In the world of recent politics, it seems that behind every successful man, there is an elegant woman. Jacqueline Kennedy, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and even Ann Romney versus Michelle Obama during the latest US electoral battle – the First Ladies and their wannabe counterparts not only have to bring support to their exposed husbands, but they also add a touch of care, softness and glamour to an austere and at times furious world.
Observers dissect their every stylish move, their polished outfits, from Obama’s daring mix of J.Crew garments with pieces from up and coming American designers like Jason Wu to Romney’s more conservative dresses by Oscar de la Renta, what they wear becomes a metaphor of what they portray, a trendy take on the American dream.
In South Africa, behind our self-proclaimed successful president, there are four women, making it a little bit trickier to follow their fashion choices and analyse if they are politically appropriate and sartorially exciting. Yet, at the dawn of a new election and in the frenzy of the ANC Conference, the four First Ladies seated front-row during Jacob Zuma’s political report on Sunday December 16, 2012, were all trying to be modishly unique in a rather confusing polygamist world.
While the President delivered a brilliant piece of charming storytelling inflated with charisma, self-appraisal and really good singing, the First Ladies’ silent claim was to make a distinct fashion statement; not an easy task when the brief is to match the ANC flag. Forget about the current local and international trends, the Mangaung catwalk is made of ANC cheerleaders ready for the big game.
On the far end, Thobeka Madiba-Zuma, who married the President in 2010; known to be the most glamorous one, Thobeka went for an unadorned, round-collar green dress with a yellow turban around her head, held by three gold pins; it was elegant without being dramatic. Thobeka carried with her a silent grace and a certain detachment, a lady of small details rather than daring statements. Nails painted in glittery green, her black earrings matching her bracelet, she toned down the usual showy arrogance of the ANC party with clean lines and understated attire.
Next to her, MaNtuli Zuma; the curvaceous MaNtuli, who was once kicked out of Nkandla for cheating on the president with her bodyguard, wore a low V-neck Chelsea collar green dress, belted with yellow, green and black stripes, reminiscent of the ruling party. Her hair in tight twisted braids, her elbows firmly set on the table, MaNtuli imposed with her presence. The strong tricolor lines on the dress, her decidedly forward posture and her eyes inflexibly locked on the stage, she seemed to be allegorically shouting her legitimacy as Zuma’s wife number four.
Gertrude Sizakele Khumalo, also known as MaKhumalo Zuma, is Jacob Zuma’s first wife; they met in 1959 but only got married in 1973, upon Zuma’s return from prison. A shy character, MaKhumalo chose a black dress exaggerated by green short ruffles with yellow edges, African-inspired detailing such as visible green stitches and matching buttons on the bust. She wrapped her head with a more traditional turban, in bright yellow and black and green strips.
Closing the line of First Ladies, the president’s latest bride, Gloria Bongi Ngema-Zuma, was draped in a convincing noble bearing. Born in Umlazi, Kwazulu-Natal, Bongi, unlike her counterparts, went on a solo, dropping off the classical yellow-green combination for a plain black dress with short sleeves, embellished with traditional beads around the collar and the belt; on her shoulders, a cropped fishnet cape, a definitely more conservative – and less remarkable – take on Craig Jacob’s ingenious Fundudzi collection.
Michelle Obama may be carrying Prabal Gurun like a fashion icon; France’s ex-First Lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, could have turned any formal outfit into some refined ensemble; and memories of Jackie Kennedy may bring back impeccable and often-copied sartorial picks; but who can claim to carry the rather difficult combination of green, yellow and black packaged in ruffles and stripes, the way our First Ladies do? Surely, Bruni wouldn’t have looked that elegant in blue, white and red; but herein lies the difference between a First Lady and four cheerleaders. DM
Photo, from right to left: Gloria Bongi Ngema-Zuma, MaKhumalo Zuma & MaNtuli Zuma by Greg Nicolson.
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