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A moment in time; British Black Style Waterhall Gallery Terry Grimley reviews a pioneering exhibition exploring Black British style.

Byline: Terry Grimley


When black immigrants from the Caribbean began to arrive in Britain in the 1950s, they dressed up for the occasion.

In the exhibition Black British Style, first seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum and now on show at the Waterhall, there is a clip of film - frustratingly short - of some of them disembarking. The men wear hats and dapper suits and ties, one of them sports one of those narrow bow ties, and the women fur jackets.

Some of those who came to Birmingham visited Ernest Dyche's photographic studios to record formal images of themselves, smartly-dressed and making their way in the mother country. In one of these portraits I thought at first a woman was showing off a fashionable jacket, having failed to recognise the uniform of Birmingham City Council Transport Department.

The style of conspicuous respectability associated with that first wave of black migrants is still with us. There's a church just down the road from where I live where worshippers are still turned out immaculately in suits and bonnets, and while many are elderly, a younger generation is clearly being raised in the same conservative tradition.

But now it forms a foundation to a succession of geological layers of style, laid down over 50 years and reflecting the experience of subsequent generations and their quest for a distinctive identity.

Some of these styles, like the radical jeans-and-afro female look of the early 1970s, now look historical while the Rastafarian paraphernalia of dreadlocks and woolly hats remains classic. The camouflage jacket provides a thread of continuity, a staple of Rasta wear reinvented in the more corporate style of hip hop.

This is primarily an exhibition about clothing, and if it's not overstating the obvious, clothes lose a lot when bodies are taken out of them. I'm not sure how excited most people would be at the prospect of 18 trainers in a display case.

It's an exhibition crying out for animation, and this is mostly offered by a series of video interviews with designers, DJs and other stylistic shakers and movers, but unfortunately this is not well enough insulated from music playing elsewhere in the gallery for comfortable listening.

Still, there is quite a lot of information to be gleaned from the labels and I was quite intrigued, for instance, by the eccentric English-toff style affected by a few celebrities including Chris Eubank, whose tweedy posing near the Brandenburg Gate on the eve of his fight with the German boxer Graciano Rocchi-gian added a black dimension to the British sport of winding up the Hun.

It seems Birmingham photographers in particular were on the case in documenting black culture from the early days. Apart from the Dyche pictures there are photographs by John Reardon and Vanley Burke of large gatherings in the city at the turn of the 70s and 80s.

In this context, Burke's photograph of a sea of people at African Liberation Day in Handsworth Park in 1979 registers primarily as a woolly hat-fest, but while it is refreshing to see an exhibition which does not define black history primarily in terms of political struggle or social unrest, the political can never be entirely separated from the personal.

Burke, anyway, is a cultural hero who has not only photographed black communities in Birmingham for 40 years but has accumulated a wide-ranging archive now held by the city's library service from which, for example, a cocktail dress has been lent to this exhibition.

British Black Style is at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until September 17 (Mon-Thur, Sat 10am - 5pm, Fri 10.30am - 5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm' admission free)


A picture from the Ernest Dyche collection, now in the hands of the Central Library, taken in the 1950s and a rare insight into the lives of the first wave of Caribbean immigrants to the city' Mis-Teeq photographed to promote Scandalous in 2003 by Matthew Donaldson' Table football in Birmingham, 1971 by George Hallet from the collection of Birmingham Central Library
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 28, 2006
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