"Hey, Urban Outfitters: My culture is not for sale!" An open letter from an angry habesha woman
by Lolla Mohammed Nur, @lomonur
(Note #1: I use the term “habesha” as shorthand in this article to describe the cultures and people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is a contested term within the diaspora, and does not necessarily apply to all ethnic groups in those two countries. Here, I use it as a general term to refer to Ethiopians and Eritreans for the sake of brevity).
(Note #2: The dress was NOT been removed by Urban Outfitters from the website. I initially had assumed they removed it, but I later found out that the dress was actually mysteriously sold within days of the campaign launch. Urban Outfitters declined to tell me who bought it, vaguely citing “customer privacy laws.” Personally, I think it’s all fishy.)
For about a week now, Ethiopian and Eritrean diasporans have taken to social media to express their disbelief, shock and anger with Urban Outfitters, a company that has an established reputation for controversy and for cultural insensitivity.
I have been a long-time critic of Urban Outfitters and have never shopped there because I am aware of its reputation. There are many examples of the retailer ripping other cultures/designers off and being insensitive: its racist “Navajo” fashion line, which made headlines in 2011; its “Juan at Walmart” t-shirt controversy first reported by Latino Rebels, which angered the Latino community; and accusations that the company stole local designers’ work. (For a full list of the company’s offenses and controversies, see this and this).
Just when I had thought that the company couldn’t get itself into yet another controversy, it has managed to do so yet again. Except this time, the offense hits closer to home — too close.
What has Urban Outfitters done this time?
In a nutshell, it was selling an Ethiopian and Eritrean traditional dress with, what I believe, is false labeling. What should have been called a traditional dress (“hager lebs” or “zuriya”) from Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures, is labeled on the company’s website as a 90s (presumably American) vintage linen dress, with no cultural context.
About a week ago, I discovered from a tweep, Saba Woldu (@MzSamha), that Urban Outfitters was featuring a traditional habesha dress (pictured above) on its website as a “Vintage ‘90 Linen Dress.” She found a picture of the dress on Instagram.
My initial reaction was surprise. And then, questions: Why was Urban Outfitters modeling a traditional dress that habesha women wear for special occasions? Were they selling it, and if so, was it mass-produced? Most importantly, was the design attributed to Ethiopia and Eritrea?
I quickly found out that, yes, Urban Outfitters was selling the dress — for a ridiculously overpriced cost of $209 — as what it labeled a “unique vintage” item. It was, thankfully, not being mass-produced. But there was no culturally appropriate labeling, no mention of the cultural significance of the dress, and no details on where or how it was found. The dress has now mysteriously been sold and is removed from the website, but the labeling has not changed. The description still states it is an Urban Outfitters exclusive made in USA, and that it was popular in the 90s.
So… Who mad?
WE mad. Shocked and outraged. I know I am, as any angry habesha woman should be. Need a visual? See angry habesha women pictured below. "Wey guuuud!"
(Picture above shows Eritrean women wearing traditional zuriya. I found the picture from here, not mine).
Humor aside, as an Ethiopian and Eritrean, I do feel that Urban Outfitters has robbed me of my cultural heritage. I feel that the least Urban Outfitters can do is to include labeling that mentions the dress’ actual name (“hager lebs” in Amharic, “zuriya” in Tigrinya), and include in the description that it is a traditional dress from those countries.
I am very proud of where I come from; both of my home countries birthed some of the world’s greatest civilizations. A significant part of our cultural and historical knowledge and being as a people is embodied by our traditional clothing. I want to know why my cultures are not being recognized and rightfully attributed for a dress that is clearly ours. When you see a “vintage” Japanese kimono or a “vintage” Hawaiian maxi dress being sold on Urban Outfitters’ website, you know what it is because they’ve labeled it correctly. But you wouldn’t know that when seeing the zuriya/hager lebs.
My other problem is that the way the dress was labeled and presented assumes the dress is a western or American creation. By not correctly attributing the African cultures from which the dress came, Urban Outfitters is claiming a style that is not theirs. Urban Outfitters, you have no right. You have no right to claim a style and culture that you clearly know nothing about and do not respect. If you cared, you would have done research before buying or selling the dress, to ensure it was labeled correctly.
Another offense is that Urban Outfitters is claiming that this dress was popular in the 90s and represents a style of that time. This is simply not true. Where did they get this information from? Habesha women have been wearing this dress and various styles of it for CENTURIES. This goes way back even BEFORE America existed. By incorrectly labeling our traditional clothing, you are in effect erasing our cultures and histories, exploiting our civilizations and artistry, and all for your own profit and for our own brand. This is our heritage; it’s not a casual piece of cloth to be worn as a hipster-fad or a cheap trend. Our beautiful culture is not for sale!
(Above, a group of friends and me wearing hager lebs/zuriya on our college graduation. Copyright mine.)
What did you do when you first found out about the dress?
I have started a Change.org petition, have been working with friends to spread awareness through social media, I contacted Urban Outfitters with questions and demands (see my video here), and am reaching out to media outlets. Please listen to a radio interview I did with Voice of America interview on the issue.
How would you feel if an item - one that holds significant cultural and/or religious significance to you - was being sold online as a used item without proper labeling and no cultural context?
On top of that, how would you feel if you knew that this retailer is selling the item to its predominantly white, “hipster” consumer-base — one that probably has no understanding of the cultural significance of the dress? But also, that this company already has a longstanding reputation of selling items with inaccurate labeling, and of appropriating other people’s designs and cultures in its products?
I immediately started a petition on Change.org, titled “Urban Outfitters: Stop appropriating traditional cultural designs from Ethiopia and Eritrea.” It reached 500 signatures in just a few hours of launching, and now, a week later it is at 6,300+ signatures, with people from around the world - most of them Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora - signing. I also started a Twitter hashtag - #MYcultureNOToutfit - which quickly caught on.
So, what exactly are your demands to Urban Outfitters?
The petition is demanding:
1. That Urban Outfitters provide accurate labeling with reference to Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures.
2. An apology.
3. A promissory note that this will not happen again.
4. I, personally, am also demanding a guarantee from Urban Outfitters that nothing like this from our culture(s) will be mass-produced in the future.
The petition calls on Urban Outfitters to give credit where credit is due. We want the company to change the labeling on the item to reference both Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures for the dress and its design. We are demanding this because anyone familiar with our cultures knows where this dress came from: it came from us.
In addition, we are requesting an apology from Urban Outfitters, and a promissory note that this will not happen again. If the company decides to sell another “vintage” cultural item inspired by our cultures and designs, we want a guarantee that the company will actually take care to research the country, culture, and designer of origin, and that the labeling will clearly state as much. The fact is that Urban Outfitters has not done its research when selling this so-called “vintage” item. Its Urban Renewal Line - on which this dress was sold - demonstrates to me that the company is careless in its labeling and has no sensitivity for ensuring that it does not offend its customers and their cultural identities.
Lastly, I am demanding a guarantee that nothing from Ethiopian or Eritrean cultures will be mass-produced by Urban Outfitters in the future. We are talking about protecting traditional designs and a culture. My culture is not for sale to a retailer and consumer-base that has no care for my culture or heritage, and when my own people are not benefiting from such a product.
Buuut…it’s just one dress. It’s not being mass-produced. Why the fuss? One dress, or a whole line: my culture is not for your sale.
What Urban Outfitters needs to understand is that people are outraged and that the company has struck a nerve. It may appear to be one dress, and perhaps it’s not being mass-produced, but that doesn’t make it any less offensive. Urban Outfitters has mislabeled the dress, and is making a profit off of being culturally insensitive. The habesha diaspora community is holding Urban Outfitters accountable until it re-labels, apologizes, and promises not to do this again.
Also, our cultural items are being mass-produced by stores besides Urban Outfitters. More on this below.
Are there other examples of appropriation of habesha culture?
Yes. Something like this also happened in 2007. It has also been brought to my attention in recent days that Asos Marketplace, Forever 21, and Aldo’s are currently selling habesha-designed or habesha-inspired items, without labeling, for their latest fad trends.
Similar questions arose in the diaspora community in 2007, when British designer Matthew Williamson used two traditional Ethiopian dresses in his collection, which caused an international outcry and online outrage from the diaspora, which prompted the Ethiopian government to investigate. This article, “Anger over African designs,” by Ethiopian diasporan journalist Hewete Haileselassie, has more details.
More recently, people following the #MYcultureNOToutfit hashtag sent me pictures through Twitter and Facebook of Asos Marketplace selling an Ethiopian poncho made of cotton (“gabi”) material. Just three days ago, the description on the website only described it as a creamy white cotton poncho with embroidered “details,” and it was listed under the vintage Boho collection with two other ponchos.
Notice how Asos Marketplace labeled its Mexican and Peruvian ponchos in the same collection with reference to the culture, but it didn’t accurately label the Ethiopian design.
Interestingly, when I looked yesterday, it appears Asos Marketplace has changed the labeling of the poncho to reference Ethiopia, and moved it from its vintage boho collection.
I had not asked them to, but it shows they are paying attention. I appreciate the action, but I wish they had gotten it right the first time. Again, retailers are not doing their research. At the very least, if they’re going to make money off our cultures, they need to give us the basic credit.
There are examples of companies getting it right.
Doing a google search, I found that Etsy is selling this used traditional Ethiopian poncho as a “vintage poncho embroidered with elaborately decorated Lalibela cross” from the 1980s. The detailed labeling mentions the year, country and city in which it was found, and cultural context of the item. Not saying Etsy isn’t problematic or without its controversies, but this shows that it can be done respectfully.
You said companies are mass-producing items from habesha culture now?
Yes. It’s not just “vintage” second-hand items that are being sold by retailers. Stores like Forever 21 and Aldo’s are now mass-producing what appear to be habesha-inspired items and jewelry.
A tweep sent me this article, “Cheap chic or just cheap?” posted three days ago by Eritrean American twin sisters Feven and Helena Yohannes. They show a pair of earrings and a necklace that appear to be copies of a traditional Eritrean cross-necklace and a traditional Ethiopian Coptic cross necklace, respectively.
They say, “The truth is — everything that we do is heavily influenced by our Eritrean culture. We even designed our logo with our motherland in mind. But, to be honest, we felt a little confused seeing something that is so sacred to us on sale for $5.80, mass produced, and in some ways being stripped of it’s authenticity.”
Another tweep, Aster Thomas, sent me this picture of an necklace she said she found at Aldo’s that looks strikingly similar to Ethiopian or Eritrean traditional Orthodox cross jewelry.
These examples show to me is that this isn’t about just one dress. Companies are already mass-producing items from Ethiopian and Eritrean cultures without proper labeling and without our permission. The beast is a lot bigger than we thought and, in my opinion, the diaspora has to campaign against this before appropriating from our cultures becomes the mainstream.
How is Urban Outfitters selling a dress “cultural appropriation”? Why is it so bad?
It’s power relations stupid!!!
1. This article in Racialicious breaks it down. There is a fine line between cultural flattery and stealing. It comes down to power relations and oppression. Me “appropriating” American culture isn’t the same as an American/western institution appropriating my African culture, especially if my culture is subordinate in terms of power. Still don’t get it? Just read this article: Cultural Appropriation: Homage or Insult?
2. Also peep Wikipedia’s entry on cultural appropriation.
3. This quote from an article in Jezebel titled, “A Much Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation,” also sums up cultural appropriation:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” To elaborate: “This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
After reading all of the above, I think it is safe to say that what Urban Outfitters (as well as Forever 21, Aldo’s, Asos Marketplace etc) is doing by selling a habesha traditional item, and not labeling it correctly, is cultural appropriation, and a form of cultural theft and exploitation.
Although I should point out that there are different colonial histories when it comes to cultural appropriation (for example, the Native American experience is not the same as ours).
In a recent controversy, Michelle Williams is seen posing as a Native American. This piece in Clutch Magazine explains why the above image is problematic.
Shouldn’t you be flattered by Urban Outfitters’ decision to sell your culture?
No, because there is a larger context here: “hipster racism” and the hipster-industrial-complex.
Had this been a company that is culturally sensitive, and has established positive relationships with communities of color, customers of color, and various indigenous cultures, I wouldn’t have had as much of a problem. I believe something like this wouldn’t have happened in the first place if the company had cultural sensitivity practices. But, considering the context of Urban Outfitters’ history of infringing upon people’s cultures, and that it hasn’t labeled this dress appropriately, demonstrates that the company does not care. That is what offends me the most.
If Urban Outfitters had provided more details about where the dress came from, that would have made me proud in a way, because then I know exactly where it’s coming from and I know who’s making a profit. And, if it’s to support the growth and well-being of my people, I would be happy to support that - if this is Urban Outfitters’ intention.
But right now, it’s not clear to me that my people are benefiting from the commodification of our cultures. We’re not even being credited. What is clear to me is that an American company notorious for capitalizing off people’s cultures is now capitalizing on my culture, and I am not okay with that.
Part of the problem too are larger questions of what I call the hipster-industrial-complex (I came up with this term!). What I mean by that is, companies like Urban Outfitters profit off of non-dominant cultures by selecting or creating (read: stealing) items that appear quirky, funky or “unique.” And then, the company commodifies this. Urban Outfitters knows its consumer-base: typically young, white folks looking for cultural items or cultural ways of being to exoticize and parade around as the next hipster trend.
(Above is a picture of an Ethiopian woman rocking hager lebs the way it’s actually supposed to be worn. She is also pictured hand-weaving cotton. This is how our cultural clothing is made. Beautiful, right? I found this photo here, not mine.)
But when diverse cultures are introduced into Urban Outfitters products, it’s usually a very white-washed way of doing it that does not pay true homage to the culture and the people (see photo above). The way our traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean dress is being labeled and sold as a “vintage 90s linen dress” is demonstrative of Urban Outfitters’ trademark of white-washing.
Intellectual property rights and protecting products of our cultures and histories
This controversy also brings up an ethical question of protecting indigenous cultures, narratives, institutions of knowledge, and products. If something from an indigenous culture enters the mainstream, with no acknowledgment of cultural/historical context, the meaning is lost and becomes cheapened.
I agree with Ethiopian diasporan Henok Assefa, who wrote on his blog, Precise Insights, within days of the campaign launch, “[W]e are only likely to make meaningful change to benefit our people if and when we are able to implement complete branding, marketing, and quality supply chain streamlining initiatives to ensure real value is accrued to our people from the creativity of our ancestors.”
Also, this is about more than just clothing. Our precious crops and grains are being stolen from us in front of our very eyes. Western corporations are attempting to patent Ethiopia’s teff grain (bio-piracy), which we use to make enjera, a staple bread in our diet, for their own commercial uses.
(Pictured above are a plate of enjera, and a traditional straw enjera holder. Copyright mine.)
Also, a few years ago, Starbucks attempted to dictate whether Ethiopia could patent its own coffee beans, and came under international pressure for exploiting Ethiopian farmers. Although this issue was resolved, some argue Ethiopia still does not benefit from selling its coffee to major corporations like Starbucks. So what are we to do in an increasingly globalized age that tends to favor western institutions and those already with power?
A tweep from the diaspora sent me this video lecture, titled Coffee, Culture and Intellectual Property Rights: The Case of Ethiopia, by Heran Sereke-Berhan, an Ethiopian and scholar of Ethiopian culture. In this video, Sereke-Berhan discusses the complexities of third world countries like Ethiopia selling coffee and other cultural items, while trying to establish intellectual property rights. She explains that the Ethiopian and Eritrean diasporas need to have a larger conversation about patenting products of our rich cultures, and that it’s not just about protecting our material profits, but also protecting the intangible aspects of our cultures: language, memory, narratives, history, and meaning.
The priceless question, in my opinion, is: How do we create indigenous institutions of knowledge that capture, document and patent the intangible?
(A traditional coffee table, set-up, and coffee ritual. Copyright mine.)
So, is it just about “labeling,” or is it about bigger questions of protecting our institutions and cultural forms of knowledge before mainstream markets pick them up for their profit? I’d argue it is the latter.
So are you against innovation and companies or designers being inspired by other cultures? Are you against your cultural designs going into the mainstream?
Not necessarily. Inspiration and innovation can be good things. But, it comes down to questions of ownership and representation.
I can dig my culture’s designs and fashions entering the mainstream market when it’s one of our own people who are making that happen, when our people have given permission, when our people are receiving credit, and when our people are making the profit.
An example of how this can happen is Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede’s fashion line, “Lemlem.”
(Ethiopian American model Liya Kebede, founder of Ethiopian-inspired “Lemlem” fashion line. Image copied from here).
In this video interview, Kebede explains how she employs Ethiopian “shemmanes” (Amharic for traditional weavers) to create handwoven, vibrant Ethiopian-inspired designs. In this way, our weavers receive recognition and income for their labor, and contribute to their local economy. Furthermore, the culture is respected and paid homage, while simultaneously entering a mainstream international market. To me, this is an example of a win-win for all.
(A woman handweaves cotton. Copied from here, not mine).
(A man handweaves material for a traditional dress. Copied from here, not mine.)
Ultimately, it comes down to ownership and representation. Who owns rights to the product and design? Who is represented in this process? And who is making the profit?
Until the answer to all of the above becomes “Ethiopians and Eritreans,” I am not going to celebrate my culture “entering the mainstream.” I want to know that habeshas are being recognized for what we created first. It’s a basic principle. If you created something, you should receive credit for it, as well as the material gains that follow.
What has the international Ethiopian and Eritrean community been doing to raise awareness about this issue?
Social media, social media, social media.
Support for the #MYcultureNOToutfit campaign against Urban Outfitters from the habesha diaspora has been enormous. I personally have been receiving an overwhelming amount of emails, tweets, Facebook and Youtube comments from people I have never met from all over the US, Europe, Australia, and Africa. People are expressing their anger and asking how they can organize and help; most are young diasporans.
I should also point out that it’s not just through the petition that people have been making demands and asking questions. Many people are organizing. In particular, Saba Woldu, Wintana Melekin, Aster Thomas, and Makeda Seyoum have been working with me to raise awareness and campaign against Urban Outfitters as well.
Blog posts, articles, and Facebook pages from others in the habesha diaspora popped up within hours and days of when the news first broke twitter:
1. "Urban Outfitters: Culturally Insensitive?” by Aster Thomas, an Ethiopian diasporan in New York. She published this piece hours after the news broke on Twitter last week, and also started the hashtag #AfricanOutfitters, encouraging habesha diasporans to post photos of themselves.
2. “Urban Outfitters, Social Media Arbegna, and IP for the poor,” by Ethiopian diasporan Henok Assefa. His post mentions the dress was removed, again this is my fault for providing false information.
3. “The Outrage Culture,” by Mike Endale, an Ethiopian diasporan who has a slightly different view. He argues in his blog post that this could be a way for habeshas to market their culture to the mainstream and that this was a missed opportunity. There are others arguing this also.
4. “Cheap chic or just cheap?” by Eritrean American twin sisters Feven and Helena Yohannes. They show a photo of earrings and a necklace that appear to be copies of a traditional Eritrean cross-necklace and a traditional Ethiopian Coptic cross necklace sold at Forever 21.
5. A Facebook event and a Facebook group devoted to the issue have been created.
What has been even more fascinating is that tweeps and Facebook users have been using social media to disprove Urban Outfitters’ claim that the dress is vintage. People are posting pictures of themselves to the hashtag wearing their own hager lebs/zuriya, next to a picture of the Urban Outfitters model wearing the dress. The similarities are strikingly similar, showing to me that Urban Outfitters’ claim that the dress is “one-of-a-kind” and unique is a lie.
If anyone has anymore submissions of them wearing traditional Eritrean or Ethiopian clothing, or pictures documenting the appropriation of our cultures or designs, please send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I created a tumblr account, www.africanoutfitters.tumblr.com, for Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora to continue posting pictures of themselves in traditional clothing to celebrate our culture. The tumblr will also be a place to blog and document pictures/information we receive or hear, about stores or individuals appropriating Eritrean and Ethiopian designs and cultures. If there is anything you’d like to post on the tumblr, submit it to the email above. Also tweet related news to #MYcultureNOToutfit and #AfricanOutfitters.
Has Urban Outfitters responded yet? Are they paying attention?
Yes, but none of our demands have been met. And the dress has mysteriously disappeared from the website. They say it has been sold.
Urban Outfitters only started responding to tweeps after the dress had been sold (days after the social media campaign started). Their first tactic was to ignore the angry tweets being bombarded at them.
I posted a Youtube video titled, “My phonecall with Urban Outfitters” on the second day of the campaign. It shows my phone conversation with an Urban Outfitters customer service representative on the second day of the campaign. I submitted an inquiry form through her. Later that day, Shelby Walsh, manager of Lividini & Co. emailed me letting me know Urban Outfitters is one of her clients and that they were investigating the design and origin of the dress. We had a brief email back-and-forth.
What is interesting is when the petition reached over 5,000 signatures, the dress mysteriously disappeared from the website and, as you can see, is now unavailable.
In my excitement, I announced that Urban Outfitters had removed the dress, BUT THIS IS NOT TRUE. They are claiming to have SOLD the dress. Ms Walsh has declined to tell me who purchased it, vaguely citing “customer privacy laws.” The labeling still remains the same.
My theory is that they quickly pulled the dress (literally days after the campaign launched) as a cover-up. I don’t have proof, but what else is a company like Urban Outfitters going to do when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan? And, judging from past controversies, it is in quite a lot of sh*t. If this is Urban Outfitters’ way of quietly removing the dress because of our outrage, that is shameful. But it does not change our demands; the campaign and our demands still remain.
What exactly did the Urban Outfitters representative say to you?
Ms. Walsh said the dress was purchased from a secondhand wholesaler, and it is unclear to them where it actually came from, who designed it, and who produced it.
"The items featured are carefully selected and handpicked by our buyers for their quality and uniqueness and retain their original charm…. Urban Outfitters did not design, reproduce, replicate or manufacture this dress for mass resale. Our one-of-a-kind Vintage items are truly one–of-a kind, meaning there is only one available for purchase and it is sold in the condition in which our buyers found it… Like many of our vintage finds, the dress was purchased with no labels and therefore we do not know the manufacturer, designer nor country of origin. If we did, we certainly would credit them.”
"Unfortunately, there are no labels to reference. Therefore we cannot claim the dress is Ethiopian because we do not know that with certainty. The dress was found in the USA and the existing product description is consistent with the rest of our Vintage collection, which states what the item is and the decade in which the style or silhouette was popular.”
In another email:
"Due to our concerns of truth in advertising, we are very careful not to mislead our customer and we cannot attribute a country of origin without knowing for certainty. We cannot legally claim attribution for the dress without certainty of its origins and what it actually is due to the fair labeling and packaging laws. Because the dress was purchased from a secondhand wholesaler, it is unclear where it actually came from and who produced it."
A few questions for Ms. Walsh, Lividini & Co., and Urban Outfitters I still have that I would like answers to are:
1) When you say the dress is from the “90s” and the design and silhouette was popular then, where are you getting this information from? As you stated, the dress has no labels. So how do you know it was popular in the 90s? If you have this information, why don’t you have information of the cultures from which it came?
2) How do you research your items? You say you carefully curate your items on the Urban Renewal line. But what does that mean when you are knowingly buying and selling items without labels? The fact that there was no labeling on the dress when you bought it is your mistake. Why didn’t you do your research?
3) You say the dress has been bought and you vaguely cited “customer privacy laws” as reason for not telling me who purchased it. What are these laws exactly? Because I am having a hard time believing someone bought the dress a few days after this campaign began.
4) According to this video clip from The Young Turks, your company purchases cheap items from places like Goodwill, regardless of labeling and you resell at expensive prices. Is this true? I would like to know who your wholesalers are, and which wholesaler this particular dress came from?
Lastly, what else should people know about this dress? Its cultural significance?
Know that it represents national pride and civilizations. The dignity of our women. Centuries of cultural heritage, history, and for many, faith. It is the product of indigenous artwork and weaving.
The dress has a name. In Amharic, one of the major languages of Ethiopia, it is called “hager lebs” (literally, “dress of the country”), or “habesha kemis” (“dress of the habesha people”). In Tigrinya, one of the major languages of Eritrea, the term for the dress is “zuriya.”
(Ethiopian dancers at the Mosaic festival in Canada. Copied from here, not mine.)
(Eritrean women wearing vibrantly-colored zuriyas at a wedding. Copied from here, not mine.)
The cultural significance of hager lebs/zuriya is that it’s worn by our people during meaningful occasions, such as weddings, funerals, religious holidays, and celebrations. These include New Year’s, Christmas, Easter, and Eid. Christians wear it when going to church on Sundays.
(Asmara, Eritrea - Meskel festival: women praying in front of the Enda Mariam Coptic cathedral. Copyright Alessandro Gandolfi/Parallelozer. Copied from here, not mine.)
(An Ethiopian woman weaves a traditional food basket from dried grasses. Copied from here, not mine.)
Typically, the dress is not worn by itself. It is not typically casual wear. It is certainly not meant to be worn with boots (as is distastefully shown by the Urban Outfitters model). Particularly among older generations of habesha women, the dress is accompanied by a long, cotton scarf (“netela”) that is wrapped around the hair and shoulders.
(Eritrean woman wearing zuriya with her hair in qunna and henna on her hands. Copied from here, not mine.)
At occasions such as weddings, women wear the dress with matching gold or silver jewelry, and braid their hair in shurruba/qunnu - or traditional-style corn-row braids. Muslim women sometimes wear an additional matching colored headscarf.
(My mother, Mebrat Saleh, at a family gathering. She is wearing a more “modern”/fancy style of habesha dress, with matching silver jewelry and a matching red hijab (Muslim headscarf) to cover her hair. Copyright mine.)
You could also say that the wearing of hager lebs/zuriya is a symbol of womanhood and dignity. It is a material symbol of a habesha woman’s “coming of age,” so to speak — represented by the style and accompanying jewelry and hairdo.
(Miss Universe Ethiopia 2012 Helen Getachew, at the Miss Universe pageant. Copied from here, not mine.)
Another fact is that the process of making the dress itself is art. It is a time-consuming process, that is often under-appreciated. The cotton and designs are handmade by traditional weavers (“shemane” in Amharic, “alamay” in Tigrinya), who have carried the knowledge of weaving and sewing for centuries.
(Traditional weaver. Copied from here, not mine.)
They first make the cotton by hand, then sew it together to create the main form of the dress. The weaver then adds a signature multi-colored hem, which is usually a thick stripe of dyed, embroidered silk designed with repeating, geometric shapes. This and this give more detailed information on the process.
(Traditionally-weaved and dyed silk scarves from Ethiopia with a more modern touch. Copied from here, not mine.)
As you can see, hager lebs/habesha kemis and zuriya are truly beautiful, and reflect the diversity of ethnic groups and tribes within Ethiopia and Eritrea. Habesha kemis and zuriya are not the only styles of traditional clothing in the region, however; different ethnic (and religious) groups have a unique culture, history, and form of dress. Although styles of the traditional dress have evolved over time and vary from region to region, it is a dress that was created by our beautiful cultures in the Horn of Africa centuries ago. It is not from the ’90s. It did not originate in America or the west. And it is certainly not vintage.
Our cultures are not some cheap hipster trends or fad for companies to abuse, exploit, or mislabel. Our cultures are real, and they represent civilizations, history, and beauty. Please respect our cultures, and remember that they are NOT for sale!
(My sister, Sara Mohammed Nur, and me, showcasing our traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean garb and matching jewelry, at my alma mater’s “African Night.” Copyright mine.)
A Works Cited list of all of my sources, as well as a new Youtube video update with a call to action, will be forthcoming. Stay tuned!
103 Notes/ Hide
- ambarredstrands likes this
- fattakitty reblogged this from lollamohammednur
- ynysisland likes this
- astoldbywesley reblogged this from lollamohammednur
- medhinmel likes this
- slightlycrafty likes this
- aminarob90 likes this
- splashofsunlight reblogged this from lollamohammednur
- ouijevis likes this
- s-u-n-d-r-e-a-m-e-r likes this
- goddisinthegarden likes this
- hopenfaith88 likes this
- hopenfaith88 reblogged this from lollamohammednur and added:
- jollytimelord likes this
- browngirlsintherain reblogged this from findingmotherland
- resmc likes this
- flowerandbirds likes this
- ktwisz likes this
- philtippett reblogged this from eggnoggining
- nappynomad reblogged this from girljanitor
- loveyourchaos likes this
- nube-brillante likes this
- islamispeace likes this
- ausetkmt reblogged this from so-treu
- romellucas reblogged this from lollamohammednur
- actual-robert-frost reblogged this from findingmotherland
- lamusiquedekate reblogged this from literalbookworm and added:
- literalbookworm reblogged this from findingmotherland and added:
- shardeva likes this
- findingmotherland reblogged this from girljanitor
- sleepyblacksheep reblogged this from robot-heart-politics
- sleepyblacksheep likes this
- loysanloy reblogged this from so-treu
- cielito-lindo likes this
- ohtobeoriginal reblogged this from girljanitor
- xanthofile likes this
- andibgoode likes this
- berryexplosions likes this
- timister likes this
- fadedscene likes this
- sylvides likes this
- frenchbraidin likes this
- ignisaquae likes this
- maybehunterpryor likes this
- staceyjoy likes this
- robot-heart-politics reblogged this from girljanitor
- vsnt reblogged this from eggnoggining
- ilttftkc reblogged this from garconniere
- eggnoggining reblogged this from clairewatchestelly
- tribehagos likes this