In the run-up to the Windrush anniversary the vintage images of the men and women arriving in Britain, encapsulated the hopes and expectations of thousands of people who left the Caribbean in search of a better life for themselves and their family. The images were an indication of the long complex and on going relationship between Britain and the Caribbean. Just looking at the images fashion was an important part of Caribbean culture. The images record motivated people coming to Britain to create opportunity.
The 1950s was a decade for youthful freedoms breaking away from the woes and restraint of the turbulent 1940s. The Caribbean islands experienced economic strain; Jamaica saw low wages, strikes and political divide. Britain ‘The Mother Country’ needed men and women to rebuild an economy weakened by the war years. Many Caribbean men and women fought for Britain in the Second World War, many felt they would be welcomed in Britain. The international appeal from Britain to Commonwealth countries must have been a welcome call to those wanting a better life, adventure or both.
“Dressed in an odd assortment of clothes, many wearing ties of dazzling designs, over 450 Jamaicans arrived at Tilbury Docks on the Empire Windrush to settle down in the Mother Country” Thurrock Gazette headline 1948.
Footage filmed by British Pathe show the large white ship slowly docking, bursting with young sartorial cool cats that journeyed to Britain with optimism and charisma. A builder, a carpenter, an apprentice, accountant, a welder, a teacher, a spray-painter, a boxer, a musician, a mechanic, a valet, a calypso singer, a seamstress, a tailor, and a law student – were just some of the occupations of the passengers on board.
A pamphlet produced by the West Indies high commission in 1959 advised Caribbean’s who wish to travel called ‘Going To Britain? – BBC pamphlet’ points out the practical importance of the types of clothing needed cooler temperatures, there were stories of those catching flu, bronchitis and pneumonia.
“Dress For The Cold! We have to say over and over that England is a cold country. This is my third visit here, so when I was leaving home on New Years Eve of 1958, I dressed myself in warm woollen socks and underwear, a serge suit, a sturdy pair of shoes, and I carried my woollen sweater, scarf, and heavy overcoat. I decided not to take any risks with my health.”
In 2016, ‘Stories in a Suitcase’ exhibition by National Caribbean Heritage Museum explored what the Windrush generation may have brought with them to the UK, this included 1950s-1970s mock-ups of luggage. Notice the hot comb, curlers and tongs in one of the cases. Many women and men straightened their hair by coating it with protective pomade and straitening it with a heated metal comb. This technique transformed the tight curls of Afro hair into straight hair with a pomaded sheen. The hair remained straight until it had contact with water; many women wore stylish headscarves which were already fashionable in different ways to protect the hair from the rain.
The ‘50s American movie and garment industry was at its height; the prominence of film stars set the tone for fashion and style. Many desired look-alike copies of outfits, accessories and jewellery worn by the most popular screen idols like Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte. Caribbean’s like most western countries, wanted to emulate what they saw on the big screen and recreate the designs.
Mail order catalogue’s like Littlewoods, Freemans and Sears were a veritable wonderland of the latest fashions, including sewing patterns. Popular trends, rounded shoulders, shapely bust lines, closely defined waistlines, and full billowy skirts defined women’s fashions. The tea dress arrived and the shapes were easy to construct, by following the sewing instructions, many taught themselves the necessary skills, running up a dress in a few hours. The electric sewing machine, made sewing easier as it had various stitch features and speeds, neatening and quickening the process. The garments made then were fully lined in true couture style, with quality materials.
Most men wore a cotton shirt with a collar and tie and formal leather shoes. The prevailing suit designs were wool, cut fuller and more comfortable. The fashion must have for Caribbean men was the fedora hat and the two-tone cap shoes. Brown and white leather combined with wool fabric or mixed with suede, embossed leather, reptile or other thick textures. The mixing of smooth and rough textures and shade of colours is very iconic of 1950s men’s shoe style. Daring Caribbean men, inspired by African-American jazz musicians, often wore Zoot suits. It consisted of high waisted, wide-legged trousers, worn with a long jacket.
A generation of dressmakers and tailors have a long legacy in British Caribbean communities. Most Caribbean’s knew or know of a dressmaker or tailor, with the skills to sew a whole outfit. My late grandmother, a full time nurse at the time, was that person; people from church and community would ask for all manner of garments for weddings, conventions, holidays, christenings, the list went on. I remember helping by pinning and tacking garment after garment.
Caribbean style is born of a dynamic blend of cultures formed over hundreds of years, vibrance coupled with poise and a carefree spirit. Fashion for the first Windrush generation was a means of respectability and self-importance; a way to rise above stereotypes, despite this, on arrival many would face alienation and racism at every level. This treatment included not being able to find accommodation, open bank accounts, or secure loans or mortgages. Howard Grey, an amateur photographer in 1962 photographed new arrivals at Waterloo station to capture ‘rowdy’ Caribbean’s causing disruption, instead, he explained his expectation was wrong, he said ‘it was all very ‘English’ and quiet’ as families greeted each other on the platforms.
The visual record of the first Windrush images are an important part of British and Caribbean visual history, a valuable part of our cultural memory. The images capture style and the birth of the Windrush legacy; of integration and struggle. They also serve as a mirror of the times, desires, habits, customs, and mode of living. For many the images are a reminder of the hopes and personal sacrifices made by that generation who were journeying to Britain, for a new life.
Written By Serena Lee