If you decide to venture out of your PJs this bank holiday weekend (UK readers), and for those who need convincing to seek civilization, then take this last opportunity to head over to Somerset House in London to see the ‘Return of the Rudeboy’ exhibition. This is not a retrospective of a cultural phenomenon but an exploration of a movement whose roots began in 1950s Jamaica, sailed over to the UK with West Indian migrants, resurged with 2Tone Ska music in the 1980s and today exists, evolved, but ever-present.
A fascinating article entitled ‘Rude boys: Shanty Town to Savile Row’ on The Guardian website by Sean O’Hagan discusses the inextricable link between Rudeboys (conscious effort on my part has to be taken not to separate the term into two words) and music. Rudeboys, like so many characters in movements, are a culmination of music, politics and fashion-in no order chronologically or of importance. To paraphrase the origin of Rudeboys, their emergence also marked out the acquisition of a new self-confidence and sense of self-reinvention among the young and disaffected that was related to Jamaican independence in 1962. It is this attitude which shaped and shapes the aesthetic of the original and current Rudies, and now Rudegirls. As Harris Elliot, one of the co-producers of the exhibition, states “It is the wearers, not the clothes that make a Rudeboy.” In my opinion, this is true of any fashion trend or style-clothes maketh not the man, if you need to tell someone you are something, you clearly are not.
Jamaican Rudeboys of the 50s took their swagger from the likes of American folk blues musician Stagger Lee and Hollywood Westerns so loved in the cinemas of the tiny island. When West Indians came to the UK the music they brought with them thrived in London and was revitalised by the 2 Tone movement in the wake of late 70s punk most recognised in bands such as the Specials and Madness. As the migrant music absorbed its surroundings, so too did the sartorial sense of the Rudeboy. City dressing – sharp suits, pork-pie hats, shiny shoes – epitomised on Savile Row heightened Rudeboys’ pride in immaculate dress. ‘Sunday Best’ is still at the heart of Rudeboy dressing. The concept of one’s ‘Sunday Best’ stems from the idea of clothes suitable for wearing at church or special occasions. A sense of ritual, ceremony and consciousness marks todays Rudeboys and girls. My favourite piece exhibited was a pair of smart black men’s shoes which had been personalised with plasters, unrecognisable as being so if you do not read the adjacent sign.
Even if the music played or clothes on show do not entice you out then the photography really should. Although many of the photos were taken on the streets of London, Dean Chalkey (Elliot’s artistic partner), is at pains to point out that the sitters were not styled they “…all presented themselves as they are.” The use of the surroundings and camera angles are unlike any photographic tropes I have ever seen. If the photos disappoint then take inspiration from the portraits and sit in one of the chairs in the pop-up barbers for some facial hair re-styling.
As I was exiting the gallery, a young man dressed sharply in tweed jacket and cap with well-polished shoes stopped me. He had spotted me writing quotes in a notebook and asked if I was a journo; I replied “of sorts” which was the beginning of a discussion into if Rudeboys are dead. The young man, or teenager as I reckoned him to be, expressed the view that if many of his friends who are in trouble with the police dressed as dapper as Rudies did or do, and jumped the social sartorial stereotype, then they would not be stopped and searched so much. I said I doubted this as the police change their criminal profilings and pointed to the many ruffians who began the movement in Jamaica.
On this train of thought that clothes are so much more than something to cover your body, I will end on a quote which is emblazoned on the wall of Somerset House from one of the Rudies, T-Micael, who had his portrait displayed “Stylistic impression stems from a desire to change, or contribute to change, on a far greater level.”
Return of the Rudeboy ends Sunday 24th August.