These Zulu women's hats (isicholo), painted with red ochre, have a flared shape that reflects the original pattern of the hairstyle on which they are based. For the first stage in the series of rites linked with her daughter's marriage, a mother would sew her daughter's hair into this complex design. The hats, which were established in the late 19th or early 20th century and are based on the cone-shaped haircut that signaled the wearer's maturity and married status, are a relatively modern part of Zulu traditional attire.
Along with birth, naming, death/burial, and ukubuyisa, or "coming home of the soul," marriage is one of five significant rites of passage in the life of a Zulu woman.
When the Zulu culture allowed hats as a hairstyle alternative, a young bride-to-be would start stitching her hat as soon as she knew who she would marry.
They're produced by layering dyed thread on top of a basketry base. Isicholo are involved in the ukukhehla ritual, which is the second ceremony in which the future bride and groom exchange presents and express their gratitude before the wedding. A white cloth wrap would preserve the hat (or initially the bride's hair) for the majority of the ceremony. The groom-to-be removes the wrap and pins a note to the headdress at the proper point in the wedding music. A Zulu woman would wear this hat on a regular basis once she was married to show her marital status.
The hat was one of the few accessories worn by married women, who, despite living in a culture where beadwork plays an important symbolic significance, wore almost none.
The isicholo is no longer worn on a daily basis, but it is commonly worn with an imported scarf tied over the hat to keep the read ochre pigment from rubbing off on the wearer's clothes on special ceremonial occasions.
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