In the queer capital of South Africa, young men are defining themselves through dress.
CAPE TOWN — 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.
It has sprung forth from the realities of life in cities and the townships that surround them: from having no choice but to fight back against daily violence, threats and intimidation these young people face for their outward expression of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In a recent study conducted by Out LGBT Well-Being, 88 percent of L.G.B.T. people who have experienced violence do not report incidences.
In Cape Town, known to be the queer capital of South Africa, young people often escape through night life. But even traditional gay clubs are hostile to nonconformity, so alternative queer spaces have begun to emerge.
There, people are free to express themselves however they see fit while tearing up the dance floor under disco lights as D.J.s spin underground electro with ballroom influences. In some ways, it’s a scene from “Paris Is Burning.” But the choice and variety of hairstyles, languages and fashion are a reminder that this is not a drag ball in 1980s New York City.
The buzz cut on the androgyne, the textured wig on the femme doing a power gwara gwara on the dance floor, the variety of colored and textured plaits, braids, box cuts, high-top fades and Afros that fill up the space — they speak to a decidedly local phenomenon.
When the lights come on at 2 a.m. and the club doors close, life resumes as usual. The wealthier among the clubgoers return to the safety of their homes, ensconced in cars, free from the judging eyes and often hostile tongues of the public.
Some take off their wigs, wipe off their makeup and slip into a change of clothes that will make them inconspicuous while using the country’s disjointed public transport to get home. Others step out of the club and face the world exactly as they are.
What the present moment seems to signify is the emergence of a fresh, unrestricted image of African gender and masculinity that rejects the dominant masculine ideal of toughness, even in a hostile world.
Kyle Weeks is a photographer working in Amsterdam and Cape Town. He is the co-founder of Cape Collective Assist, a cooperative that facilitates a range of development programs for aspiring photographers in the city. Zane Lelo Meslani is a writer, digital marketer/content creator and D.J. at queer social events around Johannesburg.