The term “cache-sexe” refers to a covering for the female genitals. The term is derived from the French cacher, which means to hide, and sexe, which means genitals. Other terms used synonymously are modesty apron, marriage apron, modesty skirt, loincloth, string skirt, and girdle. The choice of term appears to be related to the country of origin or discipline of the observer. In this case, “cache-sexe” appears to be the term used in those areas of the African continent that were colonized by the French, such as the region from western Mali to southern Cameroon. Cache-sexe are used throughout much of West Africa and parts of East Asia, where the term modesty apron is more commonly used. In short, a wide variety of terms are employed to describe an article of dress that offers insight into the life ways of women in some small-scale societies.
Cache-sexe are constructed of a variety of materials including woven fabric, leather, beads, leaves, and metals. For example, cache-sexe created by the Kirdi (Fulani) women in northern Cameroon are skirts beaded with a fantastic range of colors. Cowry shells and brass beads ornament and give weight to the fringe. Cowry shells originate in the Maldive Islands, off the western coast of India, indicating Kirdi linkages to long distance trade. Cache-sexe are worn low on the hip and tied with a cord. Regardless of materials, the skirts measure approximately twelve to eighteen inches in length and twenty to twenty-two inches in width, excluding the cord.
The cache-sexe can be traced to the Paleolithic period, where stone carvings of fecund women, such as the Venus of Lespugue, depict panels of string fore and aft. String skirts dating from the fourteenth century B.C.E. have been uncovered in burial sites in Denmark. These skirts are wool, also ride low on the hip, fall to just above the knees, and wrap around the body twice. The cords of the skirt are thickly plied and knotted at the bottom, so that the skirt “must have had quite a swing to it” (Barber, p. 57). One of the oldest African examples of cache-sexe is described as a girdle from twelfth-century Mali. It can be described as a three-layer belt with very long fringes. The inner bark of the baobab tree is believed to be the source of the strands of fiber, which are plaited and twined into a solid chevron pattern. Its manufacture is closely related to the techniques used to produce snares, nets, and baskets. This specific article of dress is significant because it was once believed that dress was introduced to sub-Saharan Africa by the spread of Islam. However, this object predates the expansion of Islam and is made of local, not imported, materials.
Cache-sexe appear to be exclusive to females. When and how a woman wears a cache-sexe varies from society to society. In some, a girl begins to wear the skirt after menarche; in others menarche is recognized by a change from a small leather panel skirt to a fringed skirt that wraps all the way around the body. In visual sources of information, cache-sex are part of an ensemble that includes necklaces or supplements to the nose. In parts of New Guinea and Irian Jaya, women use knitted net bags that hang from a strap across the forehead. In twentieth-century images women can be seen wearing brassieres, T-shirts, and blouses.
Female informants report that protection from the environment is the main reason they wear cache-sexe. However, because of the open styling of the of the skirt, either as panels hanging in front and back or as fringes, it may be less effective as physical protection than as spiritual protection. For example, in Papua New Guinea, the Doni believe that ghosts can attack vulnerable areas like the anal opening. Articles of dress with ritual power, such as the cache-sexe, are used to protect, if not actually conceal, the lower body against evil.
Like the penis sheath, one function of the cache-sexe was thought to be modesty. A more likely interpretation of this act of dressing has more to do with fulfilling a group aesthetic about standards of public appearance. Not wearing a cache-sexe is a visible statement of a woman’s inability or unwillingness to participate in social interaction, as when ill or in mourning.
Indeed, the main function of the cache sexe, like the penis sheath, appears to be one of drawing attention to the female secondary sex characteristics by intermittently concealing them. In her contemplation of Paleolithic string skirts, Barber states:
To solve the mystery of why they were [worn], I think we must follow our eyes. Not only do the skirts hide nothing of importance, but also if anything, they attract the eye precisely to the specifically female sexual areas by framing them, presenting them, or playing peekaboo with them…. Our best guess, then is that string skirts indicated something about the childbear-ing ability or readiness of a woman, … that she was in some sense “available” as a bride. (p. 59)
Thus, the cache sexe, by any other name, is exclusively a female symbol. Like the penis sheath, it is more than a covering or a display. It is a unique form of material culture that draws one in to an understanding of the physical, social, and aesthetic life of women in some small-scale cultures.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994.
Heider, Karl G. “Attributes and Categories in the Study of Material Culture: New Guinea Dani Attire.” Man 4, no. 3 (1969): 379-391.
Hersey, Irwin. “The Beaded Cache-Sexe of Northern Cameroon.” African Arts 8, no. 2 (winter 1975): 64.
O’Neill, Thomas. “Irian Jaya: Indonesia’s Wild Side.” National Geographic 189, no. 2 (February 1996): 2-34.
Steinmetz, George. “Irian Jaya’s People of the Trees.” National Geographic 189, no. 2 (February 1996): 35-43.
Symonds, Patricia V. Calling the Soul: Gender and the Cycle of Life in a Hmong Village. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.