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December 2008 - The evolution of the Xhosa Marriage Apron

Good day to you.

Thank you again for visiting my website and for subscribing to the  African Beadwork Connection  newsletter.

This newsletter will focus on proving some insight into the use of traditional marriage aprons or "incebetha" by the Xhosa people (The Xhosa people are a large ethnic group in Southern Africa that settled in the Eastern Cape, a province of predominantly rolling hills and grassland in South Africa about 800 years ago).


1Antique Beadwork - African Beadwork

2Antique Beadwork - African Beadwork

The traditional marriage aprons or "incebetha" (from here on simply called a marriage apron) was and still is, used as an indicator as to the marital status of a Xhosa woman and indicates to the world that the wearer is a married woman (I guess in the same way as a wedding ring would indicate to the world whether or not a woman is married - in western culture).

Over the last 150 years, the marriage apron has evolved from the style depicted in “picture 1” to the type shown in “picture 2”.

The earlier version such as that depicted in picture 1, was commonly used by Xhosa woman during the 19th century. It consists of many strings of large glass “seed beads” usually threaded on animal sinew, attached to a leather collar which was tied around the woman’s neck – the strings of beads then draped down in a cascade over her breasts and down to her stomach. It is extremely rare to find these marriage aprons in the rural areas today, as they generally disappeared from everyday use around 100 years ago (roughly around the end of the 19th century).

The old style of marriage apron was replaced by the type shown in picture 2 i.e. made from creamy-white cotton-sheeting, or "ibayi" material. Even the latter type has become increasingly difficult to find in the rural areas today, owing to very rapid westernization.

These days it is rare to see a woman in the rural areas wearing a marriage apron as part of her everyday dress. Occasionally for a special event, semi-traditional dress might be worn by one or two women of the village and this could include a marriage apron, but generally the apron would be mixed with Western-style clothing…. consequently losing some of the effect of this unique piece of traditional dress. 

Details of the "incebetha" depicted in picture 1

The marriage apron was collected in 2008 from a woman who was born in 1929. It had been made and worn with pride by her grandmother who had passed away in 1934. That would put the most likely date of manufacture of the piece, at about 1880.

The fact that this piece survived for more than a century is almost miraculous, especially when one considers that it is common practice among traditional Xhosa-speakers not to preserve items such as beadwork once the owner has passed away.

There is a painting by the well known South African artist, F I'Ons, dated 1847, of a Xhosa woman wearing an apron / breast-cover very similar to this one.

Details of the "incebetha" depicted in picture 2

As stated above, the "incebetha" were made from creamy-white cotton-sheeting, or "ibayi" material, usually decorated in some way with fine black braid or even some glass “seed beads.”

The example shown in picture 2 has some interesting designs worked into the piece using a type of very fine black braid, decorated with 6mm pressed glass beads as a fringe The piece was most likely made in the 1950's or early 1960's.

Both of these "incebetha" are available for sale and would be sold together as a “collection.” Should you be interesting in purchasing these unique items, please contact us via email on


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