Eastside Community Heritage has been working with young people from Sarah Bonnell and Forest Gate secondary schools to explore, document and present the history of black African and Caribbean fashion by presenting their very own exhibition and fashion show.
Trendsetters is exploring the history of Black cultural expression in Britain through clothes and fashion. Young black men and women inspire street fashion and major fashion designers and although the industry remains aloof, this project is documenting the important contribution and style ideas commonly exploited by the fashion industry over the past 100 years.
The group has researched the history and influence of black fashion and designers in Britain over the last 100 years. By visiting various museums, interviewing designers and recording and documenting their friends and families stories and experiences as trendsetters. The material is being used to assist the group in designing and creating their own designs to produce and direct a fashion show and exhibition.
London is a cosmopolitan city, a melting pot of influences from all over the world. From a fashion point of view this makes it an exciting and dynamic place to live. For the Trendsetter project we focused on the historical influence of African and Caribbean style, an influence that has always been present even though it has not always been acknowledged.
In today’s British fashion world, people with an African or Caribbean heritage are represented as designers, models, television, presenters, pop and music stars. From haute couture to street fashion, they have made their mark throughout the industry and not just in the mainstream.
For the last two decades, African and Caribbean fashion has had an even greater profile through events like the Afro hair and beauty show which takes place every year at Alexandra Palace and awards ceremonies like the Mobos (Music of Black Origin) and the Emmas (Ethnic Multicultural Media Awards). African and Caribbean people have contributed enormously to British fashion. Long may the trend continue, but first let’s backtrack and look at some highlights from history.
Black people have been around in Britain probably since the Roman times when the country was occupied by Roman garrisons, among them, almost certainly, many Black soldiers. However we pick up the story in the 1500s when entertainers at the court of Elizabeth I were very popular. Though Elizabeth I was disgruntled enough to order edicts against the large number of ‘blackamoors and neggers’ in the land Shakespeare had lost his heart to a dark lady.
“And, to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans but thinking on thy face
One on another’s neck do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgement’s place.” [Sonnet 131 c 1594-7]
Moorish influences can be seen in the jewellery and tapestry of the time.
Our next pit stop is the 1700s when Olaudah Equiano was making impassioned speeches at London assemblies for the ending of slavery. In his autobiography he recalls the fashion of his native village in Nigeria from where he was snatched.
“The dress of both sexes is nearly the same. It generally consists of a long piece of calico, or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body, somewhat in the form of a highland plaid. This is usually dyed blue, which is our favourite colour. It is extracted from a berry, and is brighter and richer than any I have seen in Europe. Besides this, our women of distinction wear golden ornaments; which they dispose with some profusion on their arms and legs. When our women are not employed with the men in tillage, their usual occupation is spinning and weaving cotton, which they afterwards dye, and make it into garments”
The bright, decorative cloth that makes up the costumes for men and women is still typical for African fashion today. Though just like any other commodity in our fast, consumer-driven society prints go in and out of fashion in the blink of an eye. So if you want to ‘wrap up’ African style be sure to question the shopkeeper on the latest trends.
Before we leave the 1700s a nod to Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) a well known ‘dandy’ around London, famous for his style, wit and talent as a musician. It helped that he had many well-connected friends such as Dr Johnson and Laurence Sterne. Granville Sharp, a contemporary historian estimated the number of black people in London at around 20,000 in a city of 676,250 people. The population of Britain at the time was only 3 million so the Black population was quite significant.
The abolition of the slave trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century (slavery was ended by Government edict in 1809) slowed the growth of the black population of London. However London was already very mixed with Jews, Blacks, Chinese, Indians, Poles, Frenchmen and Italians working and living, some thriving, many not. The most visible Black people in Victorian society were performers – prize-fighters, actors, musicians and singers. Black Americans frequently travelled here in pursuit of opportunities or to show their talent. The Fisk Jubilee Singers from the Fisk Free Colored University in Nashville toured Britain in 1874-5 and introduced Queen Victoria to gospel music.
1900s to the present
1920s, Wardour Street, London, the heart of the West End was alive with shebeens, drinking clubs and dance halls catering to a diverse Black population. American cabaret stars like Adelaide Hall, Bill Bojangles, Florence Mills and a young Paul Robeson, who were touring in huge, all-Black musicals like Shuffle Along and Blackbirds brought an extravagant style to the metropolis. When Robeson returned to the UK in the 30s to make 7 big budget films, the British studios were able to cast the hundreds of Black extras needed from the populations in London. However divisions had opened up in Black entertainment, just like in the USA, between the uptown clubs where Black nightclub stars performed for largely White clientele and a growing underground scene.
1950s and 1960s
Music has always been an important driver of fashion. High energy music of blue-beat and ska, created by 1950s generation of immigrants from the Caribbean developed into a subculture. This subculture took its place between other youth oriented trends springing up like the mods and the teddy boys. Followers dress code took their inspiration from 50s America – for ladies it was Capri pants and matching tie tops or full, swirling skirts, white popsocks and coiffed hairdos; for the gents dark, well cut suits (zoot suits) with trousers that ended above highly polished winkle picker shoes and porkpie hats.
For African-Caribbean women of the Windrush generation (named for the ship Empire Windrush that arrived at Tilbury Docks in 1948) make-up products were impossible to come by so they had to improvise. They also recall the damage that was caused by the chemical perms from America. Incredible to believe now but in the 1950s and 1960s caustic soda was used to straighten hair.
The 1950s also saw the first carnival in London, initiated by Claudia Jones as a way of supporting the Black London community and making them proud of their heritage. The roots of Carnival comes from a time when slaves in the Caribbean would use costume, masquerade and dance to express their creativity and political resistance to their masters. Nowadays the Notting Hill carnival is a multicultural festival though it still retains the elements of masquerade, steel drum and street procession.
When blue beat and ska were revived in the late 1970s through bands like The Specials, The Beat, Madness it introduced two-tone fabric to the fashion and the gangster ‘rude boy’ style of downtown Jamaica. The black and white check of the British ‘rude boys’ and ‘rude girls’ also became symbolic of racial unity, young people defiantly asserting their right to integrate and rejecting racial violence. The Walt Jabsco image of the two-tone record label encapsulates the look – a silhouette of a man in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, pork pie hat, white socks, and black loafers.
1970s was also the time that Reggae made a breakthrough in the British charts. Bob Marley typified a new kind of hero, spiritual, socially conscious and 100% natural which contrasted with the ‘dressing up’ ethos of the 1950s and 1960s. Along with musicians like Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer he was associated with the burgeoning protest movement. Rastas with their trademark red, gold and green colours were highly visible.
Another influence was the Black Power movement from the States which brought a fashion for high afros, bell bottom trousers, platform shoes, dashiki tops and ‘ethnic’ fabrics. Reggae and Black Power movement were very important for the sense of cultural and social identity and confidence they gave to Black, particularly young people.
The extravagance of disco fever was also added to the 1970s mix. Blaxpoitation movies like Coffy, Foxy Brown and Shaft encouraged experimentation and freedom to the maximum with sequined boob tubes, lycra catsuits and an abundance of fur. It seemed as if the era had gone mad – so much posing or styling out, an emphasis on individual expression with a great spoonful of defiance.
Sportswear as leisure wear was big in the 1980s thanks to the explosion of rap music from the USA. Rap stars had a fondness for branded tracksuits and thick gold jewellery. It seemed to be about conformity or at least understating your coolness while flaunting your wealth. Come the 1990s, ragga dancehall introduced a much more provocative look. Beach fashion, the skimpier the better, glitter, vampish wigs and long nails. Ragga girls liked animal prints for example snake, zebra, leopard and daisy dukes (trousers with the bottom cut out). It was all about bright colours and show your style. When ragga meets rap, everybody has to either come with attitude or don’t come at all. Out on the floor it is a competition of style as well as dance moves.
Throughout the history of fashion in London, the African Caribbean influence has brought attitude, colour, humour, music and creativity. It experiments with highly decorated fabrics, extravagant costumes and is proud of being highly visible on the street. The hairstyles can be incredible, there is great individuality and freedom which can lead to a competitive element. It has fed into the subcultures of the street – from two tone rude boys and girls, Afrocentric dashiki-wearing 70s fans to the trends of today influenced by the 3-Rs of ragga, rap and R ‘n B. Without a doubt African-Caribbeans have brought style.
Photos from the Trendsetters project
Designers and Models
Forest Gate Secondary School, East London and Sarah Bonnell Secondary School, Stratford, East London: Ana, Atifa, Beatrice, Chanel, Cyan, Cynthia, Danielle, Debbie, Frances, Gurmet, Jeffrey, Kamoi, Kemi, Janelle, Juliette, Leila, Lisa, Mafalda, Maleika, Mariama, Melissa, Michael, Paula, Peace, Priya, Regina, Rene, Roni, Shafia, Shakeela, Shakira, Sherrelle, Shikina, Simone, Soraya, Tasian, Tayma, Tobi.
Eastside Community Heritage
Heritage Lottery Fund, UK- Young Roots programme
Also thanks to
Victoria and Albert Museum London, Industrial Heritage Museum Bristol, Carol Tullock, Black Cultural Archives and Stratford Town Hall