I was fixing to write something rather frivolous about fashion. With a focus on the Africa Fashion Exchange held by the KwaZulu Natal Fashion Council last week. I say frivolous because I wanted to make up for being too “heavy” in my content. “When did you last write something light-hearted?’ My sister recently asked me. So I was busy searching for the funny-lighthearted bone in me when I woke up to the news that New Yorks’ legendary street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham (87) had passed on following a stroke. I hadn’t met the guy and I have certainly never been photographed by him in my marathon walks around Manhattan dressed in dark suits. No. But something which he said about fashion in an interview struck me, when he was asked why he did what he did: dedicate his life to something as frivolous as street fashion. His answer was something unexpected.
He said “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilization”. When I heard these words I thought that he was very deep for a man immersed in frivolity. How could he equate fashion to something as profound as entire civilizations? Perhaps he was too obsessed with fashion, with fabric and clothes, I thought to myself. And yet he himself never wore fashionable clothing. He wore a blue over-all /protective work coat over light Chinos as his daily uniform. Minimalist at best and super boring at worst. But he had an eye for fashion, he was able to spot trends, fashion-copies, those who pushed the envelope or people who were at the cutting edge of fashion sense. He knew what’s hot, what’s new and what’s old. Everybody who was anybody including nobodies wanted to be photographed by him. He plucked whole characters and personalities out of obscurity with his photographs. He took fashion so seriously he smiled like a child in a candy store while doing it. He looked like someone who was having a lot of fun and yet he had a deep reverence for his art form which bordered on being religious. He never accepted as much as a plate of food at high society dinners, galas and gatherings. He even brought his own water to drink to avoid being compromised by those seeking to influence or manipulate him into printing their pictures in the New York Times. He was extremely austere in his dedication to documenting street fashion . He was beyond passionate. He lived in the streets of New York, in search of beauty.
FASHION IS: TOO DEEP FOR ME
I have been mulling over his words for years since the very first time I heard them. I have been trying to find a connection to them, a connection to their meaning. How is fashion an armour? What does he mean by this? Bill Cunningham was a former soldier who was conscripted to the army and returned changed forever. So perhaps for him it made sense. Military uniform is an armour, a camouflage, to hide, to protect, project authority, to blend with the environment, to show rank and file. I understood that, uniforms were meant to be protective and communicate a persons role within that society. But how about ordinary life? How are our ordinary clothes an armour? How can they help us survive the reality of everyday life? When the Sapuers (the dandies) of the Congo (DRC and CR) became famous and their pictures began to show in high-gloss magazines and social media, it is then that I began to understand what Bill Cunningham meant. The Sapuers’ flamboyant dress and committment to style was in many ways a means of escaping the everyday harsh reality of living in countries crippled by corruption, embezzlement, blood-diamond trading coupled with oppressive regimes which forced people to live in ways that were not acceptable to them. Fashion became a form of self-expression which seemed other worldly juxtaposed against a back drop of societies in decay. By dressing as beautifully as their money can allow they were able to rise above their immediate environment to become the beauty which they seek. So clothes were not just a costume anymore or protective gear against the elements, clothes become the interface between us and the world. So that when he said “Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.” I had no doubt that what he had observed was correct. And this is what South African visual artists and photographer Neo Ntsoma was drawn to when she picked up her camera in the late 90’s to document how the times were changing in South Africa through Fashion.
“THERE WERE NO BEAUTIFUL PHOTOGRAPHS OF BLACK PEOPLE” – NEO NTSOMA
Speaking at the knowledge sharing session on Fashion and Identity at the Africa Fashion Exchange, Ntsoma says there were only a handful of decent photographs of black people when she started her photographic career in the early 90s. “The only photographs that people would find when the Google ‘South African youth’ were black and white images of the 1976 student uprising” She told an audience of industry insiders. I wanted to see vibrant pictures of my generation, black young people who were changing the status quo and I knew then that I was the best placed to photograph them. That is how I ended up following and documenting the Kwaito movement, I wanted to show black South Africans who were beautiful and doing amazing things.”
WHAT STORY ARE YOUR CLOTHES TELLING ABOUT YOU
Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in many cases we are, have been and continue to be conditioned to find certain things beautiful and others not so much. The images that we see and are shown repeatedly everyday through multiple media platforms are embedded in our minds. So much so that our eyes can only see certain things/ people/ actions and places as beautiful. So much so that even today, in 2016, I have had to tell my niece who is four years old that being a black girl is beautiful. That cinderella can also be a black girl like her. In many ways the Fashion industry along with its subsidiaries is responsible for reinforcing those beliefs. The way we groom ourselves, the way we wear our hair, where we purchase our clothes, the make-up we wear, how we value ourselves says a lot about the political climate within which we live. It says a lot of about our shared values, who we are as a people. It speaks to our economies, technological advancement, industrialization, our labour markets, trends, how we trade, what we import and why, our rank in society, the art we make and so on and so forth. It highlights our deep values and aspirations. It projects our egos, our hopes and dreams, it tells the world who we are, what we are struggling with, what we want to hide or accentuate, what we are ashamed of and what we are proud of. What we can and cannot handle, what is acceptable, what we find comforting. Whether you’re wearing seShweshwe, iBheshu, Izimbatata, if your hair is in dreadlocks, a pony-tail, Burka, Hijab, a Doek or a Sari. If you bought your earings from a friend or American Swiss. That is a statement you are making about yourself – whether you are aware of it or not and whether you want to make a statement or not. The clothes you choose to wear today tell a story about you to those you meet. But clothes are just a facade. They can confirm the value we already feel inside or expose our hidden insecurities. Clothes can reveal our emotional state too, how you dress tells a story about what is going on inside of you or what is not going on inside. So what story are you going to tell today? You make the clothes so, choose wisely.
Pictured: South African photographer Neo Ntsoma, fixing singer Simphiwe Danas’ dress.