Freedom Through Fashion: A South African Legacy

Red Mosiane's exploration of our social politics through style

Freedom Through Fashion: A South African Legacy

More South Africans use fashion as an economic, racial and social marker unlike anywhere else in recent history. This is strangely a concept that doesn’t filter through to conversations about our sartorial style as much as it should. And at even a glance back at our past, fashion has long provided a sense of liberation for black people, an expression that’s resulted in each generation leaving its own stamp of style iconography, over the decades.

The 1950’s saw the apartheid government-imposed forced removals sweep through the country. Black, coloured and Indian South Africans were evicted from urban parts of cities and moved to the outskirts and Bantustans, in accordance with the Group Areas Act. This resulted in the birth of Sophiatown which came with Kofifi style – one of the most epic fashion eras in South Africa. A multicultural hub that brought together people from many different places and fostered an intense cultural exchange, the impact of Sophiatown shapes our fashion and popular culture even to this day.

Characterised by rich beading, vibrant colours, shiny fabrics, feminine silhouettes and textured suiting for men, Kofifi style was akin to the African-American jazz movement of Harlem New York in the 50s. Global icons who were products of the era, like Mariam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Hugh Masekela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela carried that look and sound into the next generation.

The years that followed were heavily informed by the spreading political unrest, particularly the youth taking arms and forming ANC's armed wing Umkhonto Wesizwe in 1961 after the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. A time where leaders like Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela were made. 

The way in which black South Africans chose to dress mimicked the youth's increasing political defiance. Looking at the styles that dominated that time, the themes of struggle and war were prevalent, leading to the popularity of military-inspired fabrics and designs. And so, even as liberation came onto the horizon, one of its early signals was fashion. 

The beginnings of another renaissance in local pop culture came in the 90s, where fashion mirrored the hopes of a nation. As Kwaito music dominated the charts and hip-hop got a South African twist – with bands like Boom Shaka, Prophets of the City and Abashante – the style of dressing became more playful and experimental. At a time characterised by box braids, crop tops, platform shoes and PVC, streetwear was also filtering into the mainstream as groups like Trompies and Mashamplani opted for looks that featured chinos, ispoti (bucket hats) and Converse Chuck Taylors. Putting brands like Dickies, Magents and FILA on the map, later joined by the likes of Ellesse, Loxion Kulcha and such. 

Today's Gen-Z, also known as “Born Frees”,  is a generation that's now coming of age and continuing the legacy of leaving a style mark (Gen-Z Yellow, anyone?). They too are finding their place through style, having grown up under the influence of stars like Pam Andrews and Khanyi Mbau as early childhood memories and the extreme globalisation of the 2000s.

South Africans have never been more exposed to the workings of global societies, and had local dialogues begin and accelerate on such a scale. This current generation of digital natives has access to sources of information that only white and privileged people were privy to. As a collective, we have spent more time dissecting issues around race, gender roles, masculinity, sexuality, tradition and cultures, etc. than any generation before us, while also witnessing what is happening in societies outside of our borders firsthand. All of which does not exist in a vacuum, the South African youth's considered approach to how we contribute to society is changing both the world and ourselves. Even the aesthetics we now gravitate towards reflect this. While classism may still be a thing, we are diving further into creating inclusive spaces where individuals can express their respective beliefs, aspirations and lifestyles – a fact that is evident in how graded the range of style tribes that you're likely to spot is.

We are seeing more localised versions of global cultures happening here as well, but this time with a wider adoption rate because of the internet. Like, for instance, how Afrocentric style has evolved and the new way in which the likes of Sho Madjozi incorporate dressing in traditional garb into their daily lives. Tapping into a wider conversation happening in the diaspora (as seen with the popularity of Black Panther), her fashion has been credited for showing a moment in time when South African youth have an increased interest in African consciousness and nationalism. 

With the embracing of gender fluidity, fashion is also being used to accelerate a conversation that has always been left on the periphery of society, members of the LGBTQI+ community are not as sidelined anymore. Even though gay marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006, homophobia is still quite intense and queer representation is still problematic. However, we are seeing a growing engagement around widening the spectrum of conversation where LGBTQI+ experiences are concerned. A lot of queer activists around the country are making their voices heard and affecting change. A discussion that often gains mass public engagement every time the IAFF question Caster Semenya's gender identity. Most South Africans probably still don't have the vocabulary to correctly articulate anything remotely non-binary, but the increased visibility of the black queer community and even those primarily popular on digital platforms, like Nakhane and FAKA, are only educating this generation further.

South African youth are in a position to completely reshape our country by continuing what is arguably our nation’s greatest legacy: rebellion. Although the struggles are different, each generation continues to take every opportunity to make our nation better while communicating the need for change and freedom for all, through fashion.

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