Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Ideological Suit

I recently saw a consignment of Obama khangas sent off to the US and wished that I had had the foresight to order one for myself. One of the singular pleasures of khangas made to commemorate the visits of Important People (usually the Pope or the American President du jour) is that they print the image of the Honored Guest in the exact center of the fabric where it can fall over a well-proportioned African heritage. With the right collection on hand, one can sit on the faces of oh so many people- tell me that's not worth collecting for? The khangas also got me thinking about what our leaders wear.

In the last two years I have been keeping loose track of the evolution of the suit in Paradisan politics*. Styles of dress have changed as we embrace a free-market economy, and I for one am not about to complain, from an aesthetic point of view. Nyerere introduced the socialist suit during the Ujamaa times and we have been struggling with yawn-colored short-sleeved travesties ever since. Still, an ujamaa suit is very effective at communicating poverty, affability, hard work, lack of vanity and leftward leanings- all essential qualities for a politician in a socialist setting. Mzee Ruksa, Mzee Mkapa kept with this sartorial indifference throughout their presidencies, only breaking out the western suit and tie on those infrequent occasions that seemed to demand it. With Mr. Mkapa's neck size, ties are probably inadvisable anyways.

Then the fourth administration shook things up. The ujamaa suit has quietly been relegated to up-country rallies and Party gatherings. There is even a dressed-up version that comes fitted with long-sleeves in black, grey, cream. Jay Kay and his crew are most notable, however, for breaking out the suits and going 'executive.' Other than the fact that only the most unimaginative of spirits could bear to wear socialist suits when alternatives exist, I think the relatively recent adoption of the banker look by our political class is a clear sign of a number of changes. One, our Dear Leaders want to be taken seriously as professionals, not as dubious thugs from a banana republic. Two, ujamaa is out and capitalism is in. Third, these days you can get a facial, manicure, pedicure and pinky ring without compromising your masculinity even if you are commander in chief of the armed forces.

More interestingly, this loosening of imposed social 'cohesion' has pretty much permeated Paradise. We used to be a conservative society inclined to dowdiness and conformity, this is no longer the case. Its okay to wear a good suit, or tight jeans, or own and run a business, or be a television star, or get a few facial piercings, or speak in English, or make money. It is no longer untoward to be ambitious, get an education or have a nuclear family. You can wear a socialist suit one day, a tie the next, and imported West African linen the day after. It is generational ,this increased comfort with a multiplicity of identities.

I guess that the political class is just projecting those characteristics that some already have and others aspire to: affluence, style, youth, fluidity. It has been interesting to note, for example, that no matter how crappily-dressed folks were beforehand, as soon as they join the cabinet they have been spit-polished and squeezed into cufflinks and ankle-boots. The corporate image is important to this administration, which won't tolerate ministers straying around wearing white socks with black dress shoes.

A buddy has been trying to get me to join his party but I haven't had the heart to tell him about how repulsive their choice of uniform is to me. Costuming is important, which is why I am intrigued that Chadema has chosen the White Hunter look for its political uniform. You know the one: safari suit, safari boots, occasional cowboy hat, helicopter accessory. The associations are not good. Khakis hint at a martial mind-set redolent with conflict, blood-letting, war chieftains and patriarchal priviledge. Yes, banker suits also hint at patriarchal priviledge but nothing tops white hunter gear for sheer historical gloom. In fact, all political fashions related to savannahs and hunting are suspect: Mobutu rocked those admittedly snazzy animal prints and look at how the man served up an industrial portion of chilling madness.

'Tis the season for new year resolutions! Wish you lots of bubbly and squishes and merriment and hopefully 2009 will herald the final and total demise of the short-sleeved yawn-colored suit. Remember to beware of anyone who likes hunting or animal-related paraphenalia, including but not limited to: knobkerries, fly-whisks, tilted animal print hats, cowboy boots, cowboy hats, elephant-hair bracelets, copper bracelets, elephant guns, gunbelts, the color khaki, et cetera.

* Is there a field of study by the way, exploring the relationship between ideology and fashion in post-colonial Africa? Am looking for material: links, papers, art, blogs, musings, and fun stuff.

1 comment:

  1. What a delightful topic you have shared with us Elsie. I remember my elementary school standard six teacher - A certain Rhodesian - caucasian who favored the White hunter look. His was especially unique in that he chose to wear only shades of pastel blue and sometimes I think even white!
    I think if I did a Masters in Fashion History - this topic - African presidents and their fashion choices would be excellent. Perhaps I would have to narrow it down to one president and one country though...
    Happy New Year!


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