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Robert Mugabe: death of a style icon

The Zimbabwean dictator dressed to kill

September 10, 2019

10:27 AM

10 September 2019

10:27 AM

Robert Mugabe, who finally died last week, paid special attention to suits. His vexed relationship with the garment is, as Percy Zvomuya noted in 2013, a fitting way to tell Zimbabwe’s story over the past four decades.

When Mugabe dazzled attendees at ZANU-PF’s first national congress in 1964, he put his suit at the center of his oratory. Lambasting Ian Smith’s Rhodesian administration as a ‘cowboy government’, Mugabe tore off his jacket and said:

‘If I must lose my freedom because of these so-called civilized clothes the white man brought, then he can have them back and I have my freedom!’

He then removed his tie. As he began to remove his shirt and no doubt, eventually, his so-called trousers, his socks and his underwear, onlookers shouted at Mugabe to stop undressing. He’d made his point about suits.

For speeches like this Mugabe would spend much of the next decade in prison. After his release in 1974 suits were out of the wardrobe. Now leading ZANU’s guerrilla forces from Mozambique, Mugabe began to dress in tunic shirts in the style of Chairman Mao.

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When independence was won Mugabe largely ditched the military fatigues. He went back to dressing like an English lawyer or banker. Three piece suits made from dark cloths and neat little jumpers. Mugabe looked more likely to be carrying a new John Updike novel than an RPG.

Robert Mugabe in 1980

In 1980, wearing a benign single-breasted suit, Mugabe made his famous call for reconciliation between white Rhodesia and black Zimbabwe:

‘If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you.’

Just as the Mao suits had been a ruse to convince Western liberals and intellectuals that he was a proper revolutionary, the new, conciliatory Mugabe wore elegant business attire to show the world that the new Zimbabwe was not a Marxist hellhole. As Lear has it:

‘Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
‘Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
‘And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
‘Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.’

In the 1980s and 1990s, as Zimbabwe slouched into backwardness, unfreedom and terror, Mugabe was always immaculately turned out in one of his suits with matching ties and handkerchiefs. Sin was plated in gold, and happily collecting various honorary degrees and even a knighthood from a credulous international establishment.

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Over the course of his career Mugabe was described as an anti-imperialist, an anti-colonialist, a nativist, a left-nationalist, a populist, a Marxist and a Stalinist and a Maoist; a Garveyist, a Pan-Africanist, a racist, a xenophobe, a Catholic, a social democrat and a capitalist.

Judged simply by what he looked most comfortable wearing, Mugabe is perhaps best described as an Anglophile. Solly Parbhoo, one of Mugabe’s long-term Harare tailors informed Heidi Holland in her book Dinner with Mugabe that the president:

‘…still dresses like an English gentleman; that’s always been his style. He acts like an English gentleman, too, a wonderful person when you are in his presence, although not when he’s on the public platform. You can’t believe he’s the same person you see on the stage, shouting this and that.’

Over the decades Parbhoo visited the State House many times to fit and measure Mugabe. Whenever he arrived the president would be there waiting for him with a handshake and a cup of tea. This was very much the Mugabe who once lavished praise on the game of cricket: ‘Cricket civilizes people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.’

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Mugabe’s relationship with the United Kingdom soured when Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997. Zimbabwe was kicked out of the Commonwealth, and Mugabe himself was stripped of his knighthood in 2008. Targeted sanctions meant he was no longer able to visit London to shop for suits on Savile Row. According to Parbhoo, the president was reduced to ordering them from ‘somewhere in Malaysia, now that he isn’t welcome in Britain anymore.’

Mugabe descended into what his rival Morgan Tsvangirai described as ‘anti-British paranoia’. During elections, accompanying ever more bellicose denunciations of Britain were bold new sartorial choices for Mugabe. Beginning in 2000, encouraged by his spin doctor Jonathan Moyo, the president began to wear loud, clashing, colorful ensembles, and shirts that featured images of his own face.

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Robert Mugabe in 2008

African statesmen have often made fearless style choices. Nelson Mandela’s loose fitting silk ‘Madiba’ shirts have their own Wikipedia page. JJ Rawlings made big frame sunglasses a hot ticket item during his time at the head of Ghana’s military junta in the 1980s.

Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, would off-set high quality suits with trademark fly whisks – just as Hastings Banda of Malawi did.

Muammar Gaddafi combined the drug-zonked, botched plastic surgery look of late Michael Jackson with sweeping, traditional, robed desert prince attires.

Zaire’s similarly ghoulish Mobutu Sese Seko went in for festive leopard skin hats that he prevented anybody else in the country from wearing. Mobutu liked to claim that the wooden cane he was never seen without took the strength of eight men to carry.

What will surely be known as the Mugabe shirt, with its antic contrasting colors and its fetishistic use of portraiture, tells us more about Zimbabwe in the last 19 years than most news reports could.

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Mugabe in 2017

What happened to Robert Mugabe’s suits happened to the country he ruled.


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