The incredible Victorian-style fashions of Africa’s Herero people

In News by Robyn Pennacchia / July 12, 2013

One of my recent obsessions in life is the Herero tribe of Namibia, who still wear clothing reminiscent the Victorian style of the German people who once tried to wipe them out.

herero women
 Sally Watson

Back in 1892, Germans colonists started arriving in Namibia. By 1904, they decided they’d be in charge of it, and declared the area “German South-West Africa.”


You know, because that was something white folks just did back in the day like it was normal or something. Unsurprisingly, the German people were not especially kind to them, and regarded them as savages.

Jim Naughten

The Herero people and the Namaqua people were not too happy about this, and the fact that the Germans were progressively stealing all their land and cattle. In 1904, they rebelled.

Namibia Tourism

The Herero Wars lasted until 1907, when the occupied peoples were defeated by General Lothar van Trotha, and forced into the desert, where the vast majority of them– ended up dying of starvation or dehydration. Trotha had this to say about the genocide:

“I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country…This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.”

herero women2


Survivors of the war were placed into concentration camps and labor camps, some of the women were forced into sexual slavery. An accountant who visited the area in 1905 described the concentration camps for a South African paper:

“There are hundreds of them, mostly women and children and a few old men … when they fall they are sjamboked by the soldiers in charge of the gang, with full force, until they get up … On one occasion I saw a woman carrying a child of under a year old slung at her back, and with a heavy sack of grain on her head … she fell. The corporal sjamboked her for certainly more than four minutes and sjamboked the baby as well … the woman struggled slowly to her feet, and went on with her load. She did not utter a sound the whole time, but the baby cried very hard.”

Herero woman in Namibia


Sally Watson

One of the places natives were sent was Shark Island, an extermination camp, where 12-18 prisoners were executed a day. 80% of the prisoners sent there did not survive. The Germans sent scientists to Namibia to do “racial experiments” on many of the men, women and children in the camps. Nearly 3,000 of their skulls were sent back to Germany for further examination.


After the concentration camps were closed and the war was considered over, the prisoners were set free… to work as “laborers” for the German settlers. They were not allowed to own property or cattle, and were forced to wear metal id bracelets.

Jim Naughten

The German occupation ended in 1915 with the Treaty of Versailles. By that point, the population of the Herera people, estimated to have been at 80,000, was decimated to 15,000.

Herero woman in blue dress
Jim Naughten

After the Germans left, the Herero people began dressing in a fashion similar to their oppressors, and have continued to do so to this day. The clothing serves as a reminder of where they came from, the scars of their past and is a way of recognizing the fact that they are the ones in power now.

Today, an estimated 250,000 Herero people live in Namibia.

Christopher Meder

It’s incredible, to me at least, that something so beautiful came from something so devastating.

Top image: VietGiaiTri