Life, etc

Chronicles of Chic: SONA 2014 – The more things change, the more they stay the same

By Emilie Gambade 14 February 2014

This year State of the Nation Address was anything but surprising: the President’s speech had its usual “good stories” and the red carpet was crowded with dangling hats, shimmering sequins and shocking pink ball gowns: in the world of fashion politics, the revolution will have to wait. By EMILIE GAMBADE. Photos by GREG NICOLSON.

In an article for the New York Times, Eric Wilson said of fashion in politics, “Fashion is no longer the forbidden subject it once was in American politics. Embracing expensive designer clothes — and a lot of them — has not been a problem for Michelle Obama in the way that similar pursuits haunted Nancy Reagan, or even Jacqueline Kennedy.” Fashion is definitely not forbidden (and clearly never was) at the SA’s State of the Nation Address and embracing expensive local designer clothes is a definite (and sometimes excessive), must-do; also on the list of SONA fashion routines: having your outfit tailor-made by some enigmatic local seamstresses and tailors.

One to embrace proudly South African designers is DA Parliamentary Leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko. Last year, she combined two local fashion darlings, Stefania Morland and Thula Sindi: it was elegant and chic, understated without being plain, and it fitted her like a glove. This year, though, Mazibuko went for a rather puffy, silvery, glossy ball gown created by Cape Town-based designer, Kat van Duinen. Shoulders uncovered, her waist and chest constricted in a corset, the floor-length skirt floating around her and sometimes ballooning in the strong wind, she looked more constrained than comfortable, which is never a good choice. Mazibuko is notorious for her great sense of style and there was a glimpse of it tonight; she completed her outfit with the Missibaba Wild West clutch, its neon leather patches contrasting beautifully with the silver of her dress.


Disgraced former Minister of Communications, Dina Pule, infamous for often walking on the wild side on Christian Louboutin red soles, wore a gold, silver, turquoise and chocolate brown dress by St John and high heels sandals by Salvatore Ferragamo. (Take that, Louboutin.)

dina pule

Fashion muse and businesswoman, Dr Precious Moloi Motsepe, wearing bangs très Michelle Obama at her husband’s second inauguration, is always looking strikingly elegant; yet, at this year’s SONA, she was dressed in a relatively plain fitted black dress. When asked where it was from, she replied, half in a whisper, half in laughter, that Gavin Rajah had created a “beautiful dress” for her but unfortunately, after she had a little accident on the way to Parliament, this dress was her “plan B.”

Also wearing designer clothes, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mduduzi Manana, went for a tone-on-tone deep forest green sleek suit by Ephraim Molingoana for Ephymol. It was a brave choice and one that made him stand out: his outfit was modern without being overly avant-garde, daring without being extravagant.


South African designer Marianne Fassler dressed Bridget Radebe from head to toe. The dress, made from flower-patterned lace in turquoise, red and green, with an ersatz of the off-the-shoulder style, was definitely bearing Fassler’s signature: the colours, the patterning, the cut, it had a distinctive look that is always, somehow, slightly ragged chic. Radebe topped her outfit with a matching floral headband, an embryo of a hat that may have been one step too far.


Western Cape Premier Helen Zille decided to play it rather safely; compared to last year’s bright turquoise dress and corresponding clutch in ostrich feathers, this year’s outfit was almost an understatement. The khaki green dress was “a collaboration between Louis Designs and Thobeka Mdiza from To Bead Africa”, and had embellishments on the sleeves. After all Zille went through in the last few weeks, it was a considerate pick: not too obvious, not too colourful or gaudy, just enough to take her through the night away from any big Oohs, Aahs or Boohs.


In the ‘tailor-made’ team, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was extremely feminine in a canary yellow lace dress. Madonsela explained that it was made in “collaboration with a young Pretoria-based designer called King. He designed the dress while I gave him my input,” she said. For once, it was nice to see her in something so different from the usual dark suits she wears daily and although the dress cut had nothing exceptional or remarkable about it, it fitted her well and seemed to give her greater confidence.


Minister of Public Service and Administration Lindiwe Sisulu went for vintage – or so it looked. She used the pattern of a Susan Hansen dress to create her white boat neck frock with assorted black elbow-length gloves. At the back, the dress plunged a little and opened onto what looked like a lace underdress. Sensual but not vulgar, it was refreshing and a nice break from the ball gowns and ballerina frocks brigade.

Talking about ball gowns, this year again, SONA was not robbed of its usual contingent of excessive frills, bows, ribbons and tulle, worn here on the head, dangling over the hair like a fragile Pisa tower, there in a skirt, puffing out, ballooning, cumbersome, waiting to slide under a sole or get stuck between chairs. And this year again, the puffier and the brighter, the better: everywhere, bursts of shocking pink, ruby red and royal blue.

In the ball gown delegation, Rachel Tambo tried (and failed) a Western-meets-Africa look with a dress made by Sun Goddess in turquoise Shweshwe and matching hat.


Kgalema Motlanthe’s partner, Gugu Mtshali, was, once again, incredibly chic. Mtshali chose a knee-length dress – a change from all the floor-length gowns seen at SONA – with fringes at the bottom hemp, accessorised with a gold collar-necklace. Her haute stature and graceful pose allows for some eccentricities, yet Mtshali often chooses simple outfits that are both striking and sophisticated.


President Zuma’s second last wife, Thobeka Madiba Zuma, was by far the most elegant of all the President’s wives. Dressed in red, she chose an off-the-shoulder fitted knee-length dress that made her shine and stand out from the rest of the pack. But regardless of the outfit, it was MaKhumalo Zuma who stood next to their man Jacob when he walked into Parliament.



On the other end of the spectrum, there were the bright young faces, the ones who decided to go for modern and contemporary outfits, bought at local retailers. Among these were ANC favourite, singer and SONA-accustomed, Chomee. She was wearing her cropped blond hair with a dress she had found at Desch in Sandton. White, fitted and floor-length (a must this season, across generations) with sequins on the sides, it was sexy and glamourous, if it weren’t for an unforgivable fashion faux pas: the bra-strap showing at the back.


And then there was the Mother of the Nation: Winnie Mandela, still in mourning, walked into Parliament, dressed in black lace, a matching black scarf wrapped around her head.

To many, SONA is, oddly, the place to show off some incredible outfits, walk the red carpet under the flashes of few local pseudo-paparazzi, listen to the President’s speech and go home in a chartered bus. It is, indeed, a time for celebration and for looking back, but it seems that the fashion of politics as seen at SONA is mainly stuck in the age of prom balls and ballet nostalgia. DM


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