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The Outward Expression of “Who am I”: South African Culture and Fashion

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Whether we are searching for a suitable career option or writing a bio online, we regularly face the preverbal question of “who am I?” In fact, identity forms a key part of everyone’s lived experience. Despite this, the reality of expressing your unique identity as a South African can be a complex undertaking. Not only do we live in a globalised world where the boundaries of how we understand ourselves are vast and blurry, South Africa’s unique history and cultural diversity make it tricky to see your ‘self’ reflected accurately in your wider society.

From an academic lens, the role that identity construction is well-researched and long-debated. For instance, several Sociologists have searched for ways to validly define and explain the human experience under the umbrella of ‘identity such as Goffman, Mead, Giddens, and Simmons (to name a few). When considering the outward articulation of identity, Kawamua (2019) discusses that fashion is both a physical and esoteric way for people to express themselves while connecting to the social fabric of society.

When considering consumers’ buying behaviour, the decision-making process is often influenced by culture and social identity. Culture is imparted from one individual to another and is formed through the mutual agreement between members of a part of society on what beliefs and values, behaviours and attitudes, norms and ways of life, are acceptable, and which are unacceptable (Schwartz, & Sagie, 2000).

Part of the complexity that we experience in conveying our South African identity may be that there’s a gap that exists in the fashion market for South Africans to access trendy, culturally-authentic clothing to wear every day. Of course, you can find very traditional outfits for special occasions. But South Africans still have an arduous job finding suitable prêt-á-porter fashion that authentically echoes their multifaceted identities. Most fashion retailers in South Africa stock “Westernised”, or “globalised”, items of clothing that have little to no visible connection to the rich cultural landscape of South Africa.

Another reason could be attributed to the other side of the coin. If South African fashion designers incorporate the styles, fabrics and cultural aesthetics that represent South Africa’s diverse identities, are there enough consumers who want to purchase their clothing and advocate for these fashion choices? Is it a sustainable option from a business sense?

There are, nonetheless, glimmers of hope on the horizon. With boutiques and fashion retailers, such as Africa Fashion House and Soko District, that have taken steps toward creating a market for selling culturally-rich items of clothing. And in the luxury space, Thebe Magugu recently demonstrated to the international fashion industry how to unearth the beauty that can be found in South Africa’s unique stories, and how these can be translated into appealing, and culturally respectful, fashion. In his 2022 “Genealogy” collection, Magugu curated a fashion collection that reflects his deep connection to the influences of his culture and shared family values. Magugu weaves together the powerful elements of history, identity and culture through what Vogue Magazine describes as “Magugu’s extraordinary talent for telling stories that honour people through his clothes” (Mower, 2021).

Magugu’s collection was inspired by feminine silhouettes like A-line pleated skirts, modern interpretations of prints such as the Sesotho Seshoeshoe fabric, and colours and styling inspired by what was worn by his matriarchs when he was a young boy (Thebe Magugu, 2022). The collection, as discussed in a roundtable talk with Magugu, his mother and his aunt, explores their old family photos, each featured as the backdrop for the looks in the collection, indicating its reference. It is evident that the collection is based on the influences of Magugu’s primary caregivers - his grandmother, mother and aunt. One of the foundational concepts in Sociology is socialisation and it has an integral impact on identity formation. Your crucial, primary socialisation occurs during your youth and involves transferring of norms, ways of life and ways of dress, evident in Magugu’s collection, that are usually imparted by the first social group you are exposed to between infancy and adolescence (Sincero, 2011).

In an interview with AnOther Magazine, Magugu states that “I want to take the things that have happened in South Africa culturally and historically and translate them into a fashion lexicon so people can see my clothes as modern relics or something encyclopaedic” (Mohammed, 2022).

In many ways, we need more designers and retailers who are brave and who are emotionally invested in creating fashion that appreciates the beauty and relevance of South African consumers’ unique identities and cultures.

By Jenna Segal, Programme Coordinator, and Keesha Sempe student, at STADIO School of Fashion


  • Identity

  • Diversity

  • Culture

Reference List

Kawamura Y, 2018. Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies. New York: Bloomsburg publishing.

Mohammed, S. 2022. Thebe Magugu: “I Want My Clothes to Be Relics for South Africa”. [Online] Available from:

Mower, S. 2021. Thebe Magugu: Spring 2022 Ready-to-Wear. [Online] Available from:

Schwartz, S.H. and Sadie, G. 2000. Value Consensus and Importance. A Cross-Nations Study. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 31(4):465-497. DOI:10.1177/0022022100031004003.

Sincero, S.M. 2011. Socialisation. [Online]. Available from:

Thebe Magugu. 2022. The “Genealogy” Collection. TM. SS2022. [Online]. Available from:

Cover Image Credit: Eunice Driver Photography


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