Right now, dropping the words Basotho blanket into a conversation may draw blank looks of incomprehension from most people. But all that is changing.
Glimpses of the upcoming Black Panther movie (coming out in February 2018) reveal scenes where the warriors of the Wakanda kingdom are draped in Basotho blankets, casting the spotlight on an iconic feature of the clothing and culture of the small mountain kingdom of Southern Africa, Lesotho.
This is by no means the first time the silver screen has launched a look or a trending style. The relationship between film and fashionista is a long-standing love affair.
Think Alexander McQueen’s autumn/winter 2007 collection which was inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s striking Cleopatra outfits. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has firmly established the fur coat and pompadour haircut as a cool 21st century look. And Anita Eckberg in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is at least partly responsible for that enduring fashion staple – the little black dress.
And now, the Basotho blanket is being showcased and given a brand-new fashion twist by luxury brands like Louis Vuitton; brands dedicated to showcasing contemporary African fashion like yours truly, Sapelle; and Sotho and Southern African designers like Thabo Makhetha celebrating their culture. Chic ponchos, bomber jackets, dresses, shirts and trouser suits are all part of an exciting and ever-evolving collection based on the Basotho blanket.
The Basotho Blanket Backstory
By no means a relic from ancient history, the Basotho blanket made its debut around 150 years ago. Legend has it that back in 1860, King Moshoeshoe I (pronounced ‘Moshweshwe’) of Lesotho was presented with a wool blanket as a gift from the French. He was so delighted with it that he had a wardrobe makeover, replacing his traditional leopard-skin kaross with the blanket. The King’s look was adopted by his fellow countrymen and women. Not only did it look beautiful, it was also just the thing for the country’s cold mountainous climate. It’s said that the contrasting stripe that is a permanent fixture in the blanket’s print design, started out as a manufacturing flaw but was embraced as a unique feature.
And so, the Basotho blanket as the iconic garment of the Lesotho people was born.
Whereas in the west, we grapple with a ‘throw away’ culture, switching fashion styles on a whim, the Basotho blanket has endured for over a century as the traditional clothing of the Basotho people of Lesotho. It boldly symbolises pride in the national culture and traditions.
The deep roots of Basotho Blankets
For the Sotho people, the Basotho blanket is so much more than an item of clothing. Its roots are deeply embedded in Lesotho’s history and it plays a major role in its culture and identity.
Different blankets are worn at significant turning points on the journey from cradle to grave. During their circumcision ritual, boys wear a special fertility blanket and this is replaced by another blanket after the ceremony to acknowledge their transition to manhood.
From a young age, girls collect blankets in preparation for their marriage trousseau. For his wedding, a man wears a motlotlehi, and on the birth of the couple’s first child, he gives his wife a serope. Like the kente cloth in Ghana or the bogolan (mud cloth) in Mali, the Basotho blanket is a textile enshrined like a precious jewel in local culture and represents major milestones in a person’s life cycle.
Collaboration with ‘authentic’ designers.
With its distinctive designs, the Basotho blanket is also a thing of great beauty, a fact that has not been lost on the global fashion industry. There has been a lot of debate recently about international brands working with heritage design, examining where ‘inspiration’ turns into ‘appropriation’ – read the BBC article on the Basotho blanket issue in the link below. At Sapelle, we believe that respecting the ownership and rights of the cultures we work with is the only fair way forward and so we have collaborated with an ‘authentic’ designer who originates from the Sotho people, Thabo Makhetha to produce our stylish poncho.
The future’s bright. The future’s ethical
There’s never been a better time for fashion companies to rethink their strategies along ethical lines, whether its thinking about the environmental impact or consulting and collaborating with the cultures that originate the designs, and even helping to promote them to as to keep heritage wealth alive and thriving.
We now know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the food we eat counts. It’s becoming increasingly evident that the clothes we put on our backs need to be part of a radically new way of thinking. For the future to look bright, the universe desperately needs conscious designers who will lead the way in ethical fashion production.
Words: Yvonne Lloyd
Header image: courtesy of I See A Different You