How Nelson Mandela Harnessed Freedom Through Clothing

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Years after his death, we continue to honor Nelson Mandela for his revolutionary fight against the South African apartheid and his tireless advocacy for African liberation. His approach to political change was controversial in its boldness, but followed a mantra that reigns true even in today’s worldwide movements for racial justice: “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

And an outlaw Mandela was. One of his most effective tools for harnessing his power of dissent, though, is one we often don’t remember him by: his clothing. While Mandela’s prominent words echoed through nations, his sartorial choices quietly amplified them. On the late revolutionary’s birthday, CR MEN chronicles how Mandela transformed himself from a young lawyer to a nationwide symbol of freedom, all through the duality of clothing and politics.

1940s-1950s: Streamlined Suits to be Taken Seriously

The 1940s marked the beginning of Mandela’s political career and early experiences with civil disobedience. While studying law in Johannesburg, he co-founded the African National Congress Youth League to fight segregation and advocate for anti-colonial and African nationalist policies. When the National Party in South Africa came to power in 1948 and began imposing apartheid measures against non-whites, Mandela and the ANCYL hit the ground running with the Defiance Campaign, in which South Africans performed acts of often non-violent civil disobedience. Protestors were arrested, creating a system of large-scale imprisonment.

Crisp suits and ties defined Mandela’s public persona at this point. As the leader of a political entity dissenting against a forceful government, Mandela dressed to be taken seriously in a realm that did not welcome, value, or respect him.

Mandela dressed in the clothing that he saw other lawyers and political figures wearing, perhaps because a suit radiated trust and intelligence–qualities Mandela needed to emulate while attempting to set a new standard for governmental rule. His clothing was empowering in its use as a mechanism for functionality and equality.

1960s: Difference as Power in the Rivonia Trial

After the apartheid regime banned the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela and others took their plans for overthrow underground and began to plan a guerrilla warfare campaign against the current government. Upon returning from a trip in which he garnered support for the armed wing of the ANC, Mandela was arrested in 1962 by South African authorities on charges of incitement and leaving the country illegally.

Mandela and nine other anti-apartheid leaders took the stand against a white supremacist government in what became the world-famous Rivonia Trial of 1963-1964. Following in the footsteps of earlier arrested protestors who refused to defend themselves in a court that already viewed them as guilty, all 10 of the accused pleaded not guilty to sabotage. During Mandela’s speech in court, he explained that his breaking the law to fight apartheid was justified since the laws themselves were unjust.

In Mandela’s biographical sketch from the trial, he is described as wearing a kaross, the traditional outfit of a Xhosa chief, complete with beads around his neck. A far cry from the streamlined suits that conveyed law and order, this cloak-like outfit included a bare exposed shoulder and represented the African tribe to which Mandela belonged.

In this trial, Mandela and his colleagues were complete outsiders, and there was a clear divide between the accused and the accusers. By wearing the traditional dress of his tribe, Mandela emphasized this difference, signifying the entire political mission of the ANC: achieving a world where Black South Africans can be different from white South Africans and still be celebrated and empowered. Just as the Rivonia Trial marked a drastic change in Mandela’s political career, his change in clothing followed suit: he would no longer equalize himself to be taken seriously by white supremacists. He would emphasize his own differences from them and fight for the value of African characteristics and culture.

1990s-2013: Freedom Reigns Through the Madiba Shirt

The Rivonia Trial was a showdown that the defendants were destined to lose, and Mandela was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. After South Africa elected a new president, F.W. de Klerk, who was committed to ending apartheid and phasing out white rule, Mandela was released from prison in 1990. In 1994, he became the president of South Africa under the ANC.

Enter Desré Buirski, a struggling Cape Town fashion designer amongst the many who hoped to one day see Mandela in person. Two days before Mandela was sworn in as president, Buirski joined a crowd of people waiting to catch a glimpse of him on his visit to a Jewish synagogue near Cape Town. She brought one of her old designs–a men’s shirt made of black silk and gold fish patterns–and managed to hand it off to a body guard as a gift for the future president.

Mandela wore Buirski’s shirt to the dress rehearsal for his inauguration. At their first in-person meeting, he officially asked her to continue making shirts in the same breezy style for him.

Named the Madiba after Mandela’s Xhosa clan, the president’s shirt of choice stirred worldwide controversy. His decision to wear free-flowing, colorful silk shirts instead of suits was rare for a prominent political figure. Often questioned about his sartorial choices, Mandela responded by saying that after 27 years in prison, he wanted to outfit himself in a way that made him feel free.

The Madiba shirt represented a new way of doing things, both politically and sartorially; it rewrote the idea of global citizenship in a way that wasn’t defined by the West. It was a culmination of everything Mandela had fought for and everything he would continue to fight for: new conventions of power that embrace African heritage and unite people with their elected officials.

Mandela spent nearly his entire life fighting against being silenced; by white supremacists, by an untouchable government, and by prison cells. The whole time, though, he made powerful statements through clothing that connected him to his ideals both politically and emotionally. And when he was finally free to influence policy as president of South Africa, the colorful shirts he wore while doing so sent a clear message to his people: freedom is self-constitution, and self-constitution is the ability to celebrate yourself.

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