By Serena Lee
“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.
Photos of Caribbean men and women arriving in Britain, in the 1950s-60s encapsulate the hopes and expectations. The black and white images also capture the vintage fashions, style and influences of the 1950s. Just looking at these images, we see fashion and style was an important element of the Windrush generation.
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 1950s was the decade for youthful freedoms breaking away from the woes and restraint of the turbulent 1940s. The Caribbean islands experienced economic strain, low wages, strikes and political divide. Britain needed men and women to rebuild the economy weakened by the war years. Many Caribbean men and women fought for Britain in the Second World War, therefore, expected to be welcomed by the ‘mother country’. The international appeal to the commonwealth was a welcome call for a better life and adventure.
There were stories of many catching flu, bronchitis and pneumonia due to the voyage and cold weather in Britain. A pamphlet, produced by the West Indies high commission in 1959, advised Caribbean’s who wished to travel to the UK, ‘Going To Britain? – BBC pamphlet’ points out the practical importance of the types of clothing needed for the cooler temperatures.
“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 the National Caribbean Heritage Museum researched what the Windrush generation had packed and this included the 1950s-1970s mock-ups of open 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 straightening 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 in different ways to protect the hair from the rain.
The British Pathè footage filmed the large Windrush ship slowly docking into Tilbury docks. 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 – just some of the occupations of the passengers on board. Dressed head to toe in Sunday best; hats, suit jackets, gloves, scarfs long coats and tea dresses, their faces full of anticipation.
The 50s saw the rise of popular culture, driven by more leisure time and emerging youth culture. Morale was high, and clothing choices reflected social changes. The American movie industry was at its height, TV and film stars set the tone for fashion and style.
The dapper man of the 50s wore a casual suit jacket, with a structured shoulder, tapered trousers and two-tone shoes. Jazz musician Nat King Cole was the first African-American to host a primetime TV show. His slick back hair, suit jackets and slender ties complemented his smooth style. In 1954 the musical Carmen Jones was released, it featured an all-black cast. Leading actress Dorothy Dandridge oozed Hollywood glamour, her key look was a cinched in waist and short-cropped hair. Her leading man Harry Belafonte donned a fedora hat, classic white t-shirt and an army uniform. The film was instrumental in setting the tone for black fashion in the 50s. The Windrush migrants pictured arriving in the UK clearly influenced by American movie glamour.
Caribbean cinema goers desired copies of the outfits they saw on screen they recreated or ordered the designs worn by popular screen idols. Mail order catalogues were very popular and convenient way to stay up to date with the latest trends. Littlewoods, Freemans and Sears a wonderland of the latest fashions, silhouettes, colours and textures they included trace sewing patterns, templates from which the parts of a garment are traced onto fabric before being cut out and assembled. Many Caribbean’s became dressmakers and tailors, the garments were professionally made fully lined, with quality materials.
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, designed and produced all manner of garments for weddings, conventions, holidays, christenings, the list went on. I remember helping out 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. 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 me, the images remind me of the hopes and personal sacrifices my late grandparents made, journeying to Britain, for a better life.