EIn Steve McQueens’ movie Lovers Rock, two girls arrive at a party. The man at the door, impressed by their outfits, lets them in for nothing. It’s lovely to have such well-made ladies, he said. Well put together could be the motto of the sweetheart rock scene style in the British black community of the 70s and early 80s: ruffled dresses, sleek suits and styled hair were the focus. The tale here, a sweet love story with extended dance streaks for the 1979 hit Silly Games Janet Kays, as well as Carl Douglass Kung-Fu Fighting, is even more evocative with a glamorous, new look.
Unlike the fashion around other reggae subgenres, pointy ska combinations, for example, or root red, gold, and green, this look hasn’t seen much screen time before. . It was quite difficult to find a reference, says Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer of the films. To find out more, she spoke to the parents of the casts for their memories of clothing at the time. I started to think about how awesome it was to see a style that hasn’t really been appropriate or taken back into fashion in the years since.
The time may have come for a change. In addition to the McQueens movie, designer Grace Wales Bonner called her fall collection Lovers Rock, inspired by Photographs by John Gotos in a book of the same name, documenting black youth at a Lewisham community center in 1977. The creator says the McQueens film struck her as a moving photograph, having studied archival footage from the time. She says she noticed a simplicity of the clothes, which is enhanced by the person who wears them. Whether you make your own clothes or their second-hand clothes, it gives them something, a sense of the imagination, she says.
The young people in this scene are said to be mostly born in the UK, the children of Caribbean immigrants. This meant that there was a change in attitude towards style on their parents ‘part, with the lovers’ rock look highlighting it. The previous generation may have been much more consistent in terms of dress, says Wales Bonner. [In the 70s] it’s like: we were born here. In terms of style, [its more] expressive, playful and confident.
Confident is a word that also resonates with Carol Tulloch. An academic, his book The birth of Cool discusses the importance of clothing to the post-war Caribbean community in the UK. She says the lovers’ rock look followed the movement of black consciousness, the 70s and Afro and Rastafarianism. It’s very black, it’s a very black aesthetic, but it’s a much quieter way to communicate that look. Tulloch recounts an anecdote of a French colleague who is also black questioning the inclusion of a photograph of a young woman with a sweetheart rock hairstyle in an exhibition they were co-hosting. It seemed very ordinary to her, Tulloch said. I said: It’s the complete opposite of the ordinary! It is sobriety that is powerful. The underestimation came from the confidence of who they were.
An assembled glamor was an aspiration for both men and women. Reggae star Gregory Isaacs, in his dapper suits, was the style icon for men at the time, including Tullochs’ brother who she says straddled the laid back style and rock lovers. When they were growing up in Doncaster, and he went out, the music was on, the bed was moved out, so he had room while he was getting dressed. Then we got the smell of aftershave, and we went down the stairs, and he was out.
There was perhaps more freedom for this generation to play with style; to mix references from both their Caribbean heritage and the British culture in which they had grown up. Those in the lovers’ rock scene, for example, wore Aquascutum and Burberry checks. The appropriation of British-style details was already happening in Jamaica, Durran says. The Burberry checkered thing and the Clarks shoes and all that British stuff. [They were] very has become a part of the Jamaican style, and retired to England to make this look.
For Wales Bonner, these intersections are exciting. She says she’s drawn to the way immigrant communities make sense of their culture here, but also embrace certain things, traditions and codes. I remember reading about those Indian women who were really in those cardigans and knits that they wouldn’t have had Even something like Clarks, Jamaica, they really represent proper British manufacture, and are a sign of status . I am always interested in how things can be transformed. I think this is where the style gets really inventive.
While rock fans enjoy a moment in the spotlight, reggae style in general is also a fashion inspiration. Wales Bonner just launched a collaboration with Adidas inspired by Bob Marley’s wardrobe, and his spring collection, showcased with a film in June, traces the beginnings of dancehall in Jamaica. It’s an era that she says has radically changed in style. 84-year-old dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry was featured on the Kaleidoscope magazine cover wearing Gucci. And Nicholas Daley took inspiration from reggae singer Peter Tosh for his spring collection. Daley was influenced by the reggae parties his parents threw in Scotland in the 1970s. His own Reggae Klub T-shirt a recreation of a design made by his parents launched this week. And he will organize an immersive exhibition, Back to Slygo a play on IMan SLYGo, the DJ name her father uses at the NOW Gallery in London in February.
Tulloch believes that all examples of reggae music and style put together, whether ska, rock lovers or dancehall, form a continuous line. [Its about] the importance of music in the lives of black people in Britain, whether secular or not, she says. And you can’t separate the clothes that go with it, whether it’s secular or not.