making Zulu traditional dresses for the men consists majorly of animal skins and feathers and it goes without saying that the kind of skin a man wears is an indication of his status in society. The royal families are the only ones that can afford to wear Leopard skin; these strata include the chiefs and the generals (izinduna’). Men’s entitlement to leopard skin attires differ in the Zulu kingdom, while the king has the right and privilege to wear as much leopard skin as he wants, a chief’s entitlement to this rare apparel maybe just a headband. However, every average Zulu man may wear leopard skin on the day of his wedding to mark the special day.
Zulu Traditional Dresses and Attires For The Modern Man
Civilization may have changed a lot of things but the Zulu people still maintain their traditions to a great extent. The present-day ibheshu is now called ‘umbhulaselo (these are pants with decorative patches sewn on them. Men wear these with waistcoats in similar decorations. Below are some of the modernized Zulu attires for men.
21. Zulu Man In Traditional Ibheshu and Bib
In the present-day Zulu nation, westernization has swept away the traces of the typical Zulu traditional attires among men and women and you would hardly find a man who owns an original Ibheshu. Rather, what is obtainable is the westernized version. However, a few exist who will go and dig up their bib and Ibheshus when the occasion demands it. The man in this picture is adorned in the Zulu traditional way – his calf skin processed Ibheshu is cut into shreds and sewn back to make it more comfortable for the wearer.
This attire is probably not for royalty as the animal skin for both the Ibheshus and the bib are in plain calfskin as opposed to leopard skin. His headband (umqhele) is an indication of the man’s married status, while he holds a shield of the ancient warriors of the great Zulu kingdom. His upper arms and legs are adorned with amashoba to give his body a greater bulk.
22. Affluent Zulu Men in Leopard Hide Attire
As explained above, the leopard skin attires were exclusively reserved for royalty and men of elevated social status during the olden days. However, in current times, it is no longer strange to see a Zulu groom decked all out in a full leopard skin bib complete with matching umqhele (headband). This picture is taken from modern times but from the appearance of photographed men, they are from the privileged strata of the Zulu society (a president and a king).
In those ancient times, Zulu men were known to wear their bib on naked shin but today, they have learned to wear a tee-shirt underneath and cover with the bib as seen in the picture. The men’s headbands are in full animal skin and their upper armbands compliment the adornment. More remarkable is the shield of a warrior alongside the long sword. It is true that the Zulu traditional dresses and attires have gone through several modifications but may still uphold the traditions of the old.
23. Attire For a Zulu Warrior
The fierce appearance of the ancient Zulu warriors sure contributed to their victories in the battlefields. With their cow tail processed amashobas worn on the upper arm and the legs to make them look larger than normal, the calfskin processed Ibheshus, the pure animal skin bib, and more, the apparel of these warriors is something worth preserving. Even in modern times, people now use materials designed like leopard skin to make the Ibheshus, and some combine leopard skin design and zebra stripes in one Ibheshus like the one in the above picture. The amashoba is no longer pure animal skin but there’s a processed feathery whitish material that serves the same purpose.
24. Another version of Zulu Warrior Attire
This is another version of the modern Zulu warrior’s attire and in this picture, the amashoba is not evident but the Ibheshus is sewn in matching leopard skin-designed material with the bib. The design of this skirt is a slight shift from the one in the previous picture as it overflows at both sides like a butterfly. The warrior has his headband on with black and brown wrist bands, and though this attire is a modernized version, it is worn in the fashion of the Zulu warriors of old – with the bib draped over naked skin.
25. Zulu Groom Sporting Wine Colour African Traditional Attire
At every Zulu wedding, the center of attraction is usually the new makoti with all her colorful embellishments. However, the men also look attractive in their own unique way. For this Zulu groom in the picture, he enmeshed modernity with tradition – the wine-colored African attire on him is definitely of modern times but the man brought in some elements of tradition visible in his headband (umqhele). With that umqhele, everyone is sure to know exactly where he is coming from.
26. Zulu Umqhele and Calf-Skin Processed Bib, with African Print Pants
Talk about mixing tradition with modernization, this picture is a bit more apt as the man is adorned with a modern white shirt on African print pant trousers, however, the real touch of tradition is in the calfskin processed bib draped around his chest covering a greater part of the shirt; this is akin to English shirt and monkey jacket worn in corporate environments. The man’s umqhele compliments his bib and the same color is evident in his pant trousers. With this attire, a Zulu man can attend any traditional event.
27. Zulu Men in Umblaselo Traditional Attire With Warrior’s Shields
The Zulu tribe is said to be big on tradition and even in the church, they still uphold the cultural attires. The young Zulu men in the picture are probably in a worship center but that does not stop them from displaying some aspect of their culture. Their Umblaselo trousers are not just colorful but very becoming and the matching Umblaselo waistcoats give them the appearance of real warriors. All the young men are wearing the signature Zulu headdresses, umqhele and some are sporting the shields and arrows of the Zulu warriors of old.
This loose colorful garment called dashiki is not only worn by the Zulus of South Africa. Several other tribes in the black continent of Africa also favor the material. Not only them but black Americans have also been spotted wearing the dashiki. The dashiki comes in both formal and informal versions, however, the more popular type is the informal or casual one because it offers the wearer comfort. Besides, its simplicity and versatility make it a popular choice. A typical South African man would normally sew his dashiki in the V-neck pattern with short sleeves. The material will be cut in such a way that the colorful designs (embroidered part) will cluster around the V-neck and the sleeves. Pockets are sewn on with the designed material and it can be worn on plain trousers and singlets or vests which will be visible from the V-neck
29. Urban Zulu Men Latest Attire
As time rolls by, Zulu traditional dresses and attires for men and women keep evolving. The Zulu man in this picture made his pant trousers with colorful print material. His shirt is totally white but the material used in making the trousers is evident at the neck, complementing the trousers.
Embroidered Top in Dark Blue Color
The man in the picture is wearing an embroidered top in dark blue color. the cream-colored embroidery is evident around the v-necked design, at the tip of the short-sleeves, and the rim of both pockets. The Zulu ethnic vibe in this attire is felt through the warrior’s headband on his head which can never be mistaken for another tribe.