Himba women in traditional attire have graced many a magazine cover and featured in documentaries galore with their distinctive reddish-brown body “paint” and goatskin “miniskirts”. And while the Himba’s physical appearance often brings out the worst voyeuristic tendencies in tourists, appearance is, nevertheless, very important to Himba culture; women spend several hours on their toilette each day. Their body “paint”otjize – is actually a mix of ground red ochre and animal butter or fat, scented with resin, and used to cover their skin, hair, clothing and jewellery. It has functional, symbolic and aesthetic value, protecting their skin from the burning sun while keeping insects at bay; its reddish-brown hue evokes both the earth and life-giving blood. Since water is scarce, women often have a smoke “bath”, and similarly “wash” their leather clothing by smoking it over incense.

Hair is similarly important: various styles indicate different life stages for both males and females. Toddlers often have shaven heads but as they grow, girls have two plaits, pulled over their face once they hit puberty (to show modesty) while boys maintain one plait at the back, which becomes two at puberty. The style of the plaits indicates the oruzo, or patrilineal descent, of the wearer.

Once married, men bundle their hair into a head-wrap, which is only removed for funerals, or when they are widowed. Puberty for young women entails sporting numerous plaits, smeared with otjize, and once married, women incorporate a tanned sheep or goatskin headpiece, which is replaced by a different headpiece (erembe) after they have been married a year, or given birth to their first child.

Traditionally attired women and men are heavily adorned with a collection of jewellery – necklaces, collars, bracelets and anklets, which also serve as a protection against snakebites. The jewellery is fashioned from metal, shell, beads, leather and woven grass, and sometimes weighs several kilos. Inevitably, as westernization encroaches and traditions become eroded, Himba apparel is becoming more hybrid, or abandoned altogether.

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