This is Part Three of the series “Fashion at the center of the civil rights movement”.
Africa is the world's second-largest and second-most populous continent, after Asia, it covers 6% of Earth's total surface area and 20% of its land area. With 1.3 billion people as of 2018, it accounts for about 16% of the world's population. Despite a wide range of natural resources, the continent is the least wealthy per capita in large part due to the legacies of the European colonization in Africa.
Africa is a continent with a very high linguistic diversity, there are an estimated 1500-2000 African languages.
All African languages are considered official languages of the African Union. Among the most popular are spanish, english portugese, italian, french, swahili, arabic.
Apartheid was characterized by an authoritarian political culture which ensured that South Africa was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation's minority white population. According to this system of social stratification, white citizens had the highest status, followed by Asians and Coloureds, then black Africans. The economic legacy and social effects of apartheid continue to the present day. Apartheid lasted from 1948 until the early 1990.
Let's Talk About Fashion
During the apartheid in South Africa, women also wore hot pants and stilettos, and their afro looks deliberately to break from tradition. Women activists considered clothing that would show off their figures to be liberating,
Tops, hot pants, and very high heels they could also use as weapons. As expected, they would be confronted violently by the police so they armed themselves with heels. Their awareness of the dual use of their heels says everything about how politics and style went hand in hand during the apartheid era.
Drum Magazine, a South African publication founded in 1951, became an integral part during this time, there were no organizations that focused exclusively on what it meant to be a modern African woman at that time.
Drum described the world of the urban Black; the culture, the color, dreams, ambitions, hopes and struggles.
At first the magazine glamorized gangster culture and sports, and men definitely played an important role, but fashion and shopping were geared towards women. Women were omnipresent in the magazine’s content, their visibility grew in the public, social and political life of the apartheid controlled South Africa. While this didn't represent a black feminist movement, which was emerging in the United States and Britain at the same time, South African women were using the opportunities offered by the black liberation struggle to fight for greater freedoms.
Drum’s message democratized the Afro look empowering women’s struggle for pride, self styling and liberation.
Soul style called “The Afro look” was partiicularly important to South African women because apartheid retricted so many other areas of their lives. It reflected both gender politics of student activists and a vision of african modernity for a burgeoning class for urban women.
Although women shared a taste for the Afro look, it was important for activists to look real black. To make a distinction between non active peers who used wigs, their hair straightened, skin lightening creams and heavy make up, activists incorporated into their message the idea of the “Black is Beautiful” movement which was beginning to resonate in Africa in the 1970’s.
This movement began in an effort to counteract the racist notion in American culture that features typical of Blacks were less attractive or desirable than those of Whites. The cultural movement started in the United States in the 1960s by African Americans.
Given the political stakes of this era, terms such as urban, black, afro, modern and elite which were used to describe women wearing the afro look became a gendered vocabulary of transgression.
While young women were using clothing to challenge tradition celebrating the beauty of their heritage, government officials and older members of the black middle class were condemning these women for breaking with tradition and adopting western forms.
Aparhteid not only centered on economics and politics but also on cultural denigration. People were segregated into impoverished township so clothing was a very powerful way to erase the markers of the township identity which was considered a sign of inferiority.
In some parts of Africa, the clothes and the nightclub lifestyle, was interpreted by elders as the youth and unmarried status. Socialite Marion Morel, who wrote at Drum Magazine's column “Girl About Town’, a source for the latest news on South Africa’s nightlife and fashion scene, once she got engaged, left her post sending the clear message that a married woman's lifestyle should not be of going out at night and dressing in a certain way so she changed her style to the traditional housecoat dress and a head scarf called a doek.
Advertisement would depict women as financially independent. Models, singers and other belonging to the elite and sporting their afro look lifestyle attracted the socially conscious elite and the aspirationals to this lifestyle selling skin lighteners, beauty creams, body mist, etc. As opposed to ads for household items that featured women wearing headscarves and the traditional housecoat.
Throughout Drum’s magazine messages, it encouraged readers to buy from eastern African cotton supporting African made textiles instead of those produced elsewhere. It encouraged readers to make their own afro looks.
Because if you were not into fashion you were not part of the elite. Elite had a different meaning in South Africa than in the western culture. In the west it meant a class marker, in South Africa meant an aspiration, a status that was achievable through styling. High profile models, singers and actors were among the elite in South Africa. Far from being a frivolous pursuit, fashion was part of a monumental shift in the ways Africans perceived and projected themselves.
For example, Swahili women abandoned the kaniki garment associated with poverty and servility of enslavement for the more colorful kanga print which was linked to the abolition of slavery symbolizing freedom and modernity and a new social possibility for the Tanzanian women.
Thoko “Butterfly” Ngubeni, a Soweto socialite featured on the covers of newspapers, was shot to death and decapitated because it was believed that she bought her clothes through illicit activities like prostitution. Her afro style and night life were far from being accepted.
Educated elite women were already a problem for Christian religious leaders, urbanized women like Butterfly were even worse. Because of this scorn women were subjected to, they would live this night lifestyle with their stylish looks but during the day they would dress in the way it was considered respectable.
Another controversial aspect was the mini skirt that caused much debate about its origin. Whether it was from Africa, Europe or the US this exchange put african fashion as a trendsetter.
In Swaziland for example, minis and slacks were prohibited because they lowered public morals. They even had to pay fines if found wearing these garments.
In Tanzania government officials and elders warned women that they risked being beaten or arrested for walking around in their naughty clothes. These attacks and sanctions against women wearing miniskirts continue today.
The afro and styles of fashion not only represented American imperialism but also gendered politics. Traditional rituals were sharply focused on the differences between men and women. Women wearing the afro looks and trousers like men were very troubling.
Because of this or probably despite of it, women found it liberating to wear pants and dress like boys.
In Mali, wearing afros and miniskirts transgressed notions of decency and purity upheld by their religion, islamism.
Model Claire Mawisa, the first model to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan South Africa was probably the first black woman make up artists and hairstylists encountered, they didn't even have foundation to match her skin or the tools necessary to style her hair.
We see to the day underwear brands including more skin tones into their garments to attend to black women's needs.
The second hand clothing industry in Africa is a million dollar business. Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Benin, Uganda and Kenya are among the biggest markets for second hand clothes.
Kenya alone imports about 100,000 tonnes of secondhand clothes a year, providing the government revenues from customs duties and creating tens of thousands of jobs. It also offers quality clothes to Kenyans, many of whom earn less in a month what a pair of new Ralph Lauren khakis costs in the West.
We will speak more about this tomorrow Wednesday.
Liberated Threads, Drum Magazine, Africa News, Nations Online.
Remember to watch episodes one and two of this series on our YouTube Channel.