Last night, I had the chance to be invited to the opening night of the exhibition 21 YEARS: Making Histories with South African Fashion Week @ Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. I was thrilled as it is the first ever fashion exhibition in a South African museum. Fashion is finally entering the institution. This first event, which for sure will be followed by several others, marks the beginning of an exciting journey. South African and more largely, African fashion will finally be historized and historicized, collected and archived, studied and exhibited. As Erica de Greef, curator of the exhibition, expressed in her opening speech, African dress is often presented as timeless and traditional and that’s why this exhibition is important: it shows African fashion as active, current, in constant change and brilliant.
The exhibition is the result of a partnership between the museum Zeitz MOCAA and South African Fashion Week, represented by its director Lucilla Booyzens. It started with the idea of a book, celebrating twenty years of South African Fashion Week – SAFW was founded in 1997. The book was developed and the project of an exhibition came afterwards. It usually happens the other way around, a book being the memory of a exhibition. Here, the idea of an exhibition came second: the process thus interestingly resulted in selecting outfits from the book to exhibited in the museum. When the project came to completion, it was not 20 for 21 years of SA Fashion Week that could be documented. The exhibition is thus a celebration of the last 21 years of South African fashion: 21 outfits by 21 designers from South African Fashion Week whose talent left a lasting influence on the industry, plus a video showing the catwalks of 21 years of fashion shows. South African’s fashion scene is vibrant and this exhibition shows it well.
Fashion designers in South Africa are embracing their multi-cultural society, creating new styles and fluid identities. Each design is accompanied by a note from the designer, helping us understand the work process and thoughts behind it. I particularly liked the pink faux leather trench-coat from SS 2017 Thebe’s collection. The designer says he wanted to ‘merge feminine and masculine qualities’, making a ‘cheeky and ironic comment on homemaking and domesticity’. He explains: ‘The juxtaposition of the perceived threat of self-asserting femininity which is so prevalent in our communities. The subversive beauty is derived from our current socio-cultural reality. The chemical colours reference the hostile environment women often find themselves in.’ Another one by Rich Mnisi from 2018 got my attention. The note: ‘In a distorted world of nostalgia, this dreamy hair comb print on organza and matching crepe remind us of tender and intimate moments’ beautifully says it all.
In terms of curatorial and exhibition-making practices, it is also just a beginning with, in my opinion, some improvements to implement. When curating a fashion exhibition, there’s always the question of the mannequin: are we using some? which ones? If mannequins are to be used, they need to be prepared to present the garments in the best possible way: they need to be stuffed and modeled according to the body shape of the person who wore the garment so it visually makes sense. This is especially true for historical garments because the body was shaped differently than today. It is less true for contemporary fashion but still needs to be taken into consideration.
The mannequins in 21 YEARS look unfortunately quite odd. First they are not all the same – different shapes and colours – which creates a feeling of discontinuity. But this could be a curatorial choice: the diversity of the mannequins representing the diversity of the actual wearers. Plus, they all look gender neutral, which is quite nice, leaving it the the viewer to use his/her own scheme of thoughts. However, secondly, and that’s a problem in my opinion, they do not seem at all modeled which, for some outfits, creates a feeling of disproportion and/or discomfort. Good mannequins are expensive and modeling them requires a substantive budget and a professional with the appropriate skills, which can be difficult to find. However, using mannequins is not the only option and I think that no mannequins is better than bad ones. Finally, even though the idea of the designers’ note is a great one, some of the captions are written in such a small font that it makes it difficult to read it properly.
However, being a continent’s first, these are minor critics compared to the big moment that was last night’s opening. 21 YEARS: Making Histories with South African Fashion Week creates a precedent, putting fashion in the museum, highlighting the work of South African designers like it has never been done before. And for that, it deserves all the applause.