Fear and clothing: Lessons in dressing as resistance
A weekly column on the vagaries and charms of fashion
Sometime in the 1990s Winnie Madikizela Mandela decided to come to Wits and follow some lectures. To a starstruck white girl who felt shortchanged to have missed the struggle due to youth she seemed like legend made manifest. She would enter the lecture theatre with a theatrical swoop. Professor Snape had nothing on Winnie’s swoop. She would occupy the entire front row. It was a given.She always had several deferential young men in tow (possibly the football club, but who knows). They would sit in a protective phalanx around her, a guard of honour who would also double up as messengers from the goddess. They would hand-deliver her observational notes to the lecturer as he found himself midstream. The prof would pause, promptly answer her query and continue. She was the queen of everything. No question.Whatever people say about her, and much has been said in these sad days following her death, she was marvellous in the flesh. A supernova. Her charisma entered a room before her and held everyone in thrall, even if all you could see was the back of her turban and her diamante glasses in relief (a look she was sporting excessively at the time).Her stare could be severe; her smile beatific; her history carried with a surprisingly light grace but always present, never to be forgotten. Like a magic mantle draped over her back bestowing innate dignity and a frisson of real power. Here was a woman who understood the significance of her own imagery. Like the suffragettes before her who wore white with symbolic intent, vestal virgins fighting the good fight, Winnie knew her way around clothes as symbols of resistance.She rocked that green, black and yellow outfit of choice for the ANC Women’s League (apparently so did her drapes at home). But her pieces de resistance, quite literally and figuratively, were her traditional ceremonial gowns: a giant thumb in the face of apartheid. Worn to the trial of Nelson Mandela she looked every inch of the queen that she was. The proud African queen.