By Ogova Ondego
Published September 22, 2008
Although clothes are primarily meant to cover one’s nakedness and shelter one against the elements, OGOVA ONDEGO contends, it is becoming fashionable to expose more and more flesh by wearing less and less clothing in urban East Africa.
Experts consider novelty and conformity as being the two major forces driving fashion trends. Whether we admit it or not, decisions concerning what we wear are guided by our desire to look good in something new (novelty) and also to look like others in our social group (conformity). Unfortunately, these two forces are not always in our best interest.
Dressing up decently doesn’t mean not being trendy. There are several clothes that are made in the latest styles but don’t necessarily have to show everything, Emmanuel Bagwana writes in ‘Sunday Lifestyle’, a pullout weekly magazine in Uganda’s Monitor newspaper.
Bagwana argues that an attire may be considered indecent not just because one is wearing it but also where one is wearing it. Among some of the venues where one must adhere to the dress code–whether written or not–include court rooms, churches, funerals and weddings, corporate functions and in learning institutions.
While dressing outlandishly in a court of law could lead to the conclusion that one is indeed capable of doing whatever one is accused of, donning what is considered ‘indecent’ at corporate meetings could project one as lacking in discipline and seriousness with one’s work.
Is it any surprising, then, that Titus Clemens, a writer in the early church, is reported to have drawn up a list of rules governing dress and grooming in the Third Century AD? According to these rules, women were allowed to neither dye their hair nor to ‘smear their faces with the ensnaring devices of wily cunning’. Ornaments and luxurious or colourful fabrics were also forbidden.
John Calvin, a Protestant Church leader, is said to have enacted laws specifying the colour and type of clothing his followers were to wear. A woman could be jailed for arranging her hair to what was considered an ‘immoral height’. Jewellery and lace were discouraged.
In the early 1990s, a Ugandan woman was attacked on a Nairobi street by some self-declared ‘fashion police’ and left almost naked allegedly for appearing in a short skirt that was considered ‘indecent’. In subsequent years, intolerant people, particularly men, have attacked several women in various parts of Kenya for appearing in clothes they consider ‘inappropriate’.
In the-not-so-distant-past, members of a Nairobi church were stunned when a young woman glided into the auditorium while the pastor was in the middle of his sermon.The woman had a short and transparent piece of cloth running around her breasts and back but leaving all the flesh above the breasts and between the breasts and the hips bare. While the ‘blouse’ was held to the shoulders by strings (thongs?), her sagging loose trousers left the upper part of her panties clinging to her hips an inch or two above the non-belted trousers that were almost falling.
Not caring a thing about the undue attention she had brought to herself as everyone craned their necks to look at her, the adolescent wondered what the confusion was all about.
“What is wrong with the way I am dressed? If any one feels offended by my fashion-consciousness, that is his or her own problem. I find it strange for any one to disapprove of my style when my parents have no problem with it,” she said after the incident.
Soon after this incident I sat next to a young woman as I travelled from Kampala to Nairobi. Whenever she straightened up in her seat, her corduroy trousers left her entire behind–buttocks and all–bare.
But the nice-looking third-year student at Makerere University seemed not to care about her action. This episode reminded me of another incident I had experienced while studying at an Evangelical Christian university in Nairobi where a classmate who liked putting on extremely short skirts was thoroughly embarrassed and frustrated one day when students had to sit in a semi-circle as they listened to their lecturer. This student had found it difficult to cover her thighs and panties that were exposed due to the sitting position. She never put on such clothes again until graduation!
Steven Kimani of Dar es Salaam observes that the number of women with exposed panties, high slits, and exposed breasts are on the increase in Dar, Zanzibar, Nairobi and Kampala.
“You see them in public service vehicles, on the streets and in the estates,” he says. “It is as if they are trying to seduce men.”
But Peter Githaiga goes a step further, loudly wondering why a man would “plait or curly-kit his hair, cover it with a scarf or wear ear-rings and use make-up when even the Bible condemns such behaviour.”
Githaiga quotes Deuteronomy 22:5 that he explains forbids such behaviour, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear woman’s clothing for the Lord your God detests any one who does this.”
Jane Akinyi, who says she likes trousers and mini skirts, says she can’t wear long skirts or dresses.
“If I wear long skirts, what will my mother wear?” Akinyi poses.
But Githaiga says modern people are confused. That they do not know when and where to wear which clothes.
“Why does any one wear negligees or skin-hugging, swim-suit-like clothes in public?” Githaiga wonders.