Fashion As An Expression of the South African Working Class’ Experiences

By Nomonde Tshomi

Workwear has become an interestingly popular trend today. The first time I saw someone wear workwear in person as a deliberate fashion statement was in 2016 on campus at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It was a white-passing mixed race boy. Very interesting. I frowned and mused about what would embolden this boy to wear clothes which were made to expose a dispossessed people as fashion. The politics of working-class uniforms are very intricate and I am almost resentful of the way in which these clothes have so easily made their way into the ‘culture’.

Blue collar uniforms reflect those among the most vulnerable in South Africa: the working class. Capitalism has made it clear whose labour is most strenuous and yet least valued. Of course this piece will not go into the politics of race and class for we know that for the most part; these things are one in our context. Although, now that I mention that, it is interesting to think that capitalism would have working-class people – a people who have been determined by skin colour – wear clothes to further expose them as working class as though it is an identity that could otherwise be escaped. From the domestic worker’s suit to the miner’s blue overalls, blue collar uniforms have been used as markers of position in society.

source: mg.co.za

In a radical move, members of the Economic Freedom Front political party appeared in Parliament back in 2014 clad in blue-collar clothing instead of the usual suits expected of members of Parliament. They asserted that they entered Parliament to fight for the working class and so they chose overalls as their apparel in order for the hardworking people of South Africa to feel represented when they switched on their televisions and saw people dressed like them.  

 

If you lived through the time of kwaito’s reign, you will know that this did not begin with the EFF.  Before they wore overalls as a political statement, there were amaPantsula. When Kwaito artists such as Trompies and Mzekezeke emerged in their overalls, it was clear that they were aware of the power that these uniforms have and so the reclamation of agency was being clearly communicated.

Artwork by Dali Gaga

Blue collar wear is supposed to identify people as poor and therefore powerless. It is clothing that was forced upon working class people. So what happens when young black children choose to wear these clothes as a fashion statement? These artists were choosing to wear the shame of their parents, their grandparents and their forefathers with no shame. I am afraid of overly politicizing the actions of people who have never explicitly said the things I am writing. However, it is almost impossible not to see the politic in the children of black working class parents choosing to wear these clothes while others had chosen the route of umswenko- something which actively distances young black working class people from their poverty.

Even outside of the blue collar overalls, Kwaito fashion still made a statement as it disrupted society’s ideas of how one should present themselves.  These young artists wore their Converse All Stars, Dickies overalls and iS’poti (an item which has reemerged and has often inspired discourse about who decides when it is a bucket hat). A style which is especially significant in post-Apartheid South Africa as it signifies the freedom to be black, poor and deliberately against standards of respectability. It is from this context that Loxion Kulca emerged in 1999.

For a time, Loxion Kulca was highly successful streetwear brand established by Wandi Nzimande and Sechaba Mogale. The brand was a leader in South African streetwear and the first of its kind in the local fashion industry. In many ways, Loxion Kulca paved the way for brands such as Amakipkip and Eish Hade.

source: instagram.com

Nzimande once explained that the brand was not born out of some special story to tell but instead out of the need to put bread on the table. However, I believe that fashion- like all other art forms- can be used as a window to the different experiences of a certain time. The name “Loxion Kulca” in a South Africa where black people were still trying to figure out where they fit in the world is political in itself as it shows this pride in being from elok’shini.

Today the trend of representing working-class people has resurfaced in mainstream fashion. In a world of recycled overall designs, one brand which has been quite inspiring in how it has chosen to do this is Cape Town based 2Bop. Originally founded by Anthony Smith, 2Bop draws inspiration from the arcade video games that Smith would play in corner shops as a kid.

source: twobop.co.za

It is written on the 2Bop website: “Disadvantaged areas during apartheid South Africa had little to offer in terms of exposure to cutting edge international design or computer technology but the bootleg arcade games that used twenty cent pieces (a 2Bop) to play at the corner shop were a window into what was happening in the outside world”.

Save for the branding, 2Bop’s clothing itself makes no explicit references to a working class upbringing. The designs are elementary streetwear items such as crewneck sweaters, long sleeved t-shits and beanies. Smith looks into his coloured upbringing for inspiration and together with his team, they create clothing which -while it does not copy from the fashion in their context of the coloured township – is still very relatable and not far removed.

It is difficult to engage with fashion without engaging with South Africa’s sociopolitical dynamics. The way in which artists decide to explore their socioeconomic backgrounds through fashion has really been nothing short of ironic and brilliant. The popular street style of the Loxion Kulca generation challenged the idea of conventional modes of good dress and will live on forever as an inspiration. And today, there is a new generation of brands who have utilized the same approach to fashion; where even if it is not necessarily political commentary on their upbringing, they have still ensured that the story of their upbringing is at the fore of their ventures.

 

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