The story behind Miriam Makeba's swimsuit dress

2014-03-16 14:00

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Lost in music, a 23-year-old Miriam Makeba stands next to a microphone in a skintight dress, the straps falling off her shoulders, her hands on her legs.

Everyone knows Jurgen Schadeberg’s 1955 picture, but what few people know is that Makeba’s frock was made out of swimsuit fabric and was deep, burnt orange in colour.

“I was working as a designer for the Jantzen bathing suit company when friends approached me, saying there were some young musicians who desperately needed outfits for a series of shows,” says the man who made the dress, Eduan Naude.

“Miriam always teased that she would never have become as famous as she did if it wasn’t for that dress – especially once it appeared in Drum magazine.”

Naude this week related the story of the dress to City Press.

In 1955 Makeba, the Manhattan Brothers, Dolly Rathebe and The Nightingales were rehearsing in downtown Joburg at Dorkay House.

Naude was also working downtown, in Eloff Street.

Friends of the budding young stars arranged to use Selborne Hall at the back of the city hall to stage The African Jazz Shows featuring the still-unknown Makeba and her fellow musicians.

“A British couple who were helping them approached me and said they desperately needed costumes. The kids who were singing couldn’t afford new ones. I decided to do Miriam a dress in stretch fabric.”

It was Naude’s cheapest option – he borrowed some bathing suit fabric from the company factory.

“The woman in charge of the factory who gave me the fabric only died two years ago. She would come by my restaurant (the iconic Gramadoelas) and would always say how glad she was she’d helped Miriam.”

“It’s an amazing outfit,” says designer Marianne Fassler, a friend of Naude’s. “It was only many years later that anyone considered using lycra for a dress. And it’s divine how it’s basically modelled on a bathing suit.”

“The bodice is basically a bathing suit, but then it extends into a dress,” said Naude. He remembers attending the concerts which, as far as he recalls, allowed only a white audience in to watch the African jazz pioneers.

“The colour was perfect,” recalls the designer. “It complimented her beautiful coffee-coloured skin.”

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