Jim Naughten is a London photographer whose work, which is mainly portraiture, has a lot to say about costume history. His photographs of WWI and WWII re-enactors in Kent, England (known for their excellent costuming) can feel like time travel, as if he pulled these people from 1917 or 1943 into his studio in the twenty-first century.
Naughten’s other series, Hereros, is part anthropological survey, part portraiture, and a thoughtful clothing study. Colonized by Germany in the late nineteenth century, many regions of Namibia still exhibit visual and cultural trappings of European rule. Most striking to Naughten was the residents’ “Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume,” which he sees as direct result of the former German influence. He gives a brief history of Namibia’s colonization on his website, but as you might have guessed, when Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces entered Namibia, they “introduced” the local tribespeople to their way of dressing.
The Herero people have since taken on this clothing as a source of pride, the women dressed in nineteenth century silhouettes made from twenty-first century fabrics, with the regional/tribal addition of horn shapes to the headpieces to honor the importance of their cattle. The pride in military dress, according to Naughten, originated in the German-Namibian tribal war of 1904; when a Herero man killed a German soldier, he would put on the man’s uniform as a “sign of prowess in battle.” This dress is now used to honor warrior ancestors for festivals and funerals.
Naughten is quick to point out that this is hardly a “documentary of Herero culture.” He notes their “suspension” outside of their homes and communities, posed in a bleak, washed-out landscape. Here, the personality and the costume are the foci, their influence on our perception heightened by the contrast.
“The still space, the direct gaze, the re-appropriated cloth combine to curate a stillness that allows the past to speak.”
Naughten will publish a book of seventy Herero portraits entitled Conflict and Costume in 2013.
Where does this clothing fit into the history of appropriation of dress? Because you cannot escape the question of the gaze when writing about photography, what is its role here? Is the British photographer/African subject relationship important here? Are there similar portrait series you admire (or dislike) that you think our readers should be aware of?
Please leave your comments below!
Thanks to Ariel for the tip!