While the physical similarities between Clinton Kelly and Robert Moffat are hard to argue, the missions of Moffat and Kelly can be deemed similar. Robert Moffat, one of the pioneer evangelists discussed in Jean Comaroff’s article titled “The Empire’s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject” was one of many Nonconformist missionaries from Europe who entered South Africa in the nineteenth century to civilize the Tswana people. These Nonconformists made it their mission to “cover African ‘nakedness’–in particular, to make the Southern Tswana susceptible to the aesthetics of European fashion” (Comaroff, 1996, p.20). While on this mission to civilize the Tswana people, the Nonconformists in turn encouraged South Africans to switch to a colonial economy which had marked class distinctions throughout dress and appearance. While the jump from the Nonconformists’ mission to “save” the Tswana people and Clinton Kelly and Stacy London’s mission to help various participants rid themselves of fashion faux pas might seem like a large one, their overall messages are similar.
When the Europeans first arrived in South Africa to help the poor, naked Tswana people, they were rejected by some. Although many Tswana were interested in the new clothing practices that the Europeans brought with them, some South Africans saw it as a Western nation trying to change their traditions and culture. The Tswana people “tended to treat objects of Western adornment as signs of exotic force; those introduced by the mission were soon identified as sekgoa, ‘white things'” (Comaroff, 1996, p.26). The Southern Tswana were reluctant to let the Western objects and traditions influence them and therefore labeled them as foreign. Before Western influence appeared to be a threat to the Tswana people, they enjoyed using sekgoa clothing experimentally. Once the Tswana people realized the influence that Western civilization could have on their cultures and traditions, some began to reject it. This is very easily compared to the beginning of each episode of “What Not to Wear” when the participants try to save their favorite items of clothing from the infamous trash container. Some participants even fight Stacy and Clinton, most of the time unsuccessfully of course, to keep their most precious pieces of clothing, as seen in the clip below.
The woman shown in this clip, LeAnne, is explained to be a practicing witch. While this is not common, the similarities between witches wanting to keep their own cultures and dress and Southern Tswana wanting to maintain their traditions is clear. Clinton and Stacy’s disgust of LeAnne’s wardrobe of long, black dresses and colorful accessories is shown by Stacy saying “No self-respecting, modern day witch can wear these.” This quote is reminiscent of Mrs. Moffat’s letter to her friend in London. Moffat remarks, “all the heathen population besmear themselves with red ochre and grease, and as the Christians must necessarily come in contact, with their friends among the heathen, they soon look miserable enough” (Comaroff, 1996, p.28). Both LeAnne and the Tswana people are shown to be people who have lost their way, who clearly don’t know the true importance of physical appearance and who need to be helped. Both the hosts of “What Not to Wear” and the Nonconformists feel unfortunate to even have to associate or come into contact with people as naive and unknowledgeable as LeAnne and the Southern Tswana.
As shown in both “What Not to Wear” and Comaroff’s article, the unfashionable are at first given acceptable clothing as charity. On the show, the participants are given a $5,000 gift card to spend on clothing that is approved by Stacy and Clinton. Participants are given guidelines to shop by and when they do not follow these, they are quickly corrected by the fashion gurus. In Mrs. Moffat’s letter on page 28 of the article, she lets her friend know what clothing would be acceptable to send to South Africa. Although they are giving these people clothing as charity, they are enforcing strict guidelines about what clothing they can receive. Once the policing of clothing is over, the Southern Tswana and the participants on the TLC show sometimes revert back to their old ways. This is seen in the article when Comaroff discusses some Tswanas’ ability to combine the clothing material given by the Nonconformists and their traditional clothing techniques. For “What Not to Wear,” this is seen on the “Then and Now” episodes, where Stacy and Clinton spy on some of their previous participants and see if they are keeping up with the fashion rules they set for them. As expected, some of the participants have reverted back to their drab, awful, unfashionable ways.
In both “What Not to Wear” and “The Empire’s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject,” members of society who do not see clothing or appearance as important are reformed and shown the right way. What harmful effects do you think that this had on the Tswana people and the participants in the TLC show? How do shows like “What Not to Wear” change people’s perceptions of themselves and their clothing? Are they helpful to participants’ self-esteem? Do you think that shows like “What Not to Wear” are produced simply to push people to spend more money on their clothing and overall appearance or is it some other motivation? What other modern day comparisons to Jean Comaroff’s article can you think of?