Getting a Dressing Down: Contestation of Women's Clothing in Contemporary Democratic South Africa
Roland Barthes pointed out that dress is serious and frivolous at the same time. Dress codes, fashions and conventions have the ability to express individuality and difference at the same time as normalising and reproducing dominant mores. Through dress dominant constructs of masculinity and femininity are confirmed or questioned, enacted or subverted. Choices about clothing, then, act as a meeting point for relations of power, be they of gender, class, race or sexuality.In fashion we find not only fictions of the self but also fictions of a more social kind – of national identity and political selfhood.
In July 2007 a woman in Umlazi township near Durban, who was wearing trousers while hanging out her washing, was stripped naked and her shack burnt down. This followed a demand by men in the area that all women wear skirts or dresses. In Feburary 2008 a woman travelling from her Soweto home was set upon by taxi operators. They stripped her, doused her in alcohol and sexually assaulted her as ‘punishment’ for what they said was her indecent dress. She was but the latest victim of what is a common practice. This paper examines ways in which these incidents might be read as moments in a contestation of gender power relations that is taking place in South Africa’s democratic order. In particular the paper is concerned with how appeals to the putative authenticity of ‘African culture’ which needs to be preserved in the face of an onslaught of foreign ways are used as a mechanism for the legitimisation of violence against women and for reinvigorating the argument for women’s continued subordination.
Keywords: Gender, Power, Fashion, Masculinity, South Africa
Prof. Louise Vincent
Acting Deputy Dean and Professor of Politics, Faculty of Humanities and Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University