Style & Substance

Your views are valid, with or without a pantsuit

Words: Modupe Oloruntoba | Photographs: Bevan Davis

Assumptions make the world go round. In an attempt to understand everything around us, we read what we see and try to figure out what it means. Our reasoning is flawed and narrow, as a look at the last few years of liberal politics will tell you, and as we attempt to decolonise thinking and break down patriarchy and make many other important steps forward, I have a perception issue I’d like attended to by the new generation of lobbyists. It’s assumed that intelligent people don’t have much of an interest in things generally considered vain or superficial - things like fashion - and that anyone interested in said things is likely not very intellectual. That’s our flawed reasoning at work, assuming that things that seem incongruous must be mutually exclusive, as if we don’t know how complex and contradictory our personalities and interests can be. Nothing about seeing style as a valid form of self expression diminishes your intellect, but people assume it does. Why are they framed as conflicting interests? I ask because they have never been, at least not to me, and not to these 3 South Africans either.

Former DA opposition leader Lindiwe Mazibuko has always loved a pretty dress, but politics is a field that hasn’t always appreciated one. In a world that should be about nothing but good, effective policy that serves people well, Mazibuko found herself doing what everyone in that domain has to in order for their point of view to be respected and valued: she put on the socially acceptable uniform of trustworthy leadership.

Out went her curated collection of beautiful local designer clothing (like this Kluk CGDT dress), filled with the colours and intricate patterns she has such a great eye for choosing, and in came the grey, blue, and black polyesters and wools, with plain cuts favoured by leaders the world ‘takes seriously’. Funnily enough, the expectations were reversed with beauty - she found that she was expected to wear makeup to appear professional, even though she didn’t particularly enjoy it. While she didn’t feel her voice was stifled, it was clear that her views were only welcome if they came packaged according to convention. In her new world, academics, there's a lot more freedom.

Drawn to medicine by his own childhood doctor, Yanga Madlala is focusing his medical career on emergency medicine and paediatrics. Left to himself, he might have studied music (another interest often thought to belong outside of the realm of respectable professions) but was encouraged to pursue the safer bet.

He started a style blog with friend and fellow practitioner Sivu Madikana after they met during their internship, where he shared his eccentric, experimental approach to fashion with the goal of humanising doctors and showing that they’re as multidimensional as anyone else. He's not trying to make a statement, he's just wearing what feels good and encouraging others to do the same.

For student activist Yonela Makoba, her amazing sense of style was something she didn’t really think about - she just never stopped playing dress up. It wasn't about costuming a character, but rather documenting a journey of self discovery in the clothing she wore, for no other reason than that she enjoyed it. With the rise of the Fees Must Fall movement and the many social issues it shined a light on, getting dressed very quickly became political.

Suddenly she was thinking about what she wore to protests and how to reclaim her body as a neutral personal space instead of the feminist battlefield it became simply by her walking out the door in a skirt. An expert thrift shopper, she found that wearing clothes with a history that was disconnected from her chaotic reality was a form of escape. That, along with learning to create boundaries for self care, allowed her to enjoy clothes again the way she used to.

Lindiwe, Yanga, and Yonela are all proof that valid views and real contributions to the world can come in a frilly skirt or a loud shirt, and should be received with the same respect as if they came packaged as expected. After all, a grey suit doesn't always house integrity or intelligence - that's evident in global and local politics and business (do I really need to name names?). So how about we stop putting people in boxes? I know it’s something we’ve been working on for years, but it seems there are categories that went unchecked. I’m tired of hiding and defending my interest in fashion. I’m not an airhead because I love (and understand) something you’ve decided to trivialise. I’m complex, we all are, and we should all get that by now.