Clothes maketh a Man(dela)

2014-11-16 20:00

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There’s no doubt Nelson Mandela’s face is among the most recognisable in the world – and his shirts are so famous, they have their own exhibition.

Those Famous Shirts, opening this week at the Circa Gallery in Johannesburg, will display a collection of nearly 30 shirts that became almost as famous as the man himself.

In archival footage from the exhibition, Madiba acknowledges his sartorial sense of purpose.

“I’ve always [heard] statements [like] clothes maketh the man. But I never knew the real meaning of [that statement] until I was arrested. Then I was asked to strip naked. There were chiefs, there were professors, there were ministers of religion. Then, when I looked at them, I realised, indeed, clothes maketh the man.”

In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, maverick fashion designer Marianne Fassler explains how identity and fashion exist alongside each other to define us at a certain time, place and space in our history.

“At its best and most innovative, fashion is a reflection of change, not a cause of it,” writes Fassler.

Visitors to the exhibition will get a look at shirts from the Richmark Collection, which were painstakingly gathered during the course of the former statesman’s public life.

There are shirts he wore before going to prison and on his release, more formal shirts for earlier addresses and, finally, those remarkable shirts that broke all the rules.

In a legendary act of aesthetic anarchy, he famously refused to don a tie for his first engagement with Queen Elizabeth, breaking with a centuries-old dress code.

That look was called Madiba Smart and appeared on invitations to events held with Tata around the world – a dress code all of its own.

Fassler sums it up perfectly: “By wearing a shirt, Madiba was telling us that he was going to change us all … all the institutions, all the ingrained, meaningless protocols … and break down the barriers between us.”

Those Famous Shirts runs at Circa Gallery, 2 Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg, from Wednesday to January 24 next year.

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