Dressed for comfort

2009-05-20 20:05
Nelson Mandela in a trademark bright shirt. (File, AFP)

Nelson Mandela in a trademark bright shirt. (File, AFP)

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Johannesburg - A political leader who aims to succeed must be in touch with the needs and aspirations of his followers. On one level he should be part of them, while at another he must set himself apart from the masses.

That's precisely what Nelson Mandela achieved in his dress. His informal style in clothes made him part of the masses, yet the style and material, silk or cotton, of his shirts and trousers immediately put him in a different category, said image consultant Dr Denise Bjorkman.

Mandela used his appearance, which was variously described as simple yet elegant, graceful and stylish, to reflect his determination to play a unifying role in the land. Immediately after his inauguration as president of the democratic new South Africa in 1994, his style electrified the country's fashion conscious.

Politicians, especially the ANC variety, slavishly followed his style of loose-fitting shirts worn over the trousers, often in the green, gold and black of the ANC.

And the garment swiftly became known as the Madiba shirt, which is now its permanent nickname.

Soon after he was sworn-in, Mandela had fashion tongues wagging, while the old guard in Parliament and the provincial legislature grew hot under the collar.

Ethnic, loose-fitting shirts led to heated debate

A Sandton designer in 1994 gushed with admiration for Mandela's "courage" in breaking away from the "norm of how a typical president" should dress. For politicians from the previous dispensation who shared the new dispensation with the vanguard of the ANC, the Madiba style was a bitter experience, especially the way it flew in the face of established parliamentary rules and regulations.

Ethnic, loose-fitting shirts led to a heated debate in the Western Cape provincial legislature in 1996 when Hernus Kriel, the NP premier of the time, proposed that the Speaker should eject five ANC-members because of their style of dress.

Anwar Ismail, NP member of the provincial legislature, went so far as to say that Mandela's shirts made him look like a "coon" (Cape minstrel), and his cutting remark fanned the argument all over again, this time with racial overtones.

The hefty suit-and-tie debate eventually led to a new set of dress rules in the nine legislatures in South Africa, as well as the country's national Parliament. Since then politicians (of all genders) can attend sessions in Madiba-style shirts (and variations thereof) without fear of being ejected.

For fashion experts and columnists the new ethnic appearance of politicians was like a fresh breeze blowing through the (hallowed portals of the) land.

While Afrikaner politicians were criticised for their embellished, grey or stodgy appearance, the new style of political dress of the ANC was described as colourful, imaginative, comfortable and true to the spirit of Africa.

Bjorkman pointed out that Mandela sometimes donned grey suits, especially when he visited international destinations to raise funds to develop and uplift his beloved South Africa.

"He was very aware of his appearance and one could always count on him being impeccably turned-out."

Mandela's easy-going manner, accentuated by his taste in clothing, was sometimes in stark contrast to the style of other heads of state.

No evening suit

Some columnists described Bill Clinton as that grey little man in Calvin Klein suits when comparing him with Madiba.

Duvall said Mandela could walk into an informal dinner and within half an hour all the men in the room would feel overdressed. "That is style."

Yusuf Surtee, who was in jail with Mandela and supplied his clothes, said shortly after the inauguration that Madiba was a special man who enjoyed being different.

He loved shades of khaki when it came to choosing material. Mandela would wear a dark suit on occasion, for important meetings and conventions, but he steadfastly refused to acquire an evening suit.

Even before his meeting with Bill Clinton, when Surtee asked him if he would consider a dress suit for the evening, Mandela said a dark lounge suit and tie "was just as good".

When he married Graca Machel, he preferred a gold-coloured loose fitting shirt over dark trousers to the regulation top-hat and swallow-tail coat.

Clothes made locally

He insisted on one thing, said Surtee: Even though the material might be imported, his clothes had to be made locally.

Some fashion experts, including Surtee, described his style as semi-Western. Others, such as the Beeld ghost-columnist Lood, referred to it as "trans-ethnic", and it was also described as "Euro-ethnic".

One thing was for sure: his style brought a different nuance to the word respectability, other than the ubiquitous jacket-and-tie.

A woman who was at his side for many years, his private secretary Mary Mxadama, said it was important to the big man that people should be able to identify with him. He felt more comfortable in his expansive style than in a constricting jacket and tie.

Just as he was able to reconcile South Africans, he brought a bit of magic to anything he wore.

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RIP Nelson Mandela

2013-12-06 08:36

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