Sunday, 20 September 2009





'Black British Style', the current costume show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, raises a lot of complex issues for someone like myself. I am not black, but I am undoubtedly West Indian. My family have lived in different parts of the West Indies for more than three hundred years, and in Jamaica for more than a century.


The first wave of black immigrants to the United Kingdom arrived there more or less when I did, immediately after World War II, and initially they came from the West Indies, rather than from Africa itself. Black culture in Britain still speaks with a predominantly West Indian accent, though they are now many people in Britain of directly African descent.


The exhibition organisers have tried to keep this in mind, but occasionally their aim wavers. Essentially they would like black culture in the UK to be more genuinely African than in fact it is. One can't blame them too much for this, as they share their wish with many black people now living in Britain, and especially with a new class of Afro-Caribbean intellectuals.


The truth is that Africans, both within Africa and outside it, often think of black West Indians, and also of African Americans, as "white men in black men's skins" - both because they are detribalised, and because the majority are of mixed race.


While skirting round this awkward fact, the exhibits themselves tell a complicated story. A major theme is self-consciousness - self-consciousness about being black in a white society. There was, initially at least, a fierce impulse towards respectability - a respectability often linked to religion. In Jamaica it is the custom to dress up to go to church, and there are examples of conservative 'church-going' clothes here.


Gradually, however, other themes began to manifest themselves. One was Rastafarianism - the cult of an imaginary African Utopia, centred on the figure of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. Another was the American Black Power movement, which brought with it a fashion for camouflage-patterned army surplus clothing. A third was the assimilation by black style of London street style, and the interaction between the two. Chiefly this came about through the presence of black personalities - rappers and rap groups in particular -  as part of the flourishing London club scene.


One peculiarity of black style is the emphasis on the male. The exhibition doesn't devote much, if any, discussion to this, but the fact remains that the majority of the clothes on view are costumes for men, not costumes for women. This has its roots firmly fixed in West Indian culture. This is the case, even though women are the dominant force in the typical Jamaican social unit. The situation is described in a pioneer work of Jamaican sociology, My Mother Who Fathered Me by Edith Clarke, published as long ago as 1957.


The book notes a common pattern - a woman will have children by several men, none of whom offer her much support. She therefore has to be the main breadwinner. When she goes out to work, the children will be looked after by her own mother, whose earlier life followed a similar pattern.


To some extent at least this pattern, which is ultimately derived from the experience of slavery [because slavery discouraged the creation of family bonds] persists among West Indian immigrants to Britain. It has tended to produce a race of peacock men - men who wear fine feathers in order to attract as many females as possible. They advertise themselves as great inseminators, if not necessarily as great providers.


The result is the phenomenon sometimes known as 'bling'. Bling was a word originally applied to outrageously conspicuous jewellery, of the sort sported by rap stars and successful DJs. It is closely linked to the London clubbing scene. The desire to dazzle rapidly spread from jewellery to clothes.


Black male dandyism combines several elements. First, the simple uninhibited desire to shine. Secondly, a desire to assert cultural difference. Third, and perhaps increasingly, a sense of irony. Standard 'white bread' good taste is subtly subverted.


One of London's tailors-of-the-moment is Oswald Boateng, who is of Ghanaian origin. He is famous for suits cut a little more sharply than the Saville Row norm, with outrageously colourful linings. His work is an example of the impact of the black sense of style on the high end of the British market. By no means all, nor even the majority, of his clients are black. He makes clothes for Mick Jagger and for the film-star Keanu Reeves.


Minority groups notoriously have a disproportionately large impact on mainstream fashion. The best known example is the way in which gay taste increasingly influences the life-style of the 'straight' majority. This has recently been emphasised by a number of television make-over shows in Britain and in the United States, where a bunch of gay guys set out to transform the appearance of a heterosexual slob.


Something like this is happening with black fashion, but more quietly. The show at the Victoria and Albert Museum is just one sign of what is likely to be a continuing process. 


This site was last updated 20-09-2009