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Hackney's Got Style! Exhibition celebrates history of African and Caribbean hair and style in Britain

PUBLISHED: 16:36 14 October 2019 | UPDATED: 09:30 17 October 2019

One of the images from the We Got Style exhibition. Picture: E. Bellot Archives

One of the images from the We Got Style exhibition. Picture: E. Bellot Archives

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To mark Black History Month, Hackney Museum has launched a new showcase, Hackney's Got Style!, to highlight the impact of black fashion and hair styles in the UK. The Gazette booked an appointment with the curators to find out more.

Images from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah BurgessImages from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah Burgess

Hackney Museum has unveiled its Black History Month exhibition Hackney's Got Style!, celebrating the social sophistication of African and Caribbean hair, clothing and barber shops here in Hackney.

Seven decades after the Windrush Generation began to arrive in 1948, many people in Britain remain unaware of the significance these hold as powerful symbols of Afro-Caribbean identity.

With careful guidance from the Hackney community, We Got Style! is setting about trying to change that.

Though there's been a strong African presence in Britain since the 17th century, the post-war era saw rapid development of Afro-Caribbean communities in places such as Hackney, when British officials invited people from the colonies to help rebuild a shattered urban landscape.

Images from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah BurgessImages from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah Burgess

As these communities grew, so did discrimination.

Museum manager Rebecca Odell, who co-curated the exhibition alongside Rowena Hillel and members of the community, told the Gazette: "In order to decide how to celebrate Black History Month, we held an open event at the museum.

"There was a good turnout with people of all ages, and the thing that kept cropping up - in anecdotes and reminiscences - was hair and style, whether as protest, empowerment or act of self-expression.

"The story of Lincoln Dyke and Dudley Dryden, Britain's first black millionaires, is a particularly well-loved local tale. These black hair-care and beauty pioneers actually set up shop in Hackney."

Images from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah BurgessImages from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah Burgess

Over on this side of the Atlantic, hair and style brought black people together - due to the hand-crafted vibrancy of their clothing which left many white Brits feeling jealous. They were known for "looking sharp".

Rebecca said: "While we were putting the exhibition together, we discovered that one family from Guyana sent their clothes home when they got to Britain, because people were staring at them constantly."

But, Rebecca added: "When Dyke decided in the mid-60s that he wanted to fight discrimination by selling records and hair equipment that appealed to African-Caribbeans, he was unaware that he was simultaneously creating a desperately-needed social space where members of the community could meet and interact."

This led to the birth of the beauty salon as a cultural haunt.

Images from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah BurgessImages from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah Burgess

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Beyond the hot-combs, pomades, weaves and bespoke wigs, these salons were a place where men could talk about their mental health, couples could meet and black identity was celebrated rather than derided.

By the '60s and '70s, the Afro was becoming a symbol of pride for members of Hackney's black community.

The "natural hair movement" became heavily associated with Black Power, while African-heritage dashikis and dreadlocks were worn by those who wanted to fight back against the idea that not being white was something to be ashamed of.

Images from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah BurgessImages from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah Burgess

Most importantly, they wanted to reject European beauty standards which they had felt themselves subjected to.

Movements such as Rastafarianism, Black Power and Civil Rights made waves in Britain.

Following the unofficial uniform of the Black Panthers, many young Brits could be seen wearing black berets, dark shades and leather jacket, while the music of Bob Marley was ubiquitous.

Cross-Atlantic influence became particularly pronounced in the '80s: the decade of the Jheri curl, female workwear, shoulder pads and American hip-hop rappers.

Images from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah BurgessImages from Hackney Museum's We Got Style! exhibition. Picture: Sarah Burgess

And in the 1990s - when those same unapologetic hip-hop artists waged full cultural war against the establishment in the face of police brutality - people of all colours, faiths and backgrounds came together in experimental style, basking in the artistic output inspired by African-heritage musicians.

Jazzie B, one of the most successful black DJs and producers of all time, was born in Hackney.

As the founder of Soul II Soul, he coined hits including Back to Life, and his style was as iconic as his beats.

Rebecca said of the exhibition, which boasts interviews, memorabilia, vintage clothing and even a recreated barber shop: "In Hackney today, there is so much creativity, and so many people drawing on their African heritage. I'm just glad we could share it."

The exhibition runs until January 11.

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