By Isaac Asabor
It is not an exaggeration to say that fashion is an instrument through which political ideals and messages are disseminated, and therefore, politicians usually leverage on it to transmit their ideas, beliefs, and messages. In fact, politicians across the globe have chosen a style that asserts their philosophy or beliefs and have used their attire as a medium of communication through which they aim to evoke an emotional response and connect at the grassroots and cultural level. They carefully craft their style to uphold their values in society, and therefore, their clothes are part of their message.
In fact, from Chief Obafemi Awolowo of blessed memory to Nigeria’s incumbent President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, it is unarguable that they their style of expressing what they believe finds expression in the eyeglasses they adorn. For Tinubu, he has a signature symbol which he usually imprint on his cap.
In fact, in Nigeria’s contemporary politics, there are many political leaders who make a style statement or a belief statement through their dressings. In fact, in Nigeria we have witnessed politicians that have resorted wearing the same type of outfit every day, and it might seem boring and repetitive, but to some PR professionals that understand the dynamics of personality branding, they do not really see it that way. Truly, the signature outfit of some politicians has proven to be unending and their special fashion style has separated them from the rest as many of them dress in their native attires to portray where they are from, even as some just have a sentimental attachment to a particular outfit while many have now accepted it as their own unique way of dressing.
When it comes to world of politics, how can we forget Kenneth Kaunda, the Zambian liberation leader who later became the country’s president, and died in 2021? Before he became the president of the East African country, he was reputed to have inspired many Africans to fight colonialism even as he was also an unlikely fashion icon with his signature look short-sleeve jacket with two breast pockets, worn with trousers of the same hue. According to Kaunda himself, it was Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere who gave the ensemble its name: the Kaunda suit.
Against the foregoing backdrop, it can be argued that tracing the Kaunda’s predilection to adorning his kind of suit cannot be pooh-poohed in this context as it has sartorial leanings of Mao Zedong since the two leaders met in 1974, and Kaunda was said to have been inspired by the Chinese leader’s outfit, as well as his ideology.
The suit was no doubt assessed by political observers to have placed KK, as he was fondly called, on the platform of balancing his communist-inspired suit with a jaunty ascot cravat, appealing to the sensibilities of both socialist intellectuals and Western diplomats.
Perhaps because of its political overtones, the Kaunda suit caught on: Nyerere adopted a similar style, while any self-respecting African headmaster in the 1970s had at least one in their wardrobe. Tailors across East Africa cashed in on the look, which was in high demand in local markets.
In fact, the wardrobes and accessories of other leaders from that era were just as symbolic. Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, for example, always carried a fly whisk with him: a marker of authority among the Maasai, and a sign of royal standing. On the other side of the continent, over in West Africa among the Yoruba the fly whisk (irukere) is also considered to be a symbol of power and respect.
Ostensibly drawing inspiration from KK, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, on the other hand, created his own fashion in the form of his trademark leopard-print hat, shaped in the style of a western garrison cap. He then banned anyone else from wearing the design, reinforcing his own supremacy in the hierarchy of the state.
As socialism lost ground, so the Kaunda suit fell out of favour. And when the army men and rebels toppled post-independence regimes in coups and rebellions, they brought their military fatigues with them.
Famously, the Central African Republic’s self-styled Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa inspired Uganda’s Idi Amin when he visited Kampala in 1972. Bokassa’s military outfit was draped in medals and insignia, and Amin decided he needed to have the same.
When he took power in Uganda in 1986, Yoweri Museveni went in a different direction. He framed himself as a man of the people, wearing loosely fitted clothes and a (now iconic) wide-brimmed summer hat.
In the 2011 election, rural voters received text messages from the president, which were signed simply: “Vote for the old man with the hat”.
There is no denying the fact that what inspired this writer to express this view is to inform Kenyan lawmakers who have turned legislative duties on its head that the suits which former president of Kenya, Kenneth Kaunda of blessed memory, used in politically branding himself is not their problem. Unfortunately, they recently made a law that seems as if the challenges they are having in the hollow chamber of the parliament lies at the heart of Kaunda’s suit.
For instance, Kenya’s parliament has recently instituted a ban on the iconic Kaunda suit, within its premises as the Speaker of Parliament, Moses Wetangula, says both Kaunda suits and traditional African attire were no longer permissible as he explained that the emerging fashion trends pose a challenge to the established parliamentary dress code, despite the fact that Kenyan President William Ruto frequently dons the Kaunda suit during official events, contributing to its popularity among the political elite not only in Kenya but also in some parts of Africa.
He emphasized a prescribed dress code for men, including a coat, collar, tie, long-sleeved shirt, long trousers, socks, shoes, or service uniform. For women, the guidelines specify business, formal, or smart casual wear with skirts and dresses below knee-length and sleeveless blouses prohibited.