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Cloaked in defiance: What my grandparents’ elegance has taught me about power

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Lwando Xaso is an attorney and a writer exploring the interaction between race, gender, history and popular culture. She is the author of the book, ‘Made in South Africa, A Black Woman’s Stories of Rage, Resistance and Progress’.

One of the most elegant things I own is a black faux fur stole that I inherited from my grandmother. When your life is under constant threat, you will do everything to mitigate it – even if it means weaponising your clothes.

Reminiscent of a time and people gone by, this stole archives part of her history and therefore mine. Its elegance is out of step with the very inelegant and rugged surroundings of the dusty streets of New Brighton in Gqeberha. But that was the point. At a time when we were confined to the most uninspiring locations, my grandparents could assert some kind of freedom, choice, expression and dignity through their choice of clothing.

“Practices of dress/performance/display have the capacity to either contest or reinforce existing arrangements of power and flesh out the meaning of citizenship.” I came across this quote by economist and historian David Landes when I was doing research for a panel discussion, and I immediately thought of my grandparents.

Looking back at the clothing archive they left – of tailored suits, dresses, dainty handkerchiefs and scarves – I see a beautiful but painful story of resistance, transcendence and pursuit of self-definition. We were also shaped in the image of their style as an extension of our grandparents. We showed up to church coiffed, buffed and upright in our Sunday dresses and bobby socks.

My grandfather went to work in a well-tailored suit, even though he was the delivery man at a law firm. His appearance can be seen as a contestation of power, a reclamation of the little power to assert himself as a man when the power he really wanted was to be a lawyer. He could not be a lawyer, but defiantly dressed as one. My grandmother was a maid but defiantly dressed like a madam. Or like the jazz or gospel singer I suspect she dreamt of being. My grandparents never verbally articulated the dreams they had for themselves. Their clothes spoke of a hungry imagination unfed by a limited reality.

Some may argue, however, that a generation’s affinity for “respectable” clothing was not a contestation of power but a marker of colonised minds, assimilation and conformity. A dressing up and put on for the gaze of the white man. What colonialism has robbed us of is our ability to tell the difference between choice and indoctrination.

There are those who look at our grandparents’ generation as tap dancing, obsequious and pacified people. That they dressed to maintain the status quo, to aspire to whiteness and to counter the image that white people held of us as lazy and dirty. The choices they made are viewed through the lens of our politics today, the politics of respectability.

Professor Harwood McClerking defines the politics of respectability as the idea that [black people] need to improve their behaviour so white people will see it and reward us. I cannot say for certain that my grandparents dressed up for white approval.

Tara Donaldson writes that the aesthetics of the 1960s spoke to being non-threatening at a time when black people could, more easily than now, be beaten or jailed for merely existing. They could have dressed up for their own self-preservation. When your life is under constant threat, you will do everything to mitigate it – even if it means weaponising your clothes.

Or they could have been dressing up not out of fear but for freedom. Dressing in defiance of the notion that they were undeserving of nice things. When I wrap myself up in my grandmother’s stole, its softness and beauty belie the horrors of that time. Her affinity for beautiful things was not merely to play dress-up. It was her dress rehearsal for freedom. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • “Cloaked in defiance: What my grandparents’ elegance has taught me about power”

    Why are you so obsessed with “power”?

    I really loved the narrative but the title was pure click-bait.

    Your grandparents had dignity and self-respect.

    Yes, despite their humble existence and the unfair limits of their society.

    We lack that innate dignity nowadays. I would guess that your grandparents were also self-content with their lot.

    Everyone is an angry activist nowadays. That is no good for anyone.

    Dignity is underestimated.

  • I think that is a very sad article. The key word for me is “horror” – to be forced to live a life of perpetual second class treatment and somehow find a way out. I’m not sure we are getting out of that fast enough

  • Or maybe your grandparents simply liked to wear decent clothes and look respectable in a more formal age.

    Not everything has to be reinterpreted as a power struggle, racial or otherwise, but I suppose you will see only what you want to see because your narrative demands it and you wouldn’t get any recognition from your peers if you didn’t. I find that quite sad. I can see how one might find a sense of purpose in a worldview that depends so completely on perpetual conflict, hatred, and spiteful revenge, but can this honestly be called “happiness”?

  • This reminds me of the Sapeurs – beautiful dressing as an art form. Why should other people’s perception of you determine your self-expression? Love this story. Thankyou…

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