FASHION: Mandela shirt: Remembering Madiba’s sense of style

As the world comes to terms with the departing of a man who rose from a prisoner who had been labeled a terrorist and rose to become a figure of forgiveness and among the most admired men on earth, we slowly realise that he not only left behind lessons of equality and justice, he influenced dress sense too.  

As the world comes to terms with the departing of a man who rose from a prisoner who had been labeled a terrorist and rose to become a figure of forgiveness and among the most admired men on earth, we slowly realise that he not only left behind lessons of equality and justice, he influenced dress sense too.

From his days soon after being freed from prison to when he was old and weary, Madiba was spotted in colourful shirts that came to be known as the Madiba shirt.

The silk shiny outfit that rose to fame on Mandela’s shoulders was first designed by a South African designer, Desre   Buirski who had to shove past journalists and photographers to present it to him as a gift for his struggles before his inauguration. “I chose a large one considering he was endowed in height. I figured that if he wouldn’t use it he’d give it away,” Buirski told a fashion magazine.

Days later she would be surprised as a national paper was graced with an image of Mandela donning her shirt.

“There he was, giving the world a huge big wave (in my shirt)!  I couldn’t quite believe that this was real.  And so began my relationship – this incredible relationship, this incredible journey – that I’ve had with Nelson Mandela, as his shirt maker,” Buirski writes.

It was after that that Mandela invited her to be his shirt maker; and she made lots of them. For him and others influenced by his style.

The bright colourful shirt now comes off as a symbol of elegance and silent power, thanks to the man who brought them to fame probably unaware of the impact he would have on the outfit. When he first began donning the colourful shirts, some viewed it as rebellion and a sense of expression as opposed to wearing formal suits often as most would expect but his reason for the shirts was that he had been in prison drab for very long and the loose, shinny and silky shirts was as far from prison drab as one could possibly get.

Angie Mukaruliza a Kigali based clothes retailer says that the influence of the outfits could be more reaching than most would expect.

“Being the festive period and the shopping tradition involved there is likely going to be an increase in the number of Madiba shirts you see on the streets. But Mandela’s shirts should not be mistaken for the common Kitenge (African print) shirts common around. Mandela’s shirts are smooth, silky and a close observer will notice they are shinny. They can be worn over demin pants or over dress pants, they are ideal as casual office wear and as weekend outfit. Those who would like to avoid the monotony of having to wear suits to events like wedding can get one. “

Though they are hard to find in Kigali and have lots of imitations, Mukaruliza says they are available at selected boutiques and go for not less than Rwf 15,000.

As he goes down in memory as one who inspired individuals, organisations and nations, he will be remembered as one who gave life to the distinctive outfits.

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