Entertainment

Return of the 26 Rudeboy

Monday, August 11, 2014    

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This feature was published last week in the New York Times. Written by Rebecca Apel. It looks at the revival of the rudeboy culture in the United Kingdom.

LONDON — Rudeboy style was born in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, in the years leading up to and immediately following the country's independence from Britain in 1962.

Now familiar to a new generation, in part thanks to a popular Rihanna song, the original youth movement was a response to Jamaica's rising unemployment. The subculture revolved around the emerging sounds of ska, and the local dance halls where "rudies" moonlighted as intimidation-for-hire.

Early rudeboys adopted an aesthetic inspired by American jazz and R&B musicians, as well as American Westerns and gangster movies. They also became known for re-appropriating the traditional style of affluent dress -- typical outfits included high-end tailoring, formal hats and close-fitting suits.

A wave of Jamaican emigration in the 1950s and early 1960s brought the rudeboy movement to Britain, where it influenced subcultures from mods

to skinheads. Another iteration emerged in the 1970s and 80s, this time mixed with punk.

"Return of the Rudeboy," an exhibition on display through August 25 at Somerset House in London, makes clear that the rudeboy still reigns in Britain. Curated by the photographer and filmmaker Dean Chalkley in collaboration with Harris Elliott, who heads the leather-specialist label H by Harris here, the show celebrates the 21st-century British rudie. At its centre is a portrait series by Mr Chalkley and Mr Elliott, shot in London, documenting about 60 men (and a few women) who reflect the movement's iconoclastic attitude.

The idea for the show came to Mr Chalkley and Mr Elliott just over a year ago, when they first noticed the return of the rudeboy look on London's streets, particularly in the neighbourhoods of East London and Mayfair. "Historically," Mr Chalkley said in an interview, "rudeboy culture has been underdocumented", and they felt compelled to note this new wave.

The portraits were shot over a period of 15 months. The men and women who were invited to be photographed "were simply asked to come along and represent themselves", Mr Chalkley said; "they haven't been styled in any way". Several of Mr Chalkley and Mr Elliott's subjects were friends or colleagues; others were found through word of mouth. The series is supplemented by archival photos.

But "Return of the Rudeboy" goes beyond images, with installations that immerse viewers in the rudeboy lifestyle. Hat boxes by Kitty Farrow, a book bindery and box-maker here, and briefcases by the Swedish luggage maker Alstermo, recall the journey of the early Jamaican rudeboys to Britain. There are bespoke creations by the Anglo-Jamaican shoemaker Mr Hare, and suits by the tailoring collective Art Comes First. A pop-up barbershop honours the rudeboy's attention to personal grooming; on Thursdays and Saturdays, museumgoers can have their hair trimmed by the stylist Johnnie Sapong.

Music, so central to rudeboy culture, is present here too. Mr Chalkley and Mr Elliott asked each portrait-sitter to contribute a playlist of rudie songs; these tracks, including No Good Rudie by Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, Rude Boy Ska by the Gladiators and the Clash's Rudie Can't Fail, are piped in through a massive sound system. There are also discussions, and screenings of classic 1970s rudeboy films The Harder They Come and Rockers, and the documentary Duke Vin and the Birth of Ska.

"Many early rudeboys were seen as strugglers who turned to violence and crime," said Herbie Miller, the director and curator of the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston, in an interview. But rudeboy life was always "about the community," and many became "sort of Robin Hood figures," he said.

"There was criminal behaviour," he added, but there was also an "idea of liberation for the common man: If you can't get jobs, if education and health care are poor, you resist by turning against the system." This resistance "came with language, how one wore clothes or challenged the traditional European style of dress", he said.

Today's iteration of rudeboy style is typified by cropped pants; modified pork pie, trilby or other formal hats; careful tailoring, and details like socks or ties that add a vibrant pop of colour. "Sharp" and "Sunday Best" are the exhibition's buzzwords, yet this is "not peacocks parading," Mr Elliott said. "It's about self-expression, the confidence that makes you want to tailor your own clothes, to always want to do something a little different."

Andrew Ibi, who directs the Masters programme in Fashion at Kingston University in London, and is featured in the exhibition, acknowledged a heritage shared by many modern rudies, who often have African or Afro-Caribbean roots, of "dressing up, being a bit more over the top than the traditional English guy", Mr Ibi said in an interview. "I've made things by hand to go out."

For Mr Ibi and others, being a rudeboy is about a refusal to conform. "This is not a bunch of guys replicating something that happened 50 years ago. I don't think we'd even be influenced by each other," Mr Ibi said. "It's really only when you pop us all in the same room that you see that we really are a movement."

If anything, Mr Chalkley said, the exhibition should leave viewers hopeful. At the rudeboy's core, he continued, is the belief that "what you wear is a reflection of your character -- an outward display of the way you carry yourself through life." This show, he said, "illustrates that you don't have to accept mediocrity, or settle for second-best".

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