Sho Madjozi breaks down the history of her iconic look & how she aims to preserve her heritage

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If someone mentions Sho Madjozi, the first thing that comes to mind is usually her iconic look. Yes, there is the viral John Cena video, plus the catchy music and the colourful braids, but its the elaborate, traditional skirts she often dons that stick out the most. Those skirts have become synonymous with the South African musician, who wears them in her music videos, performances and appearances. It forms an integral part of her persona, which is crafted around her Tsonga heritage. This was wonderfully illustrated during her Design Indaba appearance, where she performed and spoke about the history of the Tsonga traditional skirt and how it has shaped who she is.

Now in its 25th year, Design Indaba is an international conference that celebrates and educates delegates in design in every sense of the word and how it can change and shape the world we live in. Sho Madjozi decided to use her slot at the conference to educate people on her iconic look in a multilayered presentation that combined a live performance, a lecture and a fashion show. This is what we learnt from her talk.

The skirt is called a xibelani

Pronounced (shim-ba-laani)

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It has been renamed more than once, but today it is most well-known as the xibelani. It has been a part of Tsonga attire for centuries, undergoing many evolutions along the way. Sho Madjozi said that the idea behind the skirt is to alter and enhance the shape of a womans silhouette a concept that has been practised throughout history and the world. At first, back in the olden days the initial use of the xibelani was worn as an undergarment under cloth dresses and skirts. For those who couldnt afford a lot of clothes, it was worn as is around the house and was not supposed to be seen.

Over the decades, it has seen many forms and is made from various materials, from maize-meal sacks to colourful dyed wool and expensive cloth with beads at the bottom, but regardless of what it was made of, the initial design remained constant a heavily pleated skirt with a tyre around the hips. This design comes from the original xibelani, which was just a cloth tied around the waist with rope, with excess material spilling over around the hips.

Why Sho Madjozi wears xibelanis

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The era of xibelani that Sho Madjozi grew up in was the wool era. These are bright, wide and colourful, often expensive and mostly worn for special occasions. In the past, women were gifted xibelanison their wedding days or for initiation ceremonies (and only if the household was wealthy or had rich relatives). Sho Madjozi often saw her mother and aunt wear wool xibelanisat parties and events. She explained that some xibelanis were so elaborate that they had to be put on the top of a car when driving to a function because they wouldnt fit in the cars if worn! For Sho Madjozi, this is what beauty and fun looked like.

She also emphasised what a prized possession xibelanis are, and jokingly said that when people call her humble for wearing traditional attire rather than famous brands, they dont actually realise how much she is flexing!

What is the future of xibelanis?

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With such a rich history, it is clear that this traditional Tsonga garment needs to be preserved. But for Sho Madjozi, this shouldnt happen in museums or in the pages of books. It needs to be lived in, and showcased to the world, and in order for this to happen, it needs to continue evolving.

One way to do this, Sho Madozi proposes, is through a xibelani carnival. She would like this to be as big as the Cape Town Carnival, or even the Rio Carnival. She wants it to happen in Limpopo, her home town and where the Tsonga culture is concentrated, and would like to have traditional-dancing competitions, performances and design challenges to re-create xibelanis in completely new ways.

But for now, she will continue to incorporate them and other aspects of her culture and traditions into her work, becoming a custodian of Tsonga culture in the most modern way imaginable.

Watch a brief history of the xibelani that Sho Madjozi put together:

Image: Instagram


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