In this lesson, students will:

  • Assess and understand the value of fashion as sources for studying history and cultures.
  • Learn to analyze a fashion piece as a historical object.
  • Evaluate the use of symbolism in OvaHerero fashion styles.
  • Consider the role of fashion as a political or cultural statement.
  • Design their own fashion piece using symbolism.

This lesson is part of the full Choices curriculum unit Confronting Genocide: Never Again? However, you do not need the unit to do this lesson.

Required Reading

Students should have read The OvaHerero-Nama Genocide.


A projectable slideshow of the clothing styles used in this lesson
Video: Fashion Against Forgetting from Deutsche Welle (transcript)
Video: What can the study of textiles, dress, or fashion tell us about history and current events? (Kate Irvin)
Video: How do we analyze an item of clothing? (Kate Irvin)
Video: Analyzing an item of clothing (Kate Irvin)
Handout: Analyzing a Fashion Piece
Handout: Sketching a Fashion Piece

Note: The ability to project the slides or to examine them on computers will enhance students’ ability to analyze the pieces more closely. Additionally, it may be best to do this activity over two (or more) classroom periods. On the first day, students could go through steps 1-5 of “In the Classroom,” and on the second day, design their fashion piece (step 6), and for homework, write their artist statement (step 7). In addition, to save time in the classroom, you might also wish to assign step 2 as homework before doing the activity. 

In the Classroom

1. Spark Curiosity: Ask students to have a look at what they are wearing and think briefly about why they chose what they did, or why they purchased the items they are wearing. Create a mind map on the board together, starting with the word “clothing” in the middle, and ask students to contribute their ideas. Encourage students to identify themes in their responses, such as “protection from the weather” or “style” or “message/meaning.” If students have difficulty going beyond the physical use of clothing, ask them to think about clothing styles in different cultures with which they might be familiar. Why do different cultures have different clothing styles? 

2. Understand Fashion as Historical Source: Distribute Analyzing a Fashion Piece and play the video What can the study of textiles, dress, or fashion tell us about history and current events? with Kate Irvin, curator of the costume division at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Have students fill out the questions in Part 1 of the handout related to Video 1. Next, play How do we analyze an item of clothing? with Kate Irvin. Students should record the three steps of analyzing an item of clothing on the Video 2 section of the handout. You may wish to pause the video at the indicated points to allow students time to consider and answer the questions. In a third video, Analyzing an item of clothing, Irvin describes the steps to analyze a piece of clothing. Students may find it helpful to see the steps in action.

3. Fashion Analysis: Project the slideshow OvaHerero Fashion and have students fill out Part 2 of the handout Analyzing a Fashion Piece as they view the slideshow. If possible, small groups could do this together while looking at individual screens.

4. Fashion Against Forgetting: Have students read the questions for Part 3 of the handout. Then play the video from Deutsche Welle, Fashion Against Forgetting, and ask students to answer the questions.

5. Group Discussion: Ask students to “put it all together” and synthesize what they have learned from the first four steps. What conclusions can students draw about the role of fashion or dress in telling (or retelling) history? How can items of clothing be used as historical evidence? What questions and answers do they have about the OvaHerero styles in the slideshow? What history did they learn by reflecting on those styles? Do students agree that what we wear often makes a statement? 

6. Sketch a Fashion Piece: Distribute Sketching a Fashion Piece to students. For this section, students can work in pairs, small groups, or individually. 

7. Write an Artist Statement: Have students write their artist statements according to the Sketching a Fashion Piece directions. If possible, display the students’ sketches with their artist statements and invite others to view the collection. 

Extra Challenge

Persuasive Writing: Have students write a short persuasive essay answering the question, “If ‘[clothes] change our view of the world,’ as Virginia Woolf wrote, what view of the world do current OvaHerero dress styles show?” Students should write in the third person, cite evidence from sources they have examined, and reference what they have learned about the role of fashion in telling history, culture, and current events. 

Thank you to the African Studies Center K-16 Education Program at Boston University for their support of this lesson.

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