Fashion history repeats itself

2011-04-30 08:09

When most people ponder the 1950s, they immediately think Sophiatown, jazz music and the rise of urban black culture.

But for those truly in touch with their fashion history, it is an era that will be remembered as the decade of the ­“imbokodo”, a truly iconic time in the lives of South African women.

On August 9 1956, the apartheid government learned not to mess with women. After years of enforcing the dompas law on men, the government tried to enforce the same law on ­women.

That prompted 20 000 women from all races to don their finest clothes and march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against pass laws.

Many of these women – Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Rahima Moosa, Ruth First, Charlotte Manye Maxeke, Winifred Kgoare, Ellen Khuzwayo and others – joined the Federation of South African Women (formed in 1954) and the African National ­Congress Women’s League to organise the massive protest march.

The protest was conducted with dignity and style when the women, in true heroine fashion, simply stood in silent protest for 30 minutes while ­delivering petitions covered with ­signatures to the then prime ­minister’s office.

Underlying all this political unrest was a rich cultural era that saw the rise of many of today’s struggle icons as well as Sophiatown, which became a melting pot of black urban culture.

For many, this was the birthplace of local fashion, literature, arts and jazz music (influenced somewhat by America).

Music icons Hugh Masekela, ­Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi, Johnny Gertze, Dolly Rathebe, ­Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks all honed their talents at the “it” spot, the Odin Theatre.

None of them would have dreamt of leaving their houses without ­looking their absolute best from head to toe.

Before she passed away, Makeba ­expressed a wish to design a 1950s clothing line to add to the glamorous dresses she was often pictured in.

Even political activists such as Ruth First and Winnie Mandela were often pictured dressed to the nines, whether they were going to a march or making a court appearance.

Says fashion editor of True Love magazine Mbali Soga: “The 1950s might have been dark times in our ­political history, but the fashion laid the foundation for many silhouettes found in today’s designs.”

Dressing smart was the only way to go. Women dressed like ladies – more often than not in dresses – and men dressed like gentlemen. The skirts and dresses were always knee-length, while a string of pearls, a ­fascinator or a hat, heels and gloves helped to complete the look.

Says designer David Tlale: “This era celebrated femininity and the 1956 women’s march helped solidify ­women’s presence in local politics, which they participated in while ­looking feminine.”

Tlale believes the look has made a huge comeback in many designers’ collections.

“The era has influenced recent trend colours, dress lengths, volume of fabric, styles and accessories, where you find skinny belts cinched around dresses with swing skirts.”

One of the most notable fashion houses with a heavy 1950s influence is Stoned Cherrie, whose line is mostly taken from the 1950s silhouette of high-waisted pencil skirts through to swing dresses.

Stoned Cherrie founder Nkhensani Nkosi says: “The 1950s were fiery, ­vibrant and exuberant. Icons such as the late Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe exuded this robustness in their personalities and their music. The clothes they wore flared, hugged and swirled cheekily onto the stage as patrons in groovy shebeens and clubs twirled and twisted in time to vibrant music tunes.

“Stoned Cherrie is inspired by these celebratory tones that were undercurrent at a time when South Africa prepared for war pre-Rivonia Treason Trial, pre an exodus of talent into exile. In present-day South Africa, we are undergoing ­cultural revolutions as we attempt to find our own expressions of what it is to be South African.”

Designers at both the recent Joburg and South Africa fashion weeks showed their personal takes on the 1950s look – from Thula Sindi-inspired Mad Man-esque pencil-style frocks and rich-in-fabric swing skirts to Abigail Betz’s ultraglamorous ­“afternoon tea” dresses. David Tlale ­also showed tweed suits with ruffled shirts while the ever-elegant Kluk CGDT stuck to classic, evening wear-style 1950s dresses.

One thing that differentiates the style of the 1950s from any other fashion eras is the fact that it is a style accessible to more women.

Not every woman can pull off a hot-pink mini, but every woman can sure work a knee-length swing-skirt dress. Agreed?

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