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Can you really ever say good-bye to a force of nature?

Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as Tata Madiba, dedicated his life to political struggle, to human rights, to rid society of discrimination, injustice and inequality — and rounded it with love, forgiveness, wisdom, character and determination. The list of tributes will never end for South Africa’s greatest son.

But there was something else the statesman used to make a statement. It was his flamboyant wardrobe of signature printed shirts that came to be known as the Madiba Shirt throughout Africa and the rest of the world. A set of dynamic, patterned graphics and earthen colours that showcased Mandela’s identification with his people, his cause, and the ground beneath his feet.

Yet, when you look back at him as young lawyer and vigilante of the ANC in the 1950s, Mandela was seen in bespoke double- and single-breasted suits in the tradition of Savile Row, a throwback to formal British colonial authority. Early photographs, such as that of him after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where 69 protestors were shot and, in turn, galvanized anti-apartheid world opinion, show him on bended knee, burning his passbook, focused on a mission to free oppression — in his elegant and tailored shirtsleeves.

Several decades later, however, the irony of that image was corrected when Mandela refused Giorgio Armani’s generous offer to design for him. After all, for Mandela to wear Armani, a label that denotes glamorous elitism, would have been a political disaster.

Mandela was as perceptive about sartorial language as he was about politics. He must have felt that anyone imposing a style on him (especially after 27 years of donning 46664*, the number on his prison uniform) was in fact creating another act of imposition, another set of imported restrictions, however subtle, that he had dedicated his life to eliminating. He needed a new way to be seen as a man of the people.

So he settled on an original set of visual cues. He focused on local produce, wearing suits by long-term tailor Yusuf Surtee, whose father had made clothes for Mandela before his imprisonment, and later working with South African designers Desré Buirski and Sonwabile Ndamase who evolved his trademark look: a loose-fitting, comfortable and visually arresting garment cut long so it hangs over the trousers, both coloured and plain, with a conventional pointed collar — effectively, a twist on the long-sleeved baggy khaki shirts worn by black South Africans in the 1940s and 1950s.

Wearing an informal garment was Mandela’s way to sartorially identify with the majority who could never afford suits. The story goes that President Suharto of Indonesia presented him print shirts in October 1990 and he liked them. The fabric was batik, decorative and distinctly un-Western, in natural fibers. They inspired him to seek more. And that inspiration came in the form of a gift by designer Desré Buirski who was attending one of Mandela’s speeches to a local Jewish community.

“When I returned to the motorcade,” Mandela reflects, “my driver handed me a gift from a women who had attended the synagogue that morning. It was a beautiful black shirt, with a colorful design of golden fish across it. I chose to wear that shirt to the opening of parliament of our new democratic government.” It was a powerful statement: the president in a hand-painted silk shirt on the cover of an Afrikaans newspaper looking both relaxed, contemporary, and distinguished — even from a distance. “After I had worn that shirt, this same woman would continue to send me shirts. We become good friends, and she designed hundreds of shirts for me. These shirts help me carry my message all over the world.”

Without taking credit away from its designers, if anyone is responsible for the Madiba Shirt, it is Mandela himself. “Appearances matter,” Mandela famously said, “and remember to smile.” Rather than being evangelized as a fashion icon, the shirt is a tribute to Mandela’s expansive spirit of independence. “He changed the dress code for men in South Africa overnight,” believes Lucilla Booyzen, director of South African Fashion Week, giving them “the right to wear a shirt without a tie, without being seen as trendy or super-fashionable.”

By carrying his beliefs in his pocket and by wearing his heart on his sleeve, Nelson Mandela brightened the lives of an extraordinary diversity of races, tribes and creeds that make up The Rainbow Nation and, in doing so, harbored them with a hope that remains equally wide.


*466/64: Nelson Mandela was sent to prison on Robben Island in 1964; he was the 466th prisoner to arrive that year. He was given the prison number 46664.