Each season, Thebe Magugu chooses a story from South Africa or the African continent that he “fears runs the risk of being forgotten.” This season he zeroed in on Saartje Baartman, otherwise known as the “Hottentot Venus,” who in the early 1800s was smuggled into England and turned into a sideshow act on account of her body, especially her rather large posterior. It is one of the many harrowing stories to come out of the colonial period, and that Magugu has been able to turn it into a beautiful collection of clothes is rather unsettling, and it would likely not work in the hands of any other designer.
A black crepe shirt and long skirt had a print of a map in pink that highlighted Baartman’s traverse through Africa and England. In keeping with the historical nature of his project, Magugu imbued the collection with certain references to the era. “I think there’s a Victorian influence that comes into play through the high necklines, and a lot of the very conservative silhouettes,” he said over a recent Zoom, “but then there’s that modern spin on it that can make it look like wearable clothes for today.” At the bottom of the pleated skirt, the scalloped edges had a coin affixed to each tip, a nod to the way Baartman was “paraded around London for coins and money.”
In keeping with the Victorian themes, there were slim button-down shirts and dresses with a slightly high collar. Highlights included a light yellow pinstriped dress adorned with a black ribbon and black crystal in lieu of a cameo at the neck, and worn with a wide patent leather corset; as well as a red suit made from Japanese denim, which had been “scratched and aged strategically” into a print, revealing a slight pink hue underneath.
The story Magugu aimed to tell came through most clearly in a print he developed with an illustrator in Johannesburg by the name of Phathu Membwilwi, which featured Baartman’s silhouette and was used to great effect on a series of slinky silk dresses—most notably a light yellow caftan with slits at the waist where a blue obi belt with Magugu’s insignia was affixed. “When Phathu sent me the artwork, I sort of broke it apart on Illustrator,” Magugu recalled. “So you’ll see her thigh in one place, or her feet or her body in another place. And I think symbolically it speaks to that sort of fragmentation of being dropped into a completely sort of foreign place; but also a physical fragmentation as well, which is so harrowing.”