Malawi has been getting a lot of international press recently, and not all of it has been good. The Guardian newspaper just published a scathing assessment of the current administration’s potential slide into dictatorship. Citing human rights abuses and widespread oppression, the article paints an ugly picture of Malawian politics.
In January, events took place that also captured the world’s attention. Women dressed in pants (or trousers) were attacked in Lilongwe and stripped. It was a bizarre attack and one that was violent and traumatic to the victims. Those responsible were local vendors, supposedly incensed at women wearing ‘modern’ clothing. There are rumors that the attacks were politically motivated, but the vendors have since issued an apology. You can read more about it here. Women around the country quickly mobilized and held protests – many of them wearing pants and shorter skirts.
Dress in Malawi has always been an important part of culture. I’ve written before about chitenjes, which are worn by most women to cover their good clothing while they travel, work in the fields, and do chores – kind of like a good pair of jeans – comfortable and good for wearing around the house.
When you travel in the rural areas, it is expected that you also wear a chitenje, or at the very least a long skirt. This modestly is rooted in a conservative culture of respect and tradition. Kamuzu Banda, the leader of Malawi from 1966 to 1994, codified a strict dress code, one that forbade women to wear shorts, pants, or dresses above the knee. Banda insisted that the dress code was to protect women. It wasn’t until 1994 that the dress code was abandoned.
Despite the lack of formal dress code, today most women in Malawi wear skirts – and almost all wear skirts below the knees. If a woman wears a shorter skirt, she usually wears tights or leggings as well. In the past few years, I have noticed more and more women wearing pants, but you would still never see a woman walking the streets in a miniskirt.
The women that I work with dress beautifully. They wear tailored suits, bright colors, and killer high heels. They always, always manage to look professional, classic, and fashionable at the same time. Even if they have taken minibuses and walked several miles to work, there isn’t a hair out of place. Even when it’s so hot all you want to do is cover yourself with wet towels, the women here look perfect in their fitted blazers. Now you have to remember that these woman can’t run down to the nearest Bloomingdales, Banana Republic, or DSW. They have to piece together their wardrobes from small shops with limited selections, friends who travel to the US, South Africa, and Europe, custom made pieces from local tailors, and second-hand clothes at the market. It makes their style all the more admirable and unique.
When I first showed up for work in my ‘I work for a non-profit so I’m too busy saving the world to worry about looking nice’ attire, I could tell my colleagues were not impressed. The first few meetings I attended, I was seriously underdressed – I apologized to my boss, who laughed it off, “ah, you’re a mzungu – they understand.” Since then I’ve tried to up my game a bit. I even bought high heels, which won subtle nods of approval. When my French friend went home and left me some of her beautiful clothes, they started commenting, “oh, wow, you look so nice today!” and I knew I was on the road to winning some fashion respect. I still have days were I wear jeans, and my stylish, beautiful office mates just smile ruefully and I know they are thinking “ah no, maybe tomorrow she’ll look better…”