It is early doors and I am sitting in jeans and T-shirt near the nightclub entrance in a west African town. Singly and in little groups, punters drift into the cigarette smoke robed in varying interpretations of nightclub gear. Neon lights buzz overhead and on the dance floor, a few early drunks strut to Ivorian music. I am beginning to think I should be cosier in bed when a short, fat and sweat drenched man in a three-piece suit joins my table. The owner who happens to be at hand introduces him as a regular, a big spender. Big spender shakes my hand with his eye toward the nightclub entrance. I grasp a big sweaty palm and follow his gaze to the door where a young woman in perfect fit jeans and a black top stands undecided, looking for an empty seat.
-Ah, says the nightclub owner, I see you’ve noticed Gisele. You see how the jeans sit on her?
-Ah she’s something says the three piece suited one.
-I can invite her to our table? She drinks only champagne, so you should get a bottle.
The sweaty palmed one considers the question for a while, and suddenly shakes his large head as if shaking off an unpleasant thought. The nightclub owner insists. The businessman considers the price of a bottle of champagne, and says.
-Aha! I know those tricks now.
-The jean trick, you see it well packaged. Like a present, the outside is so good, but when you open it, there is not much inside.
-What do you mean, Gisele is….
-Aha, my brother. These girls dress up to deceive people like us, but I am getting wise. I know them.
There was an air of finality about the way he said the word “them”, and I decide not to tell him people might dress up to please themselves and not his sweatiness, but it was time to go home. I left thinking about clothes as a cloak! If I had given much thought to clothes it had hitherto been limited to a view of them as comforters, signifiers of belonging, of status, authority, but this businessman just told me clothes can also serve to deceive, like old beer in new bottles. And he might be right.
This potential of clothes to deceive is one well understood by fraudsters, con men, and men who sell snake oil. Conmen used their mouths to con us out of our money, and their clothes to con us of our reason. It is normal to come across hordes of overdressed con men and drug dealers in Paris, Brussels, and London and their clothes and who they are pretending to be in them, is what gives them away. Actually If you see an overdressed man who is not attending a wedding or a board meeting, chances are he is a con man. Just as Joe blogs becomes a clown and a showman when he puts on his disguise so do work men, doctors, students, nurses and airline stewards shout their profession with clothes. But it is all a deception,
All of us lie. With our words and with the clothes we wear. Clothes are short cuts to the lies we tell with our mouths.
Clothes started out functional, a defence against the elements, the heat and the cold, but as society progressed, as man moved beyond the basics of protection, clothes took on added significance and seeped into culture and language. The English lexicon is now littered with expressions like wolf in sheep clothing, the cloak does not make the monk; all that glitters is not gold. Clothes also can be the ruin of a man as Polonius in Hamlet I, iii, 55-81 tells his son to be “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy; For the apparel oft proclaims the man..’
The apparel oft proclaims the man, his ruin and the man the man pretends to proclaim.
In Africa clothing remains one of the most effective tool to assert and obfuscate who the man is deep down. The town road sweeper would be given greater respect at a party if his robes were bigger, shinier and more expensive than the university professor’s. The sweeper knows it and will beg steal or burrow to so cloth himself. But there is also a twist in Africa, the apparel is ‘express’d in fancy; rich, and gaudy’ for maximum effect. The apparel is judged by not so much its announcement of economic status, but by its bling aspect and the deception of its cost reality.
Africans are not unique in this, but poverty has given it greater currency.
Before Europe moved away from clothes as the single most important signifier, it was no different. Jews and common people were proscribed certain aspects of dress and dye. Noble men and kings reserved colours and materials to shout their status and to shut out the pretenders and deceivers. Clothes became instruments of sexual control until CoCo channel rid European woman of restrictive clothing prescribed by men for women which guaranteed fidelity by making sex and undressing a ritual in itself. Not that it hampered the fancy women of the European courts, but it was important for social stability that women were reduced to chattels owned by their men; and that no one confused the hoipolloi with the gentleman.
From a show of nobility and social control, clothes branched out to a display of power, cemented in the emergence of armies. Kings blinged up no end, and the bling reached its summit with the French revolution when a blinged up aristocrat was an invitation to loose one’s head. So the French aristocracy toned down and escaped in pauper’s clothes. In Europe clothes were also used as a display of closeness to God and unwittingly religion has had a huge impact on the use of apparel as a display of status. European kings greened with envy when representatives of God wore more bling than they did, and revolted. In no small way, clothes were responsible for the decline of the power of the church and the Holy Roman Empire. Mohamed when his time came prescribed a white dress for all as a sign of purity.
Today with the emergence of reverse snobbery, the fag ends of European aristocracy are more likely to be seen in country clothes and cashmere sweaters. Priests of the most high God now wear jeans and T-shirts and even the military has toned down; from gaudy reds to hide bleeding soldiers, to khaki and camouflages to merge with the dark, evade detection. Clothes are still deceivers, so good only the wise can see through the deceit.
Today the male suit stands challenged with the rise of the Silicon Valley millionaires, Steve Jobs, Bill gates, both brought the humble geeky sweater from beside the fireplace into the boardroom, and Mark of Facebook is rescuing the humble Sunday afternoon T-shirt. All that glitters is not gold and the contents of the box are more important than the colour of the box. The ubiquitous business suit is now the preserve of Politician man, the ultimate deceiver.
But despite the apparent migration from the outside to the inside as signifiers, our primitive brain still clings on to outwards signifiers. Our brain has been primed to recognise and respect health, and like body odour, the cleanliness of one’s clothes, the straightness of the flannel trousers are health signals rather than status signals. But health and status are linked albeit not overtly.
In the 60s, the counter culture with the hippies, the mods, the hells angels, and the gay YMCA brigade created a tribal angle to one’s apparels. The culture changed the way we do clothes so they now serve more as a signifier of tribe and culture than of wealth and power. The CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch sailed into muddy waters recently when he said their clothes were for those who fitted the all American idyll. Not for the 500 pounder on crack and MacDonald’s. It matters little id he 500 pounder could afford Abercrombie and Fitch.
But in Africa, where respect is still currency, the gaudiness and cost of one’s clothes is still king. The function of clothes as protection against the weather left Africa faster because of colonialism. The English and the French reinstated the power of clothes to shock and to awe. To affirm their superiority, they took pictures of naked and near naked Africans. Now in West Africa, young people justify dropping out of school because the best dressed man or woman at a wedding was not the most educated.
There is now a near obsession with clothes in Africa and this has a huge impact on the economy. It is common place to see a civil servant draped in three months worth of salary on his way to church and mosque. Strangers size up each other’s clothes on first meeting and I doubt if Mark Zuckerberg on his recent visit to Lagos would have been allowed into many houses with his T-shirt if not for his face. Africans cried foul when Lionel Messi a football kicker, turned up in Gabon wearing shorts, even though shorts are part of the footballer’s uniform. But he is also rich. The insult would have been less if he were of lower status. This obsession with clothes is one reason for the high indebtedness amongst low ranking civil servants, and corruption amongst the higher ranked ones.
But there are changes in Africa. Hitherto, shorts had the cachet of the primary school uniform. It said you did not have enough money to buy a full length of trousers to make yourself hot, but today there is no greater signifier of an African who lives in Europe (and therefore richer) than a pair of combat shorts and trainers on the African high street. So what better way for young Africans to lie that they live in Europe…get the shorts and the trainers.
Clothes will always served to deceive. So even though Mark seems to be going against the grain, he is actually stroking along the grain. He is deceiving and hiding.
Mark Zukerburg used his clothes to disguise his millions in Lagos, and it is time we accept that medieval European king used his kingly vestments, the African dictator used his medals and military uniform and the medieval merchant used his silk robes not to display their status, but to hide the fact that deep down, they were just like everybody else; just as the man of God uses his godly garments to hide his ungodly nature.
But there are times when clothes do make the man, and that is only when they serve an artistic purpose, when they make a statement about the wearer’s appreciation of beauty, when it is performance art like the harajuku of the Japanese, but in the end, even art itself is a deception albeit a noble one.