Dressing up the African woman

By Kay-Dee Mashile

From the very beginning of time, women have been a fascinating topic of discussion. Yet defining a woman is proving to be mission impossible. From biblical texts when Adam met Eve, the very first woman in recorded history, he seemingly could not find the words to describe her and instead recited a poem about her. Since then, many songs, poems and stories have been written about women, a lot of which are written by men and may be perceived as objectifying. This is by no means surprising as women have been seen as objects of men’s affection and pleasure for centuries. However, feminist and other woman empowerment movements have somewhat managed to liberate women from the legal obligations pertaining to their gender roles and have managed to give women room to express who they are through their individual voices. However, African traditions still seem to hold rigid expectations regarding the role of a woman.

It is an undeniable fact that fashion plays a very significant role in representing the identity of a woman. From a white ball gown representing marriage to a little black dress for special dinners and cocktail parties to a skirt suit for corporate meetings; women seem to have a lifelong journey of playing dress up. While the statement ‘dress how you want to be addressed’ may have been coined for formal settings, it is the everyday reality of many women, particularly the African Woman. Whether she is wearing a miniskirt at the taxi rank, a pair of leggings on Instagram or a pair of pants to church; women are defined by their wardrobe on a daily basis. However, this, like everything under the sun, is not new!

In the 1800s and early 1900s, women used hair and clothing to communicate their status in society. Fashion became the language through which social status and class were articulated throughout the world. In European countries, the elite were as easily distinguished by their attire as they were by their race. Yet, whether rich or poor, women were encouraged to cover up and look “respectable”. While this doctrine is similar in many modern-day African cultures; in some African cultures, such as the Nghuni tribe, young girls were encouraged to walk around in as little as a short skirt and a beaded neck piece. This, particularly in the Zulu culture, is said to be a sign of taking pride in one’s youth (virginity).

In today’s world, however, it is no longer as easy to distinguish between cultures simply by the clothes one wears. The world of fashion clearly reflects the globalised Western notion of dress that can be attributed to colonisation among other reasons. It has thus become even more impossible to define an African woman. Where a white South African woman would consider a black South African woman more African; the black South African woman would consider an East African woman even more African than the both of them. However, cultural attire such as African patterns and prints, beadwork and make-up instantly upgrade any woman’s African cultural status – even if it’s only on social media.

For this and other reasons, holidays such as Heritage Day seem to awaken the African side of most women. However, while fashion places a very important role in the formation and representation of one’s identity, a long skirt and a doek no longer make the perfect package for an African woman. Women have developed the independent right to define themselves otherwise. In today’s world, the African woman’s heritage/custom stretches beyond her ability to bear and rear children in a long dress. With every given and created opportunity, women are redefining their cultures to be more liberal and freeing. This is visible through the revamped African print fashion lines. These fashion trends are a sign of pride in the lessons learned and the values instilled within African women and the drive to use those foundations to build something different. To build a new culture. To pioneer a new heritage. To re-dress the standards through which the African woman is assessed. To do away with the boxes and give African women unlimited room to dress themselves in whatever identity they see fit.

African women have been, and are still going, through a lot. Fashion is the time machine that has carried the evidence of their struggles and victories. Moreover, it is the vehicle that is to drive even more change in the future. So, as women whip out that doek and traditional regalia each year, it is not to say that the calendar calls for them to dress up for a fake role; it is to say that we know who we are, we are aware of the process that brought us here, but we are more than that. We are African – in every sense of the word.

It is said that he who knows not where he comes from is like he who knows not where he is going. Heritage day allows us to dress up our process. It reminds us of the paths we’ve already travelled while encouraging and strengthening us for that which is ahead of us.

Photo credit: Pinterest


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