In the highlands of the Kingdom of Lesotho, a place often referred to as the “roof of Africa”, the Basotho blanket rules style. Effortless and chic, this rustic woollen garment is named after its people - the Basotho or Sotho, who settled in Lesotho around the 16th century and are one of the major ethnic groups within South Africa. Both beautiful and functional, the Basotho blanket is popular amongst all classes of society – from miners and herdsmen to the King and Queen of Lesotho.
In this photographic series shot in 2013, Swiss photographer Joël Tettamanti, who spent part of his childhood in Lesotho, created portraits of the local Basotho men and women wearing their blankets. “It’s totally part of their culture. It’s their outfit and their traditional outfit”, says Tettamanti. In the cold winter climate of these mountains above 1,000 metres in altitude, the signature Basotho blanket is an essential staple of their daily wardrobe, warm and protective against the elements, as well as a representation of the cultural pride of its people.
For the men, the blanket is usually worn as a cape, while women tend to wrap it around their body and fasten it at the shoulders or around their waists. Design details and colours are rich in meaning and symbolism, such as corn symbolising wealth and fertility.The Basotho blanket is also a status symbol, marking important stages in life. The blankets are gifted for occasions such as birth, initiation ceremonies into adulthood and marriage.
But the blanket’s origins aren’t indigenous. Quite the contrary in fact – it was back in 1860 when King Moshoeshoe I was gifted a thick European blanket by the British that this piece of clothing really took off. Since then, the blanket has become part of every day life in Lesotho, replacing the animal skins and furs traditionally worn. The original blanket design consisted in four vertical pin-stripes, which is said to have originated in an early manufacturing flaw. Over time, it became the Basotho blanket’s signature, although a multitude of different designs are also now being produced.
“Times are also changing”, comments Tettamanti, “there is a bigger and bigger divide between the traditional and modern. In Maseru, there is the hip-hop style, while in the Maloty mountains, there are the herd-boys with their kobo [Basotho blanket]…now the synthetic blankets are becoming more popular because they are cheaper. I also shot some, to show that they exist.”
While these blankets can now be found around Johannesburg’s Ntemi Piliso Street and a South Africa-based company (Aranda Textile Mills Ltd) owns the exclusive rights to produce Basotho blankets, the garment has also caught the Western fashion world’s eye. It’s been turned into a fashion accessory, appropriated and reinterpreted on the catwalk by major luxury fashion giants such as Louis Vuitton and Burberry.
Check out more of Joel Tettamanti’s photography ➜ www.tettamanti.ch