Fashion Is Dismantling Fragile Masculinity

How creativity chips away at convention and replaces it with possibility

fragile masculinity

Words: Lelo Meslani | Illustration: Ian Skene

Fashion and style are identity markers that can be used to entrench ideas and maintain status quo. We're socialised into the norm of dressing very early – it became part of our subconscious, our way of making sense of things. Those who saw things different were seen as clashing against the operating system creating a sense of unease. Younger men are still struggling with their identities, but fashion has become an escape for many millennials in our country to express themselves and define their own identities, often within different subcultures. Fashion plays an immense role in self-perception and grappling with identity illustrates how important clothing is to the ideas of revolution and gender performance.

So here’s the tea, served the way you like it: masculinity is fragile. No sugar, no milk. Social justice warriors have labelled it as ‘the idea that men must constantly prove their masculinity via aggression, violence or sexual domination’. Lies detected? Zero. This notion affects the way men’s fashion is constructed and perceived and its nothing new. Clothing and styling has been viewed differently since the French Revolution in the 19th century. The upheaval transformed France and its impact reached far beyond its borders. Political and social change spilled into the realm of fashion.

During and after the Revolution, clothes truly made the man, as fashion became a tool for making political statements. Men dressed like commoners regardless of their status so as to save their necks from the guillotine. The shift to democratic ideology from the monarchy required a disavowal of aristocratic symbols. Lace cuffs, frills, pale pastels, high heels, big wigs, knee breeches – the style of the French nobility also got the chop in favour of egalitarian restraint. The fashion revolution that followed the storming of the Bastille presented masculinity as rugged and with toned down looks. This further reinforced the masculine dissociation of the softness that was attached with frills, cuffs and being 'pretty'.

The ideologies of the West infiltrated the African portrayal of men through the lens of culture, race, identity and fashion. These lenses are historically intertwined in a complex web of colonial hegemony and institutionalised othering for which the ramifications are still felt in our contemporary local fashion industries. It’s important to open up the conversation around contemporary identities of black men and the disconnect between self-expression and upbringing.

The internet has made it easier to explore masculinity, allowing black men to connect and share their own experiences. Thanks to social media, blogs, fashion content on TV and print media there’s a new wave of black youth who are breaking out of the box and authentically expressing how they feel. The new African movement is distinct and the world is watching. An emerging group of young menswear designers are becoming the fashion vessels of non-binary and gender-fluid identities in Africa. The collections of Nao Sarati, Thebe Magugu, Rich Mnisi and Adebayo Oke-Lawal are perfect examples of works that are harnessed as storytelling devices, telling tales of displacement and diaspora.

Our young designers, stylists and photographers are engaging with race and politics in an impactful way. Daniel Obasi, a stylist and art director from Nigeria, recently collaborated with Orange Culture’s Adebayo Oke-Lawal to create a fashion lookbook for global fashion platform OXOSI. The work is a beautiful depiction of gender diversity and queerness, an illegal and punishable offence in Nigeria. Local fashion designers are shedding light on the history of blackness, as shaped by the white gaze, and bending the rules defined by their own cultures. Artists are also presenting a fresh and unrestrained vision of what masculinity, and indeed black masculinity, could look like. Young creatives are challenging systems of repression by refocusing the black male in the centre of an image – a nuanced subject rather than a stereotype. 

Having lived in both Johannesburg and Durban, I've experienced a vast difference in the way men view their own identities. Durbanites are deeply invested in traditional cultural norms. Men are more conservative. There’s a lane created for them and it’s either they stay in it, or become disowned by their families, communities or society. The stereotype of the Zulu man there is typical – you have to be a strong family man, respect your culture and be a provider. I often found creative spaces there to be bleak because the status quo is as good as law. The move back to Johannesburg made me realise how expressive and free young men can be. There’s a melting pot of different people. It's a cosmopolitan city that is culturally reflexive and bursting at the seams with creativity. Every person in the city has something to learn from the next, which is why stylist Ib Karama painted the perfect picture of black possibility and reconstruction of African portrayal in his visit to the city. His collaborations with different creatives have weaved new narratives around male bodies in their own spaces. From the city to the township, Karama creates a platform for those whose existences are regularly ignored.

We’re now at a stage where the levels of expression and creativity emanating in the country are allowing black men to show emotion, to be vulnerable and to be ‘sad boys’ without being judged and dismissed. This is part of a greater struggle for our freedom of expression to be a norm – regardless of race, gender or sexuality. The future looks incredibly exciting as creativity chips away at stifling conventions and replaces them with flourishing possibilities of being. Abandoning toxic masculinity could allow more men to become who they ought to be without the backlash of society and norms.

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