Understanding Africa's 'fashion gestapo': Miniskirts, maxi skirts make-up and long beards

If you landed in Lilongwe with long hair or an unkempt beard in the 1970s, the custom officials would subject you to an involuntary haircut.

MINISKIRT controversies seem to erupt in Africa every few years, and although it seems like a recent phenomenon, it’s a debate that has plagued Africa since independence in the 1960s. 

Most African countries gained independence at about the same time two trends were catching on in the West: miniskirts and trousers for women and tight pants and long hair for men. The trends arrived on the continent to find a cultural void caused by changing times that they readily filled.

The void partly originated in one of the pillars of colonialism, so-called “civilisation”, which was designed to erode pre-existing cultures and instill a new culture that was conducive to capitalism and membership in the global community of nations. 

Since dress is the most visible cultural statement, colonial governments banned - or discouraged- nudity and encouraged the adoption of fashion that conformed to Western cultural concepts of “decency”. 

Finding a new “national culture”

At independence, the institutionalised cultural project was abandoned with the departure of the colonialists, leaving African societies grappling for a sense of “national culture”. 

However, the nascent governments could not simply abandon suits and dresses and return to pre-colonial wear as they had to participate in the international sphere (going to the UN General Assembly when it was cold meant you had to wear a heavy coat). What followed was a series of national discussions in many African countries on these “foreign influences” and their impact on the youth.

The discussion had a generational and a gender bias. The generational bias came from most of the individuals in positions of power having been born during the height of colonialism, while the young people adopting “external” cultures were born during its twilight.

The fight between the two centred on whether the new cultural elements were unAfrican and, if they were, what exactly constituted “African culture”. Public near-nudity as was common in the pre-colonial era was almost extinct, and societies grappled to find a balance between the modern clothing and African ideals.

The gender bias is perhaps the clearer of the two. There were no women at all in positions of power, so although the debate included both sexes, it was skewed against women, with men often imposing on them a more rigid definition of what was decent and what was not. Efforts to police female sexuality pre-date the era of colonialism. 

The moral police

In the new African states, social and political units were further developed and encouraged to police sexuality by the puritan ideals of colonial governments. The miniskirt was primarily worn by young, financially independent women in the cities. In a society where such concepts of gender equality were still largely new, independence was seen as an affront to the traditional position of men.

As a result of these debates, most founding fathers of the African continent sought to “defend African culture”.

In 1968, Julius Nyerere criminalised the wearing of miniskirts for women and tight trousers for men in Tanzania. He also banned soul music and unauthorised media. The moral campaign was led by a group called Operation Vijana. The initiative called for a ban on makeup, wigs, and other foreign elements that were considered unAfrican.

Other countries quickly followed suit. Although Zambia’s first Kenneth Kaunda president stayed away from the debate, his Vice President Simon Kapwekapwe was a strong advocate of cultural nationalism. In 1971, Zambia’s House of Chiefs passed a motion that stated “Women’s dress above the knee should be condemned.”  

The leader of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) Women’s League, Chibesa Kankasa encouraged women to wear the chitenge suit instead. The miniskirt was, however, never officially banned in Zambia.

In neighbouring Malawi, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda passed a draconian public decency law in 1973. The statute banned wearing of pants, mini-skirts, and see-through clothing for women and long hair for men. The law, which remained in place until a new constitution was passed in 1995, was oddly precise in its definitions. 

Forced haircut

There were government standards for the appropriate length of a skirt and the right length of hair. In fact, one of the requirements for obtaining a visa to visit Malawi in the 1970s was “Skirts and dresses must cover the knees to conform with government regulations. The entry of “hippies’ and men with long hair and flared trousers is forbidden.” 

If you landed in Lilongwe with long hair or an unkempt beard, the custom officials would subject you to an involuntary haircut. The restrictions were fashioned in the tone  not of a fashion police, but a more intolerant one that would sit have sat well with the German gestapo during World War II.

Kenya‘s then Vice President, Daniel Arap Moi announced a ban in 1974 on the same elements, and Uganda’s strongman Idi Amin issued a similar decree. 

Although these bans across Africa created an unfavourable environment for the miniskirt to thrive as a fashion element, enforcement was lethargic at best in most countries, as there was a general intellectual dislike for bans on specific elements of western culture and not others. In any case, miniskirts fell out fashion in the late 1970s and the debate lulled.

The fashion gestapo returns

It came back into fashion in the 1990s and inspired a new wave of controversy. This time, however, there were fewer mentions of African cultural erosion. The primary issue was with the miniskirt and what it represented a protest against the predominantly male authority. This had always been the problem with the trouser for women in Africa, as it blurred the gender lines. 

Opposition to the miniskirt became particularly violent, with public stripping in Kenya, Zambia, and other countries. The offenders were almost always men who occupied public spaces such as taxi stops, bus stations and markets. In a few instances, women actively participated, stripping other women they considered indecently dressed.

 When the epidemic of public stripping re-emerged in the mid-2000s, it found a fundamentally different society from the one that had previously passively accepted it. In 2009, Zimbabwe’s Vice President Joice Mujuru had to battle with rumours that she was planning a ban on hipsters, miniskirts and trousers; while Minister of Women Affairs in the 1980s, Mujuru had banned beauty pageants in Zimbabwe.

In neighbouring South Africa, there were at least two instances of public stripping in Johannesburg in 2008 and 2011. The epidemic quickly spread, with similar events taking place in Sudan, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya. In Malawi, then President Bingu wa Mutharika had to issue a statement after a group of men undressed women in Lilongwe and Mzuzu in 2012.

The difference was that the society was no longer quiet about the imposition of such skewed forms of social reinforcement. Almost each event was followed by widespread protests against such violence. The protests acquired the tag ‘miniskirt protests’ because participants defiantly wore miniskirts.

Swaziland’s bizarre law

Other countries went the other way. Uganda, Nigeria, and Namibia have considered public decency laws that would have effectively banned miniskirts. At least two of the recently created county governments in Kenya also discussed such motions in their assemblies. 

The most bizarre, however, would have to be Swaziland’s enforcement of a 123-year-old law on public decency. The Crimes Act (1889) had been latent for more than a century when the Swazi government decided to enforce it in 2012.

It is not just governments that have such laws. Many churches, institutions, and organisations have banned miniskirts and trousers within their precincts.  Educational institutions run by or funded by religious institutions often have a “fashion police”, moral police who have the power to declare what is decent and what is not. Offenders are suspended until they can find a skirt that covers the knee, or a skirt suit to replace the top and denims. 

Half a century after the politics of fashion rocked the continent, it is clear that it has never been about the miniskirt or the trousers. It is because they have always been seen as threats to the cultural notions of authority.

- Twitter: @Owaahh

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