In South Africa the month of August is synonymous with honoring women: their courage, strength and endurance. Celebrated on the 9th of August, the day reminds us of the courageous march in 1956 by approximately 20 000 women who protested against legislation aimed at tightening the apartheid government’s control over the movement of black women in urban areas.
This historic event not only highlights the fighting spirit of women but reminds us of a number of obstacles women had to overcome and still battle with today: cultural hegemony, constraints, oppression and humiliation. Perhaps more important is the age- old custom of casting women in a mold in order for them to fit within preconceived societal norms. For many years clothing and fashion was and is the proverbial mold. Within the context of this article the cultural constraints we are referring to include: prescribed female behaviorism, clothing and idealism regarding the apparent perfect figure, and more recent examples of how the female body is still today a contested object when focusing on gender-based violence, murder and femicide.
In this article we examine preconceived notions of ideal femininity ( including examples from the early 1900s to current contemporary debates surrounding body politics). As Bronwyn Law-Viljoen mentioned “Western notions have drawn on the concept of femininity as a masquerade through garments associated with feminine stereotypes such as corsets, bodices, dresses and gloves” (2008: 4). This masquerade is applicable not only to the Victorian age; in contemporary society women continue to be objectified. Women, as judged on their appearance in the name of religion or political control, bring to mind an article posted by BBC news on 27 July 2021. A 17-year-old Indian girl, Neha Paswan, was allegedly beaten to death by members of her extended family, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, because they didn’t like her wearing jeans while performing a day-long religious fast – a stark reminder that this is still a reality for many women in today’s world.
This article, in conjunction with a temporary exhibition, aims to reflect on cultural constraints, by utilising artworks from the Permanent Collection of Oliewenhuis Art Museum, and textiles preserved in the textile collection of the National Museum, Bloemfontein. Both the artworks and garments on display (from the early 1900s until today) were handpicked to communicate the physical pain and suffering the female body endured to fit a societal norm, and will be used as metaphors for the emotional pain and humiliation that resulted in the pivotal moment in 1956 when black women had had enough of the patronizing and degrading era of apartheid and marched in the streets of Pretoria demanding their freedom.
The dress: stitched aesthetics – the glove, the corset, loss of innocence and male dominance
Throughout history, women have been subject to various rules and regulations that dictate what we ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ wear. While these dress codes can seem innocent, the extra policing we experience when it comes to how we dress signals something more: it’s not only about controlling how we look, but also how society sees us.
There are many examples. In ancient Greece there was an appointed group of magistrates called the γυναικονόμοι (“controllers of women”). These male magistrates had to ensure that women didn’t spend too much on clothing, wore proper and uniform attire at religious festivals, and they had to promote chastity among women. They had the power to confiscate clothing, impose fines or even rip “improper” clothing from a woman’s body. Historians believe that women (in Western civilization) only started covering their breasts around 3500 years ago – when men decided a woman’s breasts were private, sexual body parts that needed to be covered. Even in Ancient Egypt, evidence indicates that women could choose whether or not to cover their breasts, with many opting for a dress design that left one breast exposed. In Ancient Rome, married women had to wear a floor-length, modest gown called the ‘stola’. Earlier, women wore the toga, as did their male counterparts, but after 200BC it was considered ‘disgraceful’ for a woman to dress the same way as a man.
In Victorian England (1837-1901) modest, respectable women were expected to cover their whole body when going out in public. As a result necklines were raised to just below the chin, and hemlines dropped to below the ankle. Even the legs of dining tables were hidden under meters of cloth since they apparently resembled a woman’s legs. Covering the hands was very much a part of this “modest look”.
The garments worn by Victorian women, although elaborate and aesthetically beautiful, relayed a message: a woman’s purpose was to look pretty. Her main objective in life was to alter her body in accordance with whatever standard of beauty society mandated at the time, even if that caused discomfort or immobility. These standards included corsets constructed of whalebone and wire, used to reduce the waist to 17-20 inches (43-50 cm), making it difficult for the wearer to eat or breathe freely. A scene from Gone With The Wind depicts Scarlett O’Hara holding on for dear life as her “mammy” laces her tightly into her corset.
Contemporary artist Leora Farber deals with female body politics since the 1990s. Self-Contained (1996) is an artwork created by Farber that addresses notions about the corset and the Victorian dress. At first the viewer is drawn to the grotesque representation of what seems to be a dress, but with closer analysis one realizes that the dress, meat-like, represents the flesh underneath the dress. The corset looks like the rib cage of a woman, and the gloves, which are supposed to be attractive, remind one of veins, muscles and tendons. As Farber states “In this body of works I explore how marginal bodily matter is contained and suppressed in such images of ‘seamless’ physical perfection. Using wax, I transform the surfaces of garments associated with ‘stereotypical femininity’ – corsets, bodices, dresses – into tactile, intricately decorated skin-like constructions. Skin becomes a site of control, an external fabric crafted in ways which mimic the fabrication of ‘femininity’ according to the dictates of the heterosexual male gaze” (Farber 1997).
Her choice of medium and the inclusion of surgical instruments (seen in the artwork Beauty bar) remind us that Farber is further exploring the grotesque with unusual objects to be found in a woman’s vanity case. This contradiction makes us aware of the extreme measures women were and still are prepared to take in order to fit within the perfect prescribed social norm. Ironically, her choice of medium, as Farber states “craft or sewing instruments (historically associated with ‘women’s work’) and medical instruments (traditionally associated with the masculine domain of science) are primary tools of constriction and control. Fastening, piercing through or displayed on waxy skins they draw parallels between the ‘art’ of tailoring a specific body size and contemporary body re-construction using surgical ‘craft’ to fabricate an appearance which conforms to a particular ideal of beauty” (Farber 1998).
In both artworks, Farber also features gloves. In the 1900s the glove represented innocence and also a method of male domination. The importance of wearing gloves is found in literature and advice books. For example, in Henry Fielding’s The Universal Gallant (1734) a character declares, “I never gave my hand to any man without a glove,” and “the first time a woman’s hand should be touched is in church.” Nineteenth century etiquette journals echoed these sentiments as ungloved hands were associated with nudity, and it was considered inappropriate for a lady to go outside without her gloves.
Gloves became a symbol of a woman’s innocence. Some artists and writers used them to define the moral character of the protagonist. For example, in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Miss Skiffins, who refuses any physical contact with Mr. Wemmick until they are married, is the personification of purity. Dickens achieves this by emphasizing the fact that she always wears gloves. In contrast, William Holman Hunt, in his painting The Awakening conscience uses a glove to suggest a woman’s lost innocence. The painting, which depicts a woman standing up from her lover’s lap, shows her glove upon the floor. In this artwork the discarded glove symbolises the loss of innocence.
Today we believe that what we wear is our own choice. However, in her book The Beauty Myth (1991), Naomi Wolf states that the fashion industry not only dictates how women should dress but also how they should look – namely slim, perfectly manicured and predominantly white. These narrow beauty ideals she argues reinforce the message that a woman’s worth is basically linked to her appearance: “The way we look determines our value to society.” Wolf also believes that the fashion industry tends to portray women as objects, specifically objects of male desire.
What you wear is always your choice, or at least it should be. But even in modern times society is still obsessed with the way women cover up. In 2009 thirteen women – including journalist Lubna al-Hussein – were arrested in Khartoum, Sudan, because they wore trousers in public. In Iraq ISIS claimed responsibility for stoning women to death in 2014 because they did not wear gloves with their niqab (an item of clothing that covers the face, worn by some Muslim women) . They might not always have hidden, oppressive motives behind them, but every time a woman’s body is sexualized, politicised, and manipulated in order to fit a certain standard, it’s not merely a dress code. It’s a reflection of how that society sees her and the role she is expected to fulfil.
In conclusion, the exhibition also includes the works of contemporary artist Lebo Thoka. Thoka addresses current instances of femicide and documents the stories of South African women who suffered brutal gender- based violence. They paid the ultimate price for being women: death. The sequence of the work is based on the idea of a black Virgin Mary that leads the viewer through each tragedy these women had to face. Each title of every portrait is the name of the deceased woman as well as a description and age of the events that lead to each woman’s fate.
The ‘dress’ or draping Thoka uses in the photographs is fascinating. Being covered in plastic rubbish bags is a strong metaphor that these women were seen as disregarded, unimportant and ‘rubbish’ while being left in the hands of their murderer. Simultaneously Thoka succeeds in enshrining these women with elements of beauty and divineness while narrating their stories within their absences.
Karabo Mokoena is based on the tragic fate of a 22- year- old woman who was brutally murdered by her partner. He burnt her body and left her in a shallow grave. Nonhle Charmaine Mbonambi was 24 years old, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend, and left 3 children behind. Unknown woman tells the story of a woman who was murdered and discarded on a dumpsite in Mofolo.
Today our supposedly liberated society proclaims equality and freedom for women, but still it seems somewhat like an idealist’s pipe dream. As Lebo Thoka states: “The South African justice system does not prioritise the protection of women because it is necessary, but only when it is beneficial to do so. Patriarchy is the puppeteer and women are its puppets”.
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