Dressing Modern Like Our Mothers: Dress, Identity and Cultural Praxis in Oromia by Peri M. Klemm is a deeply researched and illustrated portrait of the physical adornment and cultural practices of modern Oromia women in and around the ancient trade center of Harar, Ethiopia. This nonfiction treatise covers the history and modern variations of body art amongst these women, as a means of more deeply understanding the historical and cultural significance of these practices. The author, who has spent several stretches of time living and studying in Ethiopia on specifically these topics, brings a wealth of information culled from hours of recorded interviews and observation, as well as review of documents and collections of artifacts.
In the book’s introduction the author frames her interest in the topic: “Within Ethiopia, Oromo women have lived with the uncertainties of drought, war, political unrest, food shortage, land scarcity, and personal insecurity for several generations. . . .These same women, both young and old, adorn themselves with a rich repertoire of body art.” She notes that the Oromo are among the poorest people in Africa. She then posits a question which, at least in part, seems to drive her curiosity, “I began to wonder why women who were so economically disadvantaged spent so much time, energy, and resources on their personal appearance.”
Her question surprised me. As a reader without an academic background in this field, it seemed natural that a group of women—regardless their economic status—would take great care with their hair, jewelry and dress, and that events of ceremonial and spiritual significance would be times when extra care would be taken. In my experience this isn’t unique to the Oromo. Nonetheless, the author’s points are well taken and she has clearly amassed a unique store of photographs and real-life examples from the conversations she was able to record during her conversations with the Oromo via an interpreter.
The book is divided into two parts. The first charts a two-hundred year period in the history of the Oromo and how political, economic, and social changes have been reflected in jewelry, hair styles and adornments, clothing, and skin markings. These are much more than mere changes in “fashion.” For example, changes in clothing, hair, and jewelry may reflect the disintegration of indigenous cultures, the introduction of Islam, or the need to disguise indigenous traditions. The book’s second half hones in on the significance of dress and adornment in the various facets and phases of women’s lives, such as coming of age, marriage, and during spiritual ceremonies.
Dressing Modern Like Our Mothers will be of significant interest to scholars in the field of the cultural and historical significance of dress, with particular emphasis on the Oromo of Ethiopia. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is the idea that embedded within these modes of adornment is a wealth of coded historical and cultural information about the Oromo, including their means of expressing their personal identity within their own communities. The author has captured the voices and images of individuals who may not otherwise have felt safe—for political reasons and fear for their physical safety—to openly share their cultural identity and heritage.