Part Two. Fashion at the center of the civil rights movement.

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During the mid 1970’s soul style declined in popularity in the US as movements rejuvenated in other parts of the black Diaspora.

Here we are going to explore how soul style looked when it was exported from the US to England and South Africa.

This is episode number Two of “Fashion at the center of the civil rights movement”. 

Black people arriving in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries have been labelled the Windrush generation.

This is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived on the 22nd of June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK.

Photo PA

The ship carried 492 passengers - many of them children.

The Guardian wrote in 2013.

"The history of black people in this country from Windrush until at least the 1970s is one of being treated as second-class citizens.”

As many afro caribbeans migrated to England after WWII, girls started to realize for the first time that they were outsiders. In the Caribbean Islands there was only one race they knew about. A race with many shades but all black. When they arrived in England they were confronted with a very different reality than in their caribbean countries. A white dominated country posed many challenges among afro caribbeans starting with their hair. 

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In the Caribbean culture, it was important that a girl wore her hair naturally because it was a sign of feminine beauty and potential as a wife. In the US it was the opposite, it was a sign of class mobility to have their hair coiffed. For jamaican mothers to have their daughters immaculate hair styled with plaits and ribbons was a sign of good parenting.

African American Madame CJ Walker expanded her beauty and hair care products empire around the 1920’s and 1930’s to the caribbean, she taught women to sell their products and also new methods to beautify themselves. But still the practice of doing their hair in public was not accepted, because of the notions of respectability, they wouldn't allow themselves to be seen in public at beauty salons. It was a secret to be kept that they were boosting their image.

Women in the caribbean only started to straighten their hair after they had more contact with white people.

Before the 1950’s there were almost no hair salons in Britain that would cater to black hair needs. So when all these women came from the islands they were in a completely new territory regarding their hair care. They were not comfortable styling it in public and because of the white dominated population, there were almost no products or places for them to go.

Also for spiritual reasons, black women believed that their hair was an intimate part of their beings and would not let a stranger touch it.

A younger generation started breaking with these views toward hairstyling. American advertisement and the mass production of hair care products marketed for black women made products more available. Advertisement made the process of beatification modern and chic.

In the 1970’s the beauty culture industry became very lucrative for black women. Hair care became a booming business in London allowing black women to become financially independent and also service people from their own community.

Girls that came at a young age from the caribbean to England wanting to celebrate their black identities started moving toward the nascent Blak Power movement.

Young students would gather at record stores and other black operated cultural institutions. Once the police discovered that black british teens were using such places as their cultural and political resistance they started intervening violently. 

It was this tension that gave way to the soul style expression in London. It was the afro wearing time. The late 1960’s and 1970’s were the days of soul, and they were the people of soul.

Women wore afros, bell bottoms, and black panther t-shirts and black panther tote bags with black power patches giving new political and cultural value to black bodies in white british society. But as seen by school officials and police this attire was confrontational. They had to battle to even wear their afros. 

Photo Kingship

The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary socialist political organization founded in the United States. Its core practice was its open carry armed citizens' patrols ("cop watching ") to monitor the behavior of officers of the Oakland Police Department and challenge police brutality in the city.

Black was a political affiliation and a cultural identity. South Asians also called themselves black in response to the segregation and common oppression faced as non whites in Britain. They were relegated to the poorest parts of town.

But souls' style was culturally back, it spoke of  a set of experiences specific to people of african descent so this distinction played an interesting role in the Brixton neighborhood.

Here we see an emergence of Afro caribbean youth culture developing in similar forms with very distinctive social meanings.

The London soul style blended African, Afro Caribbean and African American styles.

Olive Elaine Morris (1952–1979)

by unknown photographer, c.1978

© London Borough of Lambeth

Afro Caribbean Olive Morris, a freedom fighter, intentionally dressing androginous in her style, became black public enemy number one. Morris was a symbol against gendered norms and a fighter for black feminism and police brutality which Morris suffered by being punished differently than her male and female friends. With bare feet and her androgynous clothing she communicated irreverence and youth transgressing what was most perceived as the boundaries of what was respected of black womanhood.

In an early example of her political activism she intervened in the arrest of a Nigerian diplomat for a parking offense in Brixton in 1969. She was physically assaulted and racially abused by the police and arrested, along with six other people, fined£10, and given a three-month suspended sentence for two years.

The charges comprised assault on the police, threatening behavior, and possession of dangerous weapons.

Morris became ill during a trip to Spain in 1978. On her return to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and underwent treatment which was unsuccessful. She died on 12 July 1979 at St Thomas's Hospital, Lambeth.

During the apartheid in South Africa, a system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race, women also wore hot pants and stilettos and their afro looks deliberately to break from tradition. Women activists considered clothing that would show off their figures to be liberating, They would show off their figures with short tops, hot pants and very high heels they could also use as weapons. As expected, they would be confronted violently by the police so they armed themselves with heels. Their awareness of the dual use of their heels says everything about how politics and style went hand in hand during the apartheid era.

By this time the Afro term was ingrained in the black diaspora. It's the name of probably the most popular hairstyle used by balck women and men. But for blacks in the American Continent and Western Europe it was not only a style, the term Afro was used to describe their african origin. The prefix, Afro American, Afro Cuban, Afro Caribbean, connected them racially and gave them a national identity.

In contrast, for most Africans, the term Afro specifically made a reference to African American and their culture.

Next week as our final episode of “Fashion at the Center of the Civil Rights Movement”, we will speak about Africa, Apartheid and the present day.

Sources: Liberated Threads, Literary Hub, Huck Magazine, The Guardian, BBC, High Snobiety.

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