Cape Town’s new masculinity


“Masculinity to me means to be comfortable within yourself in your own skin and to respect others,” said Tumi September, 25. PHOTO/Kyle Weeks/The New York Times

In the queer capital of South Africa, young men are defining themselves through dress.

To cut themselves free of the gender norms fed to them since birth, young South Africans aren’t using sharp edges but rather soft fabrics and turns of phrase. Their fashion and styling choices, as well as the words they use to describe their own bodies, challenge essentialism and the notion that any of our outward characteristics are fixed.

These young South Africans, most visible in urban centers like Cape Town, are playful in the ways they present themselves to the world. They eschew European designer labels manufactured for consumerism in favor of local designers, many of whom have caught the spirit of the moment.

That Cape Town, known as the “Mother City,” has become a front in the war on Western gender roles is somewhat fitting. It’s where the Dutch and, later, the British began their colonization of South Africa in earnest.

Indigenous populations and enslaved people, brought to the city in chains by the Dutch East India Company from as far away as modern-day Indonesia, were stripped not only of their lands, but also their cultural identities. They were robbed — as part of Europe’s so-called civilizing mission — of their history, of how their ancestors distinguished and expressed themselves through style.

Dressing has long been a critical lens for identifying differences across and within cultures. European colonialists in southern Africa used clothing as a boundary marker and an indicator of hierarchy. Today they no longer sport full-bottomed periwigs, replete with curls, but echoes of their black and white Dutch colonial garments, handmade lace collars and tight buckle boots appear in everyday men’s wear.

Colonialism still hangs thick in the Cape Town air. Not even the Cape Doctor, a powerful summer wind thought to relieve the city of pollution, has been able to clear it.

It’s no coincidence that this rebellion against gender and Eurocentrism has been led by queer, trans and gender-nonconforming young people. Their protest is a means of self-preservation.

Citizens of South Africa may be protected by what some have called the most progressive constitution in the world, but, in the streets, this grand piece of paper is too easily blown away by the realities of a country where 67 percent of the population, according to a Human Sciences Research Council report, agrees with this statement: “I think it is disgusting when men dress like women and women dress like men.”

Today in many of the country’s metropolitan areas, men still walk around in European-style suits and ties, as well as closed leather shoes, in the sweltering heat of summer — hardly the picture of utility. Their uniform is a colonial relic, an antiquated symbol of wealth and masculine power that many still buy into.

The rejection of gender norms has been raging for some time all over the world, but there is something distinctly pro-African in the character of Cape Town’s sartorial resistance.

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