Dressing Gender from South Africa to America

World Learning’s Experiment in International Living students visited the Phansi Museum in Durban, South Africa. There, they saw traditional clothing and tools, and learned about customs. The visit paired well with their ongoing education about Zulu culture (including some language skills!) especially in the context of the history of South Africa. Student Teresa talks about her experience:

Our day commenced with a visit to the Phansi Museum in Durban. Privately funded, it’s a small organization which began in the founder’s basement (phansi is the Zulu word for “underground”). However, what it lacks in size it makes up for in beautifully designed collections of art, clothing, furniture, instruments and tools — all of which are reflective of South Africa’s Zulu history and culture.

Walking around the museum, it was hard not to compare the vibrant and meticulously crafted Zulu artifacts to the relatively simple ones representative of America’s history. In my personal experience from visiting history museums in the United States, the clothing I’ve seen of the colonial era seemed very practical and utilitarian. By contrast, the heavily beaded and colorful garments of the Zulu people gave me a different idea of the value both societies gave to a piece of their culture.

Teresa (Bottom Row, Left) and the Experiment in International Living Group

Along those lines, I found myself comparing the roles gender played in the history of the two distinct cultures, as well as the role it plays in the United States today. In traditional Zulu culture, a woman’s status was heavily reflected by her clothing. This was shown in one occasion where we saw multiple aprons women would wear to signify their marital status. If the apron had smaller tabs of beaded fabric on its ends, it signified that the wearer was not the first wife of her husband. Alongside this, there were traditional headpieces which represented the woman’s role of holding the family together, and dolls which were symbolic of an approaching marriage. I thought of the typical engagement rings women wear in modern culture and the reasons behind why it is seen as a social norm to do so.

Overall, the experience led me to think about the customs we hold and value in our society, both in the present and in our past. As we continue on learning more about South Africa, I hope to gain as much insight in each day as I did on my visit to the Phansi museum.

Learning about Zulu culture at the Phansi Museum

The Experiment in International Living’s South Africa: Youth Leadership in Peace, Politics, and Human Rights program takes high school students abroad to study multiculturalism and inequality in the context of the African country.

Follow EIL’s Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr for more insights abroad!

Written by

World Learning empowers people, communities, and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store