In defence of fashion rebels

2010-09-10 00:00

IN 1994, after the African National Congress was voted into office by an overwhelming majority, the then president of the ANC, Nelson Mandela, had to be inaugurated as the president of the country. As presidential inaugurations go, Mandela’s office was a hive of activity.

Barbara Masekela and Jessie Duarte, who were working in Mandela’s office at the time, had one small issue to deal with. What was Mandela going to wear during his inauguration. They gave him many suggestions, even suggesting that he wear a tuxedo, which he expressly refused to do. Eventually, he settled for a black suit which the world saw him wearing.

Even though he succumbed to the pressures of his office for the purpose of his inauguration, his unease with what is considered a presidential look, gave birth to what are now commonly known and widely accepted as Madiba shirts. Before that, it would have been considered disrespectful of the highest office for the president to wear such casual shirts. Mandela did it any­way, and it is common knowledge that he will go down in history as one of the most successful and respected heads of state the world has known. This, despite him not being a slave to “dignified” garments.

The question is, what is in the clothes that we wear? Better still, who sets the rules as to what is proper and acceptable wear for a particular office or position? There are so many people who walk around uncomfortably looking like penguins in black tie just because somebody someone decided that CEOs, company executives, government senior officials and even political principals need to look a certain way. Whose interests does our wearing of pinstripes suits and stilettos at the workplace serve, and how will it affect productivity if we decide and dare to look different?

Many of us are slaves to these unwritten rules of workplace engagement. Our society and, by extension, our workplaces have no space for originality and honest identities. This overly bureaucratic workplace culture could be one of the reasons many people don’t enjoy what they do and only wake up in the morning because there are bills to be paid.

If we are allowed to be our authentic selves in our workplaces especially, and elsewhere in society, we would realise that we don’t know the people we think we know, as many people put on a façade to be accepted by a particular class. Because of this pressure to conform, many people have not lived up to their true personalities and true potential.

Richard Branson has proven without a doubt, through his non-conformist outlook and eccentric business practices, that it does not always matter what type of clothes one is wearing for one to be successful and to earn respect. It is difficult to believe that one of the richest people in the world does not even have an upmarket lofty office; instead he operates from the comfort of his home.

I am not advocating for mindless mavericks, neither am I suggesting that people should show up at work in their favourite swim suits. What I am saying is that as a people we are not a homogenous lot, whether we are at work or at play. We need as a society to create space for people to be their true authentic selves.

Maybe our subtle repressing of polyphonic identities, as well as polyphonic viewpoints and ideas, has contributed to the world taking too long to find solutions to some of its persistent challenges. In the same manner that we need to create space and encourage honest individual views in our political discourse, we need to stop overregulating the way we decide to look as individuals. If it is any consolation, we have got Mandela as our number-one fashion rebel.

• Sihle Mlotshwa is an independent social commentator.

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