The Genteel
June 13, 2021


A paint-splattered pair of Futura Wallabee Clarks. Source:

What is it about Jamaica? Despite its small financial muscle and physical size, its standing as a cultural (and sporting) powerhouse is indicative of a country that punches well above its weight. Its rebellious music, idiosyncratic language and show-boating sports stars effortlessly travel the globe and are immediately recognisable, but it's Jamaica's influence on the world's street style that reveals the island's innate creativity and character.

British pop starlet Rita Ora rocking a
string vest in red, gold and green.

Built on slavery, Jamaica was a country that melded the uprooted British in search of quick wealth through sugar, with the forcibly uprooted African who supplied the labour upon which his/her owner's dream of wealth depended. In short, the nature and spirit of Jamaica is complex and restless, still coming to terms with its modern relationship with its former colonial masters. This post-colonial tango is often illustrated by Jamaica's adoption and adaptation of prestigious British clothing brands. In a reverse, post-modern colonialism, Jamaicans have grabbed hold of heritage brands from their "mother" country, put a distinctly Jamaican stamp on it and have presented it to the world as their own.

Since gaining independence just over 50 years ago, Jamaica's thriving sub-cultures have taken a particular shine to items of attire that have lost their lustre, only to be transformed by the magic dust of Jamaicanisation. For example, Clarks had been the "go to" shoe brand for generations of British parents in search of a pair of durable and comfortable shoes for their  school-aged children. Decidedly uncool, swathes of kids would grin and bear the agony of wearing these "clompers" through their formative years. If only they had known that while they suffered the ignominy of derision from their peers, on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, those very same Clarks were being adopted as the symbol of "rude boy" style and swagger.

Glorified by reggae and dancehall artists such as Dillinger, Ranking Joe, Little John and most recently Vybz Kartel, Clarks became the number one shoe of the Kingston ghetto. Jamaican musicians who visited Britain would even travel down to Clarks' original factory in the Somerset village of Street to buy in bulk and ship the cargo back home to satisfy the demands of friends and family.

Clarks were even incorporated into songs like Dillinger's huge 1976 hit CB200, a tale in which he rides through town on a Honda CB200 motorbike in search of a pair of Clarks. In the process, Clarks became folk legend in Jamaica, a process that is deftly examined in a recent book, Clarks in Jamaica. In it, renowned music producer Bunny "Striker" Lee encapsulates the depth of feeling towards the original Desert boot and Wallabees. "From ever since, Clarks is a number one shoe inna Jamaica. Not just now, I'm talking from the fifties come right up… Clarks stand the test inna Jamaica. All the other shoes come bow right down at Clarks' foot."

From ever since, Clarks is a number one shoe inna Jamaica. Not just now, I'm talking from the fifties come right up… Clarks stand the test inna Jamaica. All the other shoes come bow right down at Clarks' foot.

Another case of Jamaican re-purposing came in the form of the lowly string vest. Although the vest is a Norwegian invention, the stringed variety became a distinctly British accessory during the 20th century. This piece of men's underwear, with its clever insulation properties (warm in the winter, cool in the summer) hit a peak in popularity in 1950s Britain. Like Clarks, the string vest would eventually fall away in terms of desirability and would be stigmatised as the sartorial preserve of the working class male. It surely would have died were it not adopted by Jamaican men in the 1960s.

Initially worn as part of their daily dress, the string vest was eventually commandeered by a heady brew of militant Rasta and their Ragga Queen counterparts of the dancehall, and given a fresh injection of vigour and style. Boys would wear them with a sheer shirt over a top while later on it was the turn of the girls, who would sport them with a flagrant show of bra underneath. The Jamaicanised string vest has since gone on to catch the imagination of pop stars from Madonna and Gwen Stefani to new Brit girl on the block, Rita Ora.

The trilogy is completed by the Kangol brand of headwear, whose rich history dates back to 1938, when Jacques Henry Sergen began handling the import of berets from France to England. Sergen created the name Kangol (K for Silk, ANG for Angora and OL for Wool) to distinguish the berets from the rest and began supplying British soldiers during World War II. Fast forward 40-some years and the military theme was taken up by young urban Jamaican men in what was called the "yardie" look made popular in the dark days of the 1980s.

The black wool Kangol worn together with a khaki cotton shirt, cotton twill trousers and obligatory Clarks formed the "yardie" uniform that accompanied a move away from the Bob Marley Rasta-inspired spirituality towards electronic riddims, cocaine, political gang violence and gun culture - a by-product of a recently independent nation that had been forged on the violence of slavery. Even in these troubled times, Jamaican youth were adept at adding a danger-tinged swagger to the Kangol brand that quickly crossed-over to make an impact on the embryonic hip hop culture of New York City.

With its re-purposing of "old world" accessories, Jamaica has undoubtedly influenced street style and culture around the world. But now appears to be the time that the country is developing its own fashion scene, one that may also eventually have impact beyond its shores. Jamaica Style Week (JSW) was officially launched in 2005, put together by the CEO of model agency Saint International, Dewight Peters. Billed as "the iriest fashion week in the Caribbean," the annual four-day event hosts a series of outdoor shows and parties in renovated colonial-era (here they go again!) stately mansions such as King's House and Devon House. 

Models backstage at Jamaica Style Week 2012. 

At last year's event, men's and women's collections were hosted in the shadow of these architectural remnants of British rule but ended with a show-stopping (Jamaican style) free "street-level" show entitled, Fashion Block. Over the course of the event, 30 designers showed their wares with swimwear, tropical sun dresses and gala gowns dominating the womenswear while dancehall styles, laid-back suits, casual denim and sportswear played a strong hand in the men's shows.

While initially a vehicle for aspiring models and designers, Peters thinks that JSW has a momentum that can put Jamaican fashion on the industry map even though there are shortfalls in terms of formal fashion education, PR know-how, retail space and access to fabrics. "JSW is also a city branding exercise and the dynamics of the event are different to anything else," Peters explained in a recent interview in The Guardian. "There is a long way to go but the buzz and visibility created by JSW takes [models and designers] to the next level." With a fair-wind and some pinpoint financial investment, it seems only a matter of time before the Cool Usurpers of Jamaica make their mark on the fashion world once again.



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