African Traditional Dresses

African traditional dresses in South Africa are gaining in popularity. Both amongst the baby boomer and millennial generation. With a diverse range of tribes with in South Africa its no surprise that there is a broad dichotomy of styles to choose from. Read on to learn more about the different types of traditional dresses.

traditional dresses green and yellow

Types of South African Traditional Dresses

In many African cultures, age and social standing determines the type of clothes a person wears. This is particularly poignant when it comes to modern traditional dresses for women. The best traditional dresses are typically made on printed dyed cotton fabric. The most common type are shweshwe dress. If you’ve ever been to a wedding or birthday function you’d most likely have some

The fabric is manufactured in a variety of different colours and printed designs comprised of intricate geometric shapes and patterns. Some African traditional address are woven such as Kente from West Africa.

Traditional dresses in South Africa have evolved over the last 70 years. Tannery-style leather, woven textiles and printed dress fabrics have replaced the cow hides and big-game skins that were popular in the early 20th century and before. 

Modern traditional dresses have usurped the reed skirts that were worn in centuries before. Many western-style wedding dresses are being replaced by traditional wedding dresses. Here, we take a look at the various types of dresses found in South Africa across the major different ethnic groups.

sesotho woman


modern swazi ceremony


ndebele mother and son


Designers and Tailors

Fashion designer and tailors are often confused. It’s possible that they’re mistaken because they both utilize the same tools and produce the same garment. However, there is a significant distinction between the two professions.

The designer is the creative mind behind any garment, whether it’s a high-fashion runway gown or a simple summer dress or tee shirt.

The designer will conduct research, produce a concept and vision for the type of person they would want to dress. They will then create a visual representation of their idea using sketches. Finally, they will manage the overall design and manufacturing processes that bring their ideas to actuality.

They work with a strong team of skilled people to help them construct an idea and turn into a wearable garment.

In basic terms, the fashion designer is the architect, and the tailor is the builder.

Designers take ideas from a variety of sources to come up with new concepts. Most of us have seen a tailor in action, but few are aware of how a fashion designer goes about planning and executing the finished garment.

wedding dresses
African wedding dress

Key Differences

A tailor follows the same established process to complete the same old tasks. They very rarely attempt anything new when it comes to garment-making. They simply measure and create designs based on the customer’s specifications.

A fashion designer must have a plan. He must work smarter rather than harder. He has more paperwork than physical labor to complete.

Tailors do not usually come up with their own designs. Clients will supply them with the patterns they want.

Designers will start with a blank slate and create new designs from the ground up. They will be inventive in their approach and look to unrelated sources or simply draw inspiration from their own ideas.

Tailors may be aware of current or past trends based on their experience. However, they will have limited expertise in predicting future patterns.

The fashion designer is well-versed in worldwide trends and will have a good feel for what will work in the local market soon. May even be able to influence future trends through their designs. A tailor focuses on individual clients’ satisfaction and is good at interpreting designs given to them.

Designers tend to be more concerned with catching the attention of their audience with new ideas, themes, patterns, and designs than they are with satisfying the specific demands of each client.

They’re fantastic at coming up with innovative designs. It might take anything from two to three days to a week for the final garment to be completed.

Typically it takes a designer more than a month to come up with something new or unique. Designs are generally introduced seasonally. Repairs and alterations fall within the remit of the tailor and not the designer. 

african fashion designer

Top South African Designers of Traditional Dresses

The past several years have seen a resurgence in popularity for African fashion throughout the world. This is due to the distinctive patterns and fabrics found on the outfits. One of the reasons that has kept African culture alive is because of this.

This is all due to the designers’ hard work in order to guarantee themselves a place in the fashion world. The efforts of these people must not go unnoticed. These are, without doubt, South Africa’s greatest fashion designers, who are leading the charge in their field.

From renowned innovators such as Nkhensani Nkosi a veteran of Traditional African style since the early 1990s, to up-and-coming talents like Thebe Magugu and Maxhosa, South Africa has an abundance of gifted designers that effortlessly mix old traditions with forward thinking aesthetics. Here are some names you should know.

Thebe Magugu

Thebe Magugu, the Midas touch in South African design, led by example throughout 2019. He was named a LVMH Prize winner and GQ SA’s Rising Star of 2019. His objective to promote Africa’s fashion industry is already having an impact.

Magugu is well-known for depicting powerful feminist themes, so be sure to keep him in mind for 2021. Supermodel Adut Kech was seen wearing his designs during the September 2019 edition of British Vogue. He also launched a 24 Sèvres capsule collection this year. Overall, 2019 was undoubtedly Thebe Magugu’s breakthrough year.

thebe magugu
Thebe Magugu


Maxhousa is a relatively new brand, having been founded only in 2012. However, the South African company has recently gained traction in the market.

Founder Laduma Ngxokolo is one of South Africa’s most prominent knitwear designers. He has an amazing line-up of accolades on his resume, including the Vogue Italia Scouting for Africa Award.

He specializes on traditional Xhosa beadwork and high-end South African materials including mohair and wool. This results in one-of-a-kind eye-catching pieces for both men and women.

Maxhousa’s vivid use of hues and forms is reminiscent of his Xhosa roots, even though their sometimes strange appearance belie a solid grounding in tradition.

He combined different length hems on single pieces in his women’s SS2020 collection, creating free-flowing forms for several of his dresses and skirts. Fine embroidery with great attention to detail is frequently seen in geometric knit formations housing geometric beading work.

David Tlale

David Tlale is a South African fashion designer who was born and raised in Vosloorus, a poor black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

He finished his high school at Vaal University Thuto Lesedi and went to study introduction to Internal Auditing before going on to study fashion and technology at Vaal University, where he graduate 1998.

From 1999 until 2003, he taught at Vaal University, specializing in compute-averse design, creative design, and pattern grading.

In 2003, he won the Elle New Talent at SA Fashion Week, and his line David Tlale debuted at the same time.

He forms a core part of our design scene which is infused with earthy freshness owing to South Africa’s rich cultural diversity. This adds drama to our creative industry in a globally competitive market.

david tlale
David Tlale

Nkhensani Nkosi

If you enjoy fashion, Nkhensani Nkosi should be no stranger to you. Because of her growing career in the arts, Nkhensani has become a household name.

She’s a sought-after designer as well as an experienced actress and television host. Stoned Cherrie Nkhensani Nkosi, the brains behind Stoned Cherrie, which she founded in 2000, is one of South Africa’s award-winning clothing labels.

The brand has told its tale through the one-of-a-kind cloth to a variety of woven items that have been embraced all around the world.

All of these achievements are the result of Nkhensani Nkosi’s tireless dedication to her interest that she has turned into a profession.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.