From Tradition to Couture: The Evolving World of Umbhaco

From Tradition to Couture: The Evolving World of Umbhaco

Why Xhosa Umbhaco is African Luxury

Umbhaco: A Fashionable Ode to Xhosa Elegance

Olwethu Mbane

In the heart of South Africa’s Cape regions, amid a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours and rhythmic ululations, there exists a sartorial masterpiece that embodies grace, tradition, and elegance.

Imagine, if you will, a woman draped in the resplendent folds of her garment, each layer whispering tales of heritage and identity.

As she glides through the festivities, there's an unmistakable air of confidence, an aura of profound connection to her roots that captivates all who gaze upon her.

A Festive Resurgence


After a long year of hard work in the big cities, it is expected that people travel home in December. And par for the course is showing up at events and go all out. Every year, it is hard to miss these traditional celebrations, as you scroll down the social media feed. These beautiful attires would be exhibited, in their full finery, proudly adorned by happy people keen to show off their umbhaco attire.

Contrary to popular belief, traditional wear in South Africa can be interchangeable with other traditional accessories practiced in cultural settings. For example, we’ve seen Xhosa people style their Xhosa attire with isicholo which belongs to the Zulu culture. But this time around there was this huge shift in terms of respecting one cultural attire without infusing it with other traditional pieces.

A Closer Look at Umbhaco

The popular dress code is historically a cultural attire, designed with sustainable cotton that’s made to last for decades. The heavier the fabric/material is, the more expensive it gets but the value you get out from it, would encourage you to collect more layers of umbhaco as possible and style your attire differently for various occasions, each time you’re invited to events.

To be honest, I only got to appreciate this traditional wear culture as I grew older, but tables have turned now because children are spotted rocking umbhaco at traditional weddings, thanksgiving ceremonies, imigidi.

We saw boys embarking on a life-changing journey where they’d be sent to the mountains by old men in their families for months, only to be reintegrated in their communities as respectful men. Dressed in completely new clothes, as a symbol of changed behavioural patterns towards themselves and towards society.


This is usually celebrated, where families in which these young men belong to would proudly host imigidi, as a form of reintroducing their transformed sons to their neighbours and extended family members.

Old women in the days KwaXhosa would wear umbhaco, but now the dress code has extended to young girls and boys, to show appreciation of their culture.



Legendary fashion designer, Bongiwe Walaza, is famous for her umbhaco dresses, and is favoured by politicians, like South Africa's Deputy Sports, Arts and Culture Minister, Nocawe Mafu. 

Her latest collection is available at House of Nala by AFI at Sandton City, just in time for the season. 

Modern Twist on Tradition



Xhosa traditional attires have evolved with time without jinxing the importance of traditional attires and their different meanings.

Fashion deisgner, Jessica Jane Molebatsi, has had the honour of designing for Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela who was big on rocking umbhaco with matching doeks. 

Popular with the younger fashion audience, like Minnie Dlamini and KNaomi Jessica has explored umbhaco, the history behind it and is inspired to push the boundaries of what umbhaco is, while keeping true to the history. She has produced modern interpretations of umbhaco that has endeared to to a younger audience. 

She is a perfect example of how umbhaco can be versatile, luxurious, and formal to suit the younger generation in cosmopolitan cities without feeling too traditional in formal spaces or even parties.  

Embracing Our Culture

This teaches us that there’s so much to be proud of when we embrace our culture, it makes it easier to proudly present it to the world, where it can also be seen, respected, and appreciated. This statement has been reiterated so many times; however, it remains to be the truth, that we’re rich in our minerals, music, and culture.

The only difference now is that we’re taking practical steps to show our appreciation. We can’t stop now; our time to create and narrate our stories in the way in which we feel comfortable is now. Our voices matter, and the world is ready to lend us its ears!

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