The parade of colourful eveningwear and ballgowns at the SONA red carpet is often less of a political statement – EFF red overalls apart – than it is the display of parliamentarians and guests’ sartorial picks of the night. Over the years, it has gone from fashion exuberance with excessive frills, exaggerated peplums, embellishments, feathers and bold colours to, as seen on Thursday, softer and more conservative choices.
Photo: ANC MP Thoko Didiza posed on the red carpet. (Greg Nicolson)
If clothes are a subtle representation of one’s moods, and they often are a translation of our personal state of mind, Thursday night at Parliament was anything but festive. In general, the selects of the evening swayed between, for the women, conservative floor-length evening dresses in tulle, lace or taffeta and traditional outfits; the men went also for a safe option: the two-piece-suit-and-a-random-tie with a plain colour shirt.
Photo: Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula and wife Nozuko arrive at SONA 2017. (Greg Nicolson)
Watching the guests walking the red carpet felt a bit like faded déjà-vu. The poses in front of the photographers didn’t seem to catch much excitement. For once the media was stuck behind ropes that prevented anyone from getting too close and ask more about the garments’ origin (which is always interesting as this year clearly showed a preference for local designers); the guests seemed also more preoccupied about getting into Parliament than parading for too long, perhaps pressed by a desire to be over with it all.
Photo: Kwaito star Arthur Mafokate, a regular at ANC events, was also on the red carpet on Thursday. (Greg Nicolson)
Some were more confident (or just loved the limelight) and faced the crowd’s scrutiny with ease and amusement: Deputy Agriculture Minister Bheki Cele wore a three-piece deep navy suit complete with a printed dust pink tie and a fedora hat, dapper down to his matching silk handkerchief. His wife, Thembeka Ngcobo Cele, chose a dramatic couture dress from local designer duo Klük CGDT. She was not the only one to have favoured local over international designers or retail stores; Bridgette Radebe went for Marianne Fassler, which she goes to almost every year; Precious Moloi-Motsepe chose a deep purple floor-length dress by Khosi Nkosi, a young designer who showed at the AFI Fastrack last year; Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba’s wife Norma Gigaba chose a white mermaid evening gown with apparent corsetry by Gert-Johan Coetzee.
ANC Women’s League President and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini had her dress made by one of the co-ops the organisation is supporting. She was adamant to explain how important it is to support local although when asked what she was wearing, she first replied, in a rather annoyed fashion: “A dress.”
Photo: National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbeta, with President Zuma’s wife Thobeka and National Council of Provinces chair Thandi Modise. (Greg Nicolson)
All in all, there was a definite effort to support local designers or locally made garments, which is encouraging. If anything, outfits sported by our heads of government, parliamentarians and guests on the SONA red carpet should be all about supporting our dynamic, albeit fragile, fashion industry. American designer Thom Browne, who was behind the knee-length belted coat former First Lady Michelle Obama wore at the inaugural parade in 2013, said that Obama realised very early on “that people did not just want to know how she looked, but what she was about”. Clothes can show just that: what we are about. And in the early hours of the SONA, the parading silhouettes displayed – besides a renewed interest for local – a slight touch of ennui.
That, of course, was only valid for the red carpet; but fashion at the SONA begins around 16:00 and goes on throughout the night, which can be long and chaotic. Ballgowns and perfectly ironed suits look very differently under the harsh light of SONA’s violent bedlam and mêlées.
The clear demarcation of parliamentarians was even more obvious when looked at through the lens of the guests’ outfits: on the ANC side, one could notice a preference for sequins, tulles and beautiful traditional outfits; it was bold, colourful and confident; on the DA side, there was a penchant for formal black as indicated by Premier of the Western Cape Helen Zille dressed in a long dark blue lace gown. The mood was not about celebrating. The now famous red EFF overalls created a wave of protest – punctuated with red hard hats – that only the ceremonial outfits of the security, crisp and clinical white shirts paired with black pants, seemed to be able to stain. At the back, the COPE, UDM and other small parties looked like a mingling of here conservative, there bright, and more uncertain silhouettes.
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Jacob Zuma outside the National Assembly at SONA 2017. (Greg Nicolson)
And then came President Zuma, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete and chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Thandi Modise. Could we talk about the similitude of Zuma’s and Ramaphosa’s outfits for a moment? Apart from the light stripes on Zuma’s garments, both wore a dark two-piece suit, a red tie and white shirt. Standing shoulder to shoulder in front of Parliament, Zuma and Ramaphosa looked like a split image of the same. As the ANC conference looms in the future, the two most powerful men in our government dressed in fascinatingly similar outfits is also the subtle reminder that someone’s shoes will soon need to be filled.
Fashion on the SONA 2017’s red carpet is not about style and panache; but behind the seams and the frills, it definitely makes for interesting statements. DM
Emilie Gambade is Editor-in-Chief of Elle and Elle Decoration magazines.
Main photo: Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba and his wife Noma. (Greg Nicolson)
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