Why These Wedding Dresses Matter More Than Most | Style Out There | Refinery29

People from outside whenever they came here they just like, “Wow! What a dress.” Why is it so big?” It’s like a diamond. As a fashion editor for Refinery29, I’ve been to fashion shows all over the world— from Gucci in Milan to Victoria’s Secret in Shanghai. But I’ve never been to one in Africa, let alone in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. In three days, I have a seat at Windhoek’s second fashion week ever. Straight lines, straight lines. This year the buzz is all about the modern makeover of a dress, which an ethnic group has kept in style for over a hundred years. They are the Herero. And this is the dress. Adopted from German colonizers, its hemline, puffy sleeves and large petticoats are unmistakably victorian. But it’s not a 19th century relic. It’s a living symbol of a history I had no idea existed. Esther is a historian and activist. It is her life’s mission to speak out about what happened to the Herero people. Tell me about the genocide. Between 1904 and 1907, 70% of the Herero people were killed. Once one of Namibia’s largest and wealthiest indigenous groups, the Herero were nearly annihilated. The Herero women took a dress once worn by their oppressors and made it an emblem of who they are, and how far they’ve come. In Otjomuise, a village on the outskirts of Windhoek, 12-year-old Pahaje is about to become a part of this lineage. I joined her for what is perhaps the most significant milestone of a young Herero girl’s life— getting her first dress. Are you proud to be Herero? Extremely proud because God made me that way. I have to appreciate the way he made me. I wouldn’t want to be somebody else instead of me myself. Are you excited to go shopping for the fabric? Yeah, I’m really so excited. Pahaje, her mother Noko and I, went to pick out fabric. Getting your first dress is a rite of passage. They are handmade and often only worn once. So I think that if you have a bunch of accessories, you want to go for shorter sleeves then so it doesn’t, you know. Do you want the sleeves to be flat or kinda like puffy? A little bit up–puffy. I thought you said you were going to have her choose. It’s covered in pearls. That’s really cool. You can mix this one with gold. Yeah, what do you think? Yeah, I think it would be cool. As Pahaje takes her fabric to a traditional Herero designer, the history of Pahaje’s people will be stitched into the fabric of her first dress. Its debut will mark her entry into womanhood. That tradition is what grounds another young woman, who is about to make a debut of her own, at fashion week. Being Herero means everything to me. It’s my heritage, it’s where I draw strength from. My character, my values. From the village, to the city and now to the catwalk, Varaa is bringing her past into the future in a modern Herero dress. This is the living room. Look at all the photos on the walls. Yeah. It’s all my extended family. This is my grandparents. This is my aunt and uncle on their wedding day. And look, they’re all wearing the Herero dress. The dress is the Ohorokova. The Ohorokova, the head thing. What is this called? That’s called the Oshikaiva. The Oshikaiva was added as a sign of the cow, the symbol of the Herero people. Oshikaiva has changed so much from photo to photo. Yeah it depends on the ages and the times. Like that one’s huge. That’s my mom’s one was huge. It looks really modern. Fashion is a revolving door. Yeah yeah yeah. When you grow up Herero, how much of a part of it was in your everyday life? Until I came into Windhoek in 2009 and I was pretty much like a village girl. My whole life was Herero traditions. You wake up, you make fire, you make tea. Then you go and you milk the cows. I feel like a lot of the Herero girls and different tribal groups, we try too much to move away from our cultures when that’s a very important part of who we are. And I don’t think it’s something to disregard or just throw away. Tell me about Windhoek Fashion Week. I’m so excited for that. Because this is the first time I’ll be walking in my traditional attire and I’ll be doing it at Fashion Week. So it’s like my two loves coming together. My fashion and my traditional heritage. I would actually love to see your walk. Are you willing to show it to me? Let’s do it. Okay great. The crowd goes wild! Ooooh, ooooh. That was so good. Thanks! As Varaa prepares for her debut, the man designing her dress is planning to stir up controversy. McBright. Do you want to incorporate something else, like a lighter… trim it with a belt or something? I’m actually known for the way I’ve tried to modernize the dress. It makes it easier for young people to wear it and a way of keeping the dress alive. My mother has a laundry business. I definitely had a very strong connection because when we were young, customers bring in a wedding gown and I would look at how it’s made. So when my mother was at work I would cut out expensive bedding and come up with a dress or something. My family’s business really inspired my career. How much left do you have to do? I need to steam a few and then, I’m done. McBright is giving me a sneak peak of Varaa’s dress. What did you modify on this dress? The jacket, the sleeve, the collar here, the arms… That’s dramatic. You know, the only thing that I kept was the length. This is one petticoat? This is heavy, but this is the only way we’ve got to modify it. There’s shorts under here. It’s totally sheer. Yeah, so I know it’s really going to shock everybody. As a Herero yourself, are you worried about that, though? You know, change is something difficult, I understand, but people need to get used to the change. One shoulder! One shoulder. I love that piece of flair on the shoulder. McBright and I hurry to put the finishing touches on his show. Varaa, how do you feel? I mean, I have no words. I literally have no words. I’m still on the high, so yeah. Did you ever think that the first time you put a Herero dress on that one day you’d be wearing one on a runway? No! Amidst the mounting frenzy backstage, Varaa is finally given the ohorokova she’ll wear in McBright’s show. I’ve been to many fashion weeks before but there is an electricity here like nothing I’ve experienced. I can feel how big of a moment this is not just for Windhoek, but for the Herero. Placing this look in the context of global fashion gives visibility to a people whose history has been overlooked. Have you ever worn a Herero dress like this before? No, nothing this shiny or this color! What would your parents have thought? Uh, they probably wouldn’t have seen the picture. As the fashion world celebrates the future of the Herero dress, people like Esther work to ensure that the past is not forgotten. She spends her free time and money educating the public and advocating for justice. Wearing the Herero dress is about much more than just passing down a cultural tradition, it’s about resilience. Now, it’s finally Pahaje’s turn to represent the next generation of Herero women. Hi Pahaje! Hi Samantha. How are you? Fine. How was your day? It was cool. It was cool, yeah. Are you excited to see your dress? Mmhmm. Yeah, it’s true? This is your dress! It’s beautiful! Oh my god. Really happy. Every Herero woman is different. The most important is that she knows who she is. That women continue the practice of wearing Herero dresses. It is important that people remember their cultures and the beautiful things about it. I’m happy to be a part of the change, to be winning souls of people and making people happy when they’re wearing the Herero dress.


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