From Windrush to Ms Dynamite: 50 years of black British style

A new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum charts changing fashions, and their influence on white Britons. Arifa Akbar reports
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The Independent Online

It was style, it was image, it was politics. Black Britons have displayed their own view of fashion since the Windrush passengers arrived in their formal Sunday best, a style that was the direct predecessor of the "bling" of today. White youth culture has been quick to follow, but academic assessment has only just caught up, with a new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Black British Style covers half a century of fashion trends, tracing the sartorial elegance of the West Indian and African diaspora to hip-hop street wear. The show, which opens on Thursday, looks at the evolving identities of black Britons, from the post-Empire suit-and-hat of the 1950s to the military fatigues and Rastafarian caps of black consciousness in the 1970s, and "ghetto fabulous" garments of the 1980s.

The show's curators, Shaun Cole and Carol Tulloch, said it was both a historical review and an assessment of how profoundly black culture had permeated British society. "The themes cover the various journeys that black people have taken to establish their identities since the 1950s and to look at how these feature in contemporary culture," Mr Cole said.

An assortment of 48 Adidas, DC and Puma trainers owned by the drum-and-bass musician Goldie stand in a glass cabinet, while another section displays the graffiti jacket and beanie hat designed by Walé Adeyemi and worn by David Beckham and his son Romeo in September 2003.

David Adjaye, who designed the show, called the exhibition - the first of its kind - a "belated" effort to present the meaning and impact of black style in Britain. "Black fashion and style has been infiltrating mainstream culture for the past 30 years and has been subconsciously accepted. Black style is youth style. This thing that is seen as the fringe is actually the image of youth culture. The references and sources of that have to be acknowledged."

The smart suits worn by the first wave of immigrants are reflected in the modern-day, sharply tailored, Savile Row three-pieces worn by the boxer Chris Eubank. Traditional black glamour is modernised by music icons including Ms Dynamite, whose red leather trouser suit from the 2002 Mobo awards is featured in the show, as is a knee-length puff-ball dress worn by Shirley Bassey in 1961. A section on racial inequalities and consciousness features a "Free Angela Davis" T-shirt, referring to the 1970s activist, and a conceptual T-shirt called "Freedom One Day", by Chris Ofilli and Joe Casely-Hayford, which uses the red, gold, green and black thematic colours of Africa to explore the idea of liberation.

The orange skirt suit worn by Dr Beryl Gilroy, who came to Britain from Grenada in 1951 and became London's first black headteacher, stands at the front of the exhibition as a poignant reminder of the immigrants who were at pains to "present themselves with pride" in the hope of being accepted into their host society.

Mr Adeyemi said the concept of "bling" - a show of conspicuous consumption - paralleled the pride that the first black Britons took dressing. "It was more than about clothes. It was about lifestyle. It has always been about showing what you have got and making the best of what you have. Style and fashion is a big way of expression for the community. Some of the glamorous women's outfits hung up here could be straight out of my mother's wardrobe.

"Seeing the outfits similar to what my parents would wear make me realise how glamorous they were. My mum used to put me and my sister on the sofa when we were young and we'd spend hours changing outfits and putting jewellery on to have our picture taken.

"Looking at the fashions in the show, I would say they are not just black style but popular style. Black fashion and music has made a lot of impact in the past few decades. David Beckham's image is about how we have grown up in Britain, to what extent our worlds have mixed."

The exhibition continues until 16 January.