The Basotho hat, known as the Mokorotlo is the traditional hat worn by Basotho people. It is a national symbol in Lesotho and it is featured on the national flag and vehicle license plates. There is also a building in Maseru (capital city of Lesotho) that is shaped like the hat and is also named the “Mokorotlo” building. Different schools of thought exist on the origin of the straw/grass hat, however today, it’s significant design has set itself apart as a national treasure and symbol of Basotho people of southern Africa. It has evolved from predominately being worn by men, to also incorporate women in recent decades.
About the Mokorotlo
The Mokorotlo hat is a significant Basotho symbol both as a national treasure in Lesotho and an iconic traditional symbol worn by mostly men, but in recent years by women too.
A mokorotlo is a type of straw hat made from grass and it is used to compliment traditional clothing in the Basotho culture in South Africa and mostly in Lesotho. According to All Things Lesotho Tumblr the mokorotlo name is derived from the word “korotla” which means an expression of disagreement. Matters or cases were ruled by tribal chiefs in customary practices and often when the chief would take off his hat, it was a sign that the judgement was about the to be presented (All Things Lesotho Tumblr).
The cone shaped design of the Mokorotlo is believed to be inspired by the conical mountain Mount Qiloane, a conical mountain close to Thaba Busiu.
Origins of Mokhorotlo
There are many schools of thought on the origins of the Mokorotlo Hat. One such, is the Museum of Applied Arts & Science (MAAS) who believe that the Mokorotlo was first made in Lesotho between 1980-1998. Furthermore, MAAS also indicates that the design of the hat appeared around the 1930s. It’s forerunner was worn in the early 1900s by tribal chiefs who used to chant a song called ‘mokorotlo’ as they made their way to court.
The recognition of the mokorotlo as a national symbol in Lesotho, grew with it’s association with royalty and key political parties and figures who began to wear it to functions in the 1950s and 1960s to political rallies and functions. When Lesotho gained its independence in 1966 (4 October 1966- also known as Day of Lesotho), the mokorotlo was chosen as a symbol of the new Independent Flag of Lesotho (MAAS).
Evolution of Mokorotlo in Basotho culture
Previously the mokorotlo hats were exclusively worn by men, as mentioned earlier they were worn by tribal chiefs in courts. However, the current designs of the hats grew popular and resulted in a change as women began to manufacture these hats for sale to Europeans (Review of Southern African Studies Volume 3 No. 2 December 1999, pp. 37-60) The hats grew in popularity within Lesotho and today, the Basotho people are some of the fond customers of these hats.
Another factor that resulted in the popularity of the hats, despite the political figures and tourists being fond of the hats, was rather their association with the Founder of Lesotho – King Moshoeshoe. Even though King Moshoeshoe was already deceased when the hats were first introduced, the process of associating the hats with him further entrenched the hats as sign of nation pride and identity in Lesotho.
Today, we have seen the hats evolve in fashion, with designers using the same conical shaped mokorotlo design, but making it with fabrics such as the Basotho blanket and wool.
If there’s anything that you take away from this article, it should be that fashion is forever evolving and only the present can shape the next few decades for us.
Until next time, invest in your culture.