Highlighting the dress code of power in the political space.
Over the years we have seen how fashion and personal style is important to our political leaders, specifically where masses are being addressed and brand representation is at stake. It was in 1990 when Nelson Mandela appeared wearing a batik shirt to his presidential inauguration. Today the batik is known as the ‘Madiba shirt’. His style set the tone for his friendly personality and diplomatic approach to political affairs, his regime and with time, it was known that Mandela’s fashion was a significant part of his public image, creating an emphasis on his eloquence as a leader.
We don’t often think of the significance of fashion in politics but political parties and their leaders put a lot of thought into their gear to exhibit accurate and powerful regalia for their personal and political identity. Think of how slogan tees speak to social issues. In the 1980s and 90s, t-shirts bearing the faces of struggle warriors like Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and various political catchphrases were a trend of note. They set a clear tone of what the masses were fighting for. The oppressed majority used messages like ‘Away with Bantustans’ and ‘We Remember You Solomon Mahlangu’, emblazoned on t-shirts, to campaign against their oppressors.
Fashion in politics has the ability to create powerful and long-lasting political messages in our national memories. For instance, the colour of red berets is no longer innocent and has been imprinted in our minds as a symbol of working-class values by the EFF party. Their overalls and red berets are now as symbolic and impactful as the raised fist representing black power. Articles have been written about the EFF, bearing headlines like “Just what are the red berets up to now?”.
Whilst on the topic of head-dresses as a fashion item in politics, the headwrap recouped a more powerful meaning in the past few years. Firstly in 2015, when Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) took the frontline wearing an ANC head wrap leading the #FeesMustFall movement. Photographed with her arms in the air, projecting a pose of power, the image went viral on social media attracting women to wear their headwraps in support of the movement.
Another example is when a nationwide stir was caused after eNCA removed their reporter, Nontobeko Sibisi’s video, where she appeared wearing a headwrap. The masses reacted, and soon the hashtags #doek and #Respekthedoek were trending. Many women across the country took to social media to express how corporate spaces are hostile to black South African dress-styles. Women supported Nontobeko by wearing their head wraps and taking pictures, posting them on social media. These are some of the proven events that, a simple garment can be given power when accompanied by determination to be heard and purpose to send out a clear message.
With all the notable trends we’ve seen in the political space, we can comfortably say, no one can underestimate the power of fashion. It sets a tone, mood and simply articulates the spirit and ideologies of a political climate. So, whether their preference is to wear a red beret or your blue hard hat, perhaps a green gold and black leather biker, what they each wear is a symbol of who they are and what they stand for portrayed in style.