“Performance”, the third segment, explores the idea of Black Britons “being seen” and encompasses the aesthetics of multi-layered identities that instill pride, confidence, dignity, resistance, and self-expression. The curated archive of music memorabilia, photography, and art provides a valuable perspective on the often overlooked or underestimated contributions of Black artists. The Jamaican legacy, particularly in rocksteady, reggae, and anti-system music, had a large influence on 1970s British punk, new RnB, Ska, Funk and Soul, and Jazz. This interplay between music and fashion underscores how they shape and reflect societal shifts. By exploring these shifts, the exhibition contributes to a broader understanding of cultural dynamics and the integral role that Black creativity plays in shaping the narrative of fashion and beyond.
Ossie Williams views Fleur Shirt by Bianca Saunders ahead of the opening of ‘The Morgan Stanley Exhibition – The Missing Thread: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion’ at Somerset House, London. September 18, 2023. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire
Furthermore, in August 1981, MTV through the famous first voiceover: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll” followed by playing the music video for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles confirmed the beginning of the music video golden era, heralding a new medium for combining music, fashion, art. Black creativity took the world by storm. Jake Nava, of Afro-Mexican ancestry, who began making videos for MTV sports is one of the most influential artists of this era with music videos showcasing Black creativity that ruled around the world for the likes of Mark Morrison, So Solid Crew, Ms Dynamite, Bev Knight, and more recently Beyoncé.
Ossie Williams (left) and Erica Davletov (right) look at Untitled, Afro Hair and Beauty Show by Eileen Perrier ahead of the opening of ‘The Morgan Stanley Exhibition – The Missing Thread: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion’ at Somerset House, London. September 18, 2023. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire
There are countless iconic outfits which marked a generation. Some noteworthy original styles came out of the pioneering British collective Soul II Soul which rose from a sound system in the early 1980’s to a global hip hop phenomenon, defining the experiences of first-generation Black Britons. The Soul II Soul leather tour jacket is an example of authentic streetwear, speaking to the cultural relationship between music and fashion. Another notable contribution to this exhibitions is Ellin Perrier’s Afro Hair and Beauty, a photographic project which started in 1998 and is an ongoing cultural archive of Black Briton’s search for identity and moments of self-invention in which she stresses the narrative of Black style and Beauty.
The last segment, “Nightlife”, explores subterranean spaces beyond the confines of cultural acceptance and how new identities and terms of engagement would impact the entire world. It addresses the importance of the ritual of “dressing up” and the preparations crucial to nightlife, such rituals made sense of the collective experience where music and fashion evolved. Marginal communities found a safe and practical way to socialize, a way to extend opportunities to new friendships, personal or intimate relationships. As the exhibition explains, party venues become “a home away from home”. From the sociological perspective, nightlife contributed to the broader development of creative culture. Underground clubbing enabled the creation of new music genres, new ways of expression and fashion styles that eventually impacted the mainstream with the subsequent commercialization as well as appropriation of Black fashion culture.
The location of the exhibition in Somerset House is a classic venue, originally owned by the Duke of Somerset and now by the state for some time. Once used as an archive for citizen’s public records, the historic Thames-side palace has become a home for cultural events and exhibitions. The beauty of this building serves as a popular spot for public activities in London such as ice skating in wintertime. If you have the opportunity to attend the exhibition, it is a fantastic experience to gain insights into the rich tapestry of Black British culture and its profound impact on the realms of fashion, music, and art.
The Missing Threat: Untold Stories of Black British Fashion
Date: 21st September, 2023 – 7th January, 2024
Opening Hours: 10:00 – 18:00 (Thursday and Friday 12:00 – 21:00)
Closed on Monday
Place: Somerset House
Address: Strand, London, WC2R 1LA
Tel: +44 (0)333 320 2836
Text: Victor Moreno
Photos: Courtesy of Somerset House, London