Beaded wedding capes – not a lot of history and a little mystery.

A beaded wedding cape worn over the shoulders by a young bride on her wedding day and for a brief period thereafter in order to display her status and her respect for her new in-laws.

This heavy and impressive beaded garment  consists of a red  trade cloth backing to which is sewn a neck band  in a contrasting blue fabric at the top , decorated with a single band of beadwork from which  three long bead tassels hang.  Where the tassels end, 12 separate bands of beadwork in several different styles and patterns have been joined together and sewn onto the bottom ¾ of the cloak. Obviously, this garment represents an enormous amount of work and a considerable investment in beads.

The cloak is worn on the wedding day and for a short period thereafter on order to show hlonipa (respect) to the new husband’s parents and senior family members, since the young couple will invariably move into the grooms family compound where she will be the most junior member for a time. Hlonipa, which is pronounced phonetically something like “th-lornipper” is shown by covering the shoulders (and sometimes the head), looking down demurely at all times, and never speaking unless spoken to.

Detail - top section


What is fascinating about these capes, apart from their physical presence, is the fact that they are made by several hands in several beading styles and the beaders include the bride-to-be, her mother and grandmother, and possibly other family members or even close friends. Each of these beaders contributes at least one strip in the colours, styles and patterns appropriate to their age and each cloak then becomes a living history of beadwork over several generations.

All clear so far – but the mystery is where this garment actually originates? Is it in fact, Zulu in origin or Zulu by adoption? It is certainly not a traditional article of Zulu dress, since there is no historical records of museum exhibits of old 19th century or even pre-WW2 beaded trade cloth wedding cloaks, Nor is there any record of a specifically beaded hide garment that has been replaced by a trade cloth garment or blanket in modern times, as worn today by Ndebele and Xhosa married women.

Ntwane bride by Barbara Tyrrell.

My query as to the origin of this garment is based on the fact that Barbara Tyrrell, the famous South African tribal costume artist, identifies it as originating with the Ntwane tribe, who are a tribe of Swazi origin who were displaced by tribal wars, and ended up living in the Drakensberg Mountains of Natal, sandwiched between the Zulu and Bapedi (Northern Sotho) tribes. Tyrrell’s painting shows the young bride wearing her cape, together with the Zulu black leather skirt and red head dress of marriage, while leaning on a stick to cause her to look downwards and show hlonipa. Since this is a field drawing, and Tyrrell is renowned for the accuracy of her field notes, I have no doubt that this is a painting of a genuine Ntwane bride and wedding cape made in the 1960s or earlier.

Note the western alphabet letters and human figures, very non-traditional elements. This example has no tassels.

In spite of this, there are numerous examples of these capes in museums and galleries which are clearly identified as Zulu in origin, but none of them much earlier than 1960 – 1970, judging by the beadwork styles of the modern bands.  This is most likely the result of cross cultural borrowing between the Zulu and the Ntwane.  It’s certainly true that Ntwane tribal dress is much influenced by their Zulu rather than their Pedi neighbours, but who borrowed from whom in this case

A second factor which supports the argument for cross cultural borrowing  is that these cloaks  are not made by   the coastal Zulu,  All the attributed examples I can find cite inland areas as the collection place – close to Ntwane territory. A third factor  is  

note the non-Zulu colours, row of metal studs at the neck and Pedi-insired rope neckace - this looks like an Ntwane example

that there are so many names for this cloak – isiKoti, isiBheklane and umQondo –  implying that it may be called a different name in different localities because it is an exotic introduction.

There is a lot of information on the cloaks themselves in Hlengiwe Dube’s book, “Zulu Beadwork” in which she suggests that certain bands are made in set styles by certain people, that this is constant for all examples and that each band has a fixed meaning. The only problem is that this is not always so. One example I found is in almost pure white. Another example in mainly orange and green beads also breaks all the rules. .

Dube  also suggests that the number bead tassels hanging from the shoulder is significant. One central tassel, made from beads saved from  bride’s puberty belt, symbolises that she is a virgin, two tassels symbolise she is a second wife.  My example has three tassels – so presumably the lady who wore it was not a virgin – not a huge problem in a society where children born out of wedlock were regarded as proof positive of the mother’s fertility.

So, finally, what can we say  about these impressive garments? Beads are fashion for tribal people and fashions change,so it is no problem that they seem to be post-1960 in origin. They are genuine cultural artefacts worn by brides to show hlonipa  respect and their newlywed status. They are worn by  members of the Ntwane and Zulu tribes  living inland rather than on the coast. Each one is sewn by several different hands and generations, and each band would have a meaning, at least to its maker, and this meaning would be communicated to  the bride to be and also to the community. Who needs a western-style wedding dress when you have all that going for you?

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