The Isishweshwe Story: Material Women?

  • Posted: Feb 23, 2013


Iziko Slave Lodge 23 February 2013 until 31 December 2014

It is with great excitement that Iziko Museums of South Africa announces a new exhibition at the Slave Lodge.  The isiShweshwe Story: Material Women? is thefirst in-depth exhibition conceived and created about isishweshwe.  This fabric is used today by many women – and men – in southern Africa as traditional, daily and fashion wear.

The exhibition deals with the origins, history and uses of isishweshwe andits uniquely important place in the development of dress and community in South Africa. The story ofisishweshwe is wide-ranging, and one that reflects on trade and cultural interchanges across continents, of social and economic destruction and of indigenization and cultural revitalization.

The isiShweshwe Story: Material Women?comprises of isishweshwe items used in cultural practices, designer fashion garments, accessories and items of daily wear.  Aresearch collection of garments, donated by Dr Juliette Leeb-du Toit, art historian, senior research associate and part-time lecturer, will be on public display for the first time.  With a discerning eye, she has gathered examples of isishweshwe over a period of more than two decades. Garments by Amanda Laird-Cherry and Bongiwe Walaza form part of this collection.

A visual feast, the exhibition also includes designer wear, donated by Luiz Delaja, Louis Klopper and Cheryl Arthur,complemented by a range of photographic images. A small but intriguing selection of historical garments and images from the Iziko Social History department’s own collection too forms part of the exhibition.

The identities of its wearers have changed over many years. The earliest origins of isishweshwe (Xhosa ujamani; AfrikaansDuitse sis) can be traced back to the craze for colourful indiennes (Indian cottons) which spread like wildfire across Europe (even reaching the Cape) from the mid-1600s.

The complicated techniques for making multi-coloured indiennes were adapted in central Europe to the use of one colour – indigo – only. Simplified resist-dyeing techniques were used to create a fabric of small, white, regularly spaced patterns on a deep blue background. Known in Germany as blaudruck (blue print), this fabric was transformed into clothing for work- and peasant wear – and  became associated with European regional and Protestant dress, as well as expressing nationalist sentiments.

When large numbers of German missionaries and traders immigrated to the Eastern Cape and other parts of southern Africa during the mid-1800s, they brought with them their blaudruck. A mass-produced copy, made using the so-called discharge-printing technique, soon developed in industrial centres in Europe and Britain. Today, discharge-prints – in South Africa regarded as 'real' isishweshwe – are made only at Da Gama Textiles in Zwelitsha near King William's Town. Cheaper imitations, not discharge-printed, are made both locally and in the East, but purists will always choose 'real' isishweshwe. It is recognised by its smell, taste and the distinctive logos printed on the reverse of the fabric.

The blaudruck tradition in European regional dress still continues today, in countries such as Germany, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.  Juliette Leeb-du Toit has done extensive research and fieldwork to investigate links between blaudruck and isishweshwe, reflected in the exhibition by garments, fabric samples and images from her collection.

Isishweshwehas been worn in our region and country and has been
incorporated into traditional African rural customs. The fabric has evolved from its context as a trade item and missionary-inspired Western dress. It has been used as a political statement by white women against apartheid, and has emerged on the international fashion circuit. Increasingly today it is worn as everyday dress by black South African women irrespective of class, and more and more by men.

This exhibition aspires to encourage discussion and debate around issues of dress and identity, showing how people wearing isishweshwe have adopted the fabric in ever-changing movements of creativity and new versions of African and South African identities.

This exhibition has been made possible with the support and sponsorship of the Cape Town Fashion Council, Consulate General of the Republic of Germany in Cape Town, Da Gama Textiles and the National Heritage Council. 

The Textile Gallery at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum has been reopened in celebration of this exhibition.  The exhibition opens to the public on 23 February 2013 and will run for a period to coincide with Cape Town’s reign as World Design Capital in 2014.

The Iziko Slave Lodge, located on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets, Cape Town,is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10:00 until 17:00. Closedon Sundays, Workers' Day and Christmas Day. 




Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko) operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium, the Social History Centre and three collection–specific libraries in Cape Town.  The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage.  Iziko is a public entity and non-profit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure.  The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (excluding the Castle of Good Hope and Planetarium).

COMMEMORATIVE DAYS – FREE ENTRANCE (excluding Iziko Planetarium and Castle of Good Hope)

  • Human Rights Day: 21 March
  • Freedom Day: 27 April
  • International Museum Day: 25 May
  • Africa Day: 25 May
  • Youth Day: 16 June
  • National Women’s Day: 9 August
  • Heritage Day: 24 September
  • National Aids Awareness Day: 1 December
  • Emancipation Day: 1 December
  • Day of Reconciliation: 16 December


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