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.

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 while boys maintain one plait at the back, which becomes two at puberty. Once married, men bundle their hair into a head-wrap, which is only removed for funerals. 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 snake bites. 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.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

Namibia features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

27 awe-inspiring pictures of Namibia

27 awe-inspiring pictures of Namibia

Namibia has some of the world's most astonishing landscapes. It's home to the world's oldest desert, a long and undeveloped coastline and national parks that te…

31 May 2016 • Lottie Gross insert_drive_file Article
Quiz: can you locate these national parks?

Quiz: can you locate these national parks?

National parks are some of the world's most awe-inspiring natural places, taking in mountains, glaciers, waterfalls and forests (sometimes all in the same one…

02 Jul 2015 • Rebecca Hallett help Quiz
In pictures: traditional dress around the world

In pictures: traditional dress around the world

The Sari, India Ostensibly the simplest item of clothing possible – a single length of fabric, up to nine metres long – the sari is also one of the world…

02 Feb 2015 • Alice Park camera_alt Gallery
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month