Notable fashion designer Rich Mnisi has everyone talking about his beautiful eccentric designs, but it was at the hands of homophobia when Twitter user @MbongiThe tweeted about Mnisi wearing skirts and questioned the validity of his masculinity.
Twitter users chimed in and had a lot to say about Mnisi. On two opposing sides, some users felt that Mnisi should be allowed to express his identity any way he felt, while others felt he was not setting a good example for young children.
But when did fashion become gendered? As history would have it, traditional fashion in South Africa has always included skirts. Xhosa men often wear embroidered skirts with beaded necklaces on special occasions, while Zulu men often wear animal skins that resemble skirts or shorts.
These men were still respected and revered in their communities and took the roles of hunters or gatherers – which is often regarded as a fairly masculine role, even in Western society.
Western fashion also has a long history of men in skirts. During the Renaissance, make-up and high heels were men’s fashion, and were worn by men and women highly valued in their societies. Ancient Greeks wore togas, and often the Scottish wore tartan kilts as they provided swiftness and agility in combat.
The introduction of Western fashion into African civilisations was the first time fashion became gendered; men began wearing pants and flat shoes, while women wore skirts and dresses. Society began to frown on the idea that men and women could wear the same clothing.
During the late 2010s, fashion took a blast to the past. Catwalks and runways introduced fashion that did not solidify itself in the gender binary; men were wearing skirts and women were wearing baggier clothing.
Designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Burberry and Ludovic de Saint Sernin included skirts as part of their men’s collections.
While Twitter discourse may seem like harmless banter, it often exposes deeply rooted issues in society; on this occasion it has uncovered toxic masculinity, which can be described as the negative and regressive aspects of exaggerated, typically masculine traits. This phenomenon has been a large attributing factor to homophobia, transphobia and even violence against women.
In a country that stands as the rape capital of the world, with the highest gender-based violence statistics, which include corrective rape, and hate crimes against the LGBTIQ+ community, it becomes important for these traits that solidify themselves in masculine toxicity to be corrected.
Toxic masculinity also has deep personal manifestations, which become harmful to men themselves. It is possible for a man, who chooses to express his masculinity in a toxic way, to suffer from depression, substance abuse, body image issues and risky behaviours which usually tend to put others in harm’s way.
Mnisi chooses to express himself in a way that doesn’t fit the perceived gender binary, much like many members of the LGBTIQ+ community.
People like Mnisi dare to reimagine a world where the freedom of self-expression exists without bias. The danger that looms, based on regressive opinions, is imminent, and the protection of women and members of the LGBTIQ+ community is important. Calling out toxic behaviour may avoid any violence that might be inflicted on marginalised groups.
Phiri is a culture writer at City Press