Numerous conversations have been carried out with regards to what is Zimbabwe’s national attire, accurately called folk costume. Controversial proposals, discourses, and designs have once been laid down as a means of consolidating what we are supposed to look like as a nation.
If memory serves well, in 2005 the then Minister of Education, Sports Arts, and Culture, Aneas Chigwedere mooted the idea and amply designs were submitted, nonetheless, this never saw the light of the day. It however comes as no surprise that all deliberations have failed as there has never been a shared view of how the Zimbabwean garment is supposed to look like, this is owed to varying and conflicting discourses on history, culture and a shared Zimbabwean identity (if ever it exists). It has given birth to “The dress question”.
This supposition brings us down to the question of; does Zimbabwe need a national attire? Do we need a dress code that identifies with us as residents of this country Zimbabwe or in formal terms, a National uniform? Perhaps there is no urgency in answering the “Dress question”
Perhaps we should ask the question of how then is Zimbabwe’s cultural attire evasive.
It is important to illustrate the dissimilarity of national attire and an ethnic dress; the conflated dichotomy on the question of the national dress. A national attire or dress is the traditional clothing of a country. A national dress or attire is usually associated with a geographic area or period of time in history. Normally, it indicates social, marital or religious status.
On the other hand, what many assume to be national dresses are ethnic attires which are commemorative textiles that signify the identity of a group of people. The attire confirms the wearer’s belonging and asserts his or her being. Folk costume help to identify, and cultivate cultural social or even religious heritage of the people of its group. It is used as a mode of expressing patriotism for one’s nation (A nation as a group of people that shares the same culture, religion, norms, and values).
While commemorative textiles such as Chitenje of Zambia, Pagne of Cameroon, Imvutano of Burundi, Kidan Habesha of Ethiopia and Mokorotlo of the Sotho in South Africa uniquely identify a people, one thing that remains is that they identify ethnic groups more than modern State belonging which National attire does.
The African continent is the most culturally diversified land in the world and hence houses a plethora of ethnic groups that have different social religious and traditional identities. Therefore another question arises; should an African country be coerced into homogeneous hegemony to an extent that it only focuses on having one identifying clothing textile?
Can we afford to have a national costume in an ethnically diverse country and if we do, how will we ensure that one ethnic identity’s values do not offend or override that of the next? Can we hold our diversity at ransom of wanting to belong at an international stage?
In Europe where a country like Spain has Spaniards who speak Spanish (Castilian), it is easy to have the mantilla. It is due to the fact that there is a shared ethnic value at national level hence they can afford to have a national dress.
A poignant argument that would provide answers to the dress question is that Zimbabwe as many other African countries, unlike European nations is not a homogeneous culto-traditional geo-space either in language or religious belief yet dressing is a key symbol of identity. The migration history and the cultural diversity in Zimbabwe, just like the rest of Africa limits the existence of national dresses, yet it remains true and valid that currently Zimbabwe does have ethnic costumes, not a cultural dress.
However, it should be noted that with the complexities of lingua-geographies, even States populated by many cultures have drawn national dresses and it is working well for them, at least from a passive and elementary point of view without looking deeper into the fashionistic variances in the dress code. Nigeria is a classic example.
What bedevils Zimbabwe on its failure to answer the Dress question is the nascent ethnological contestations and other ‘isms’ as well as a lack on historical consensus. National dresses in multi-cultural polities exist because standoffs such as the ones in Zimbabwe have been long resolved hence there is buy-in on symbols on textiles and a consented meaning of the textiles.
With that in mind, we need to remember that language is a carrier of culture and in the case of Zimbabwe, it illustrates a residing problem that a national dress will not be there anytime soon because it is beyond fashion, but entrenched in deeply rooted politics.
What exists are ethnic costumes of the Ndebele who identify as the Nguni who migrated from South Africa and their cultural roots are still entrenched in the Nguni textile appearance, the Vahera, Torwa, and Rozvi who are descendants of East Africa and share a lot with Zambians’ Chitenje.
More reason why wraps for both men and women for the Shona speaking people is common. The BIG problem with Zimbabwe is that there is an abject lack of cultural broadcasting hence whenever someone wears their folk costume it is assumed to be either South African or West African even in clear instances where one wears to identify with the Chewa, Nyanja, Sena or Xhosa.
The dress question in Zimbabwe remains and will remain a discourse to be carried out probably for years to come. Just like the attire itself the arguments that exist around it will take years to be consolidated to one point of view that yields a valid solution.