Two summers ago, I was doing archival research for my dissertation at the British Library and would spend weekends seeing plays and museum-hopping. On one such day, I went to: the exquisite Courtauld Gallery, an immersive conceptual “museum of water” exhibit underneath an old palace, an exhibit on form through colour, and a history of style via the “Return of the Rudeboy“exhibit. These diverse museums and exhibits were all at the wonderfully innovative and yet traditional Somerset House. (Later that day, I also went on a tour of one of London’s oldest perfume houses, met a friend for Indian food, and then we saw Hillary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, followed by one last round of drinks. So, it was kind of the perfect day!)
I found the “Return of the Rudeboys”exhibit beautifully curated. Walls were painted stark white or black to better highlight the large photographs of contemporary Rudeboys (and Rudegirls, too!), whether they were black and white or vivid chromatic portraits. Certain sartorial artifacts were on display, such as high patent shoes with spats, or a room with an older record player spinning some vintage ska.
Noted fashion and music photographer Dean Chalkley and “visual storyteller” Harris Elliott spent a year photographing rudeboys across the UK, representing both the Jamaican diaspora and those with ancestral roots in the UK; old school and nouveau rudies; men and women; and practitioners of style, of various races and ethnicities.
“It’s a celebration of a kind of sartorial attitude that has endured through early bluebeat and rhythm and blues through mod, skinhead and all those 60s working-class style movements. Today, it is much less tribal and much more refined – guys with English tailored tweed jackets, brogues and vintage Levis or whatever, but with loads of attention to detail” —Dean Chalkley in The Guardian
“Rudeboy” style originated in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1960s, when youths rebelled by adopting American style jazz and R&B, and dressing in stylish mohair suits, thin ties, shiny shoes, and pork pie hats (“Return of the Rudeboy”). Therefore, the look was always politically grounded and turning to the past (hints of zoot suits, but slimmed down) and thinking ahead to the future (the opportunities and challenges in a newly independent post-colonial state). (Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian has an especially great article about the various waves of rudeboy culture and dress.)
In the UK, the look had a revival with the late 1970’s short-lived but highly influential second wave of ska, and especially the various bands on 2 Tone Records. (This is the period that I know best.) England, at this time, was beset by poverty, garbage (there was a long strike of workers that left trash rotting for weeks at a time), social unrest, racist ideologies, disaffected youths, and some of the best goddamn music and style ever.* This is the incarnation of rudeboy /ska culture that I know best, and listened to on the radio growing up–Madness, the Specials (who later became) the Special AKA, the Selecter, the (English) Beat, & the Bodysnatchers. Street style was impossible to separate from street politics.
Vintage Rude Boy style and music in the Specials’ classic 2 Tone song “A Message to You Rudy” (1979). Not only do I love this song, but we get to see some London club scene footage of 1970’s Rude Boys in action.
- I would like to point out the beautiful Rude Boy stylings of Lynval Golding (rhythm guitar and vocals) and Neville Staple (vocals):pork pie hats, skinny ties, high gloss patent loafers, and that styling black and white checked mohair suit!
- Terry Hall (vocals), wears the costuming of early skinhead culture**: suspenders (aka braces) ; dock workers’ boots (such as Dr. Martens); and working class style short-sleeved button ups or the classic white T-shirt (see the bass player, Horace Panter, too, for more skinhead style).
- 2 Tone Records founder and head songwriter of the Specials, Jerry Dammers, plays keyboards, and… the trombone is played by the late great Rico Rodriguez who also played the trombone on the original 1967 Dandy Livingstone version! (I picked together the lineup from the Wiki page for “The Specials” and the sartorial notes are my own.)
In the 1970’s incarnation of Rudeboy culture, there is still a definite edge and danger (it was unsettling times after all) and the music reflected real issues of social problems in England. At the same time, however, there was not the anarchy and destructiveness that we associate with so much of the contemporary punk scene. There were occasional punk bands, such as the Clash, who were very much inspired by Jamaican reggae, ska, and looked beyond white malaise in their lyrics.
But I find in the recordings of many of the 2 Tone bands a cautious optimism or at least stoic understanding of the realities of racism, poverty, and the desires of these disenfranchised youths (for example, check out the Specials’ “Ghost Town,” the Special AKA’s “Racist Friend” and “Nelson Mandela”). That is, both subcultures emerge from working class and poor youth countercultures in London, but they look, sound, and stand for such different philosophies even as they deal with many of the same issues.
And “The Return of the Rudeboy” exhibit was really displaying what this sartorial subculture looks like in the 21st century United Kingdom.
Some of the recurring motifs of Rudeboy style include:
- fitted suits, often in mohair (grey, dark grey, or black)
- fitted shorter trousers, or skinny pants cuffed and rolled (the better to show off shoes, socks, and spats)
- very glossy patent leather loafers (see right), brogues, or Dr. Marten boots
- thin ties (old school) OR cravats, bow ties, or floppy velvet ties (current wave)
- spats (see right)
- porkpie hats, sometimes with the brim trimmed down (an especially hard look to pull off, so see my style notes below)
- black and white color schemes
- OR vibrant shirt, tie, sock, pocket square and/or outerwear combinations
- sunglasses and/or rounded eyewear
- tie bars, pins, and tacks
- gold jewelry (bracelets or necklaces) layered over a shirt and tie
- watches, or pocket watches and fobs
- long umbrellas or walking canes
- pocket squares
attitude, swagger, confidence (above all else)
- For Rudegirls: Androgyny is key. Embrace Menswear Monday attitudes. Think of Janelle Monae or Pauline Black, and never ever do the weird Gwen Stefani “rock steady” cultural appropriation that went through a paper shredder approach.
- For white guys: Proceed with caution. You can nod toward the rudeboy fashion by playing with slim cuts, bright or all black & white colors, or accessorizing the hell out of your look, but you should not fully co-opt the style and swagger, unless you are Jerry Dammers.
Rudeboy is an attitude – once you have that attitude everything you do, say, or wear is rudeboy!” – Kevin Marc
There are some interesting criticisms and questions directed at the current Rudeboys and the “Return of the Rudeboy” exhibit: What is the communal sense of rebellion? Are they fighting, and if so, what are they fighting for? The racial politics and xenophobia in the UK are real issues, but are these rude boys reclaiming the term “rude boy” in its earlier cultural expressions? Are they connecting to the Jamaican diaspora? Are they challenging ongoing racist practices and ideologies by expressing themselves through their dress? Who or what are they dressing for?
I do not think the exhibit really covered the political and social pertinence in ways that both the 1960’s and late 1970’s rudeboy cultures were so actively engaged. This is not to dismiss their sartorial choices as style over substance, but I just didn’t get a sense of social urgency from the exhibit unlike the lyrics of second wave ska. (I also suggest this article about the term “rudeboy” in contemporary British slang, as a more derisive more akin to the U.S. term “thug.“) Are these questions answered in the accompanying book by Chalkley and Elliot: Return of the Rudeboy? (I wasn’t able to get a copy though interlibrary loan.)
“Cropped trousers feature quite a lot, hats, suiting that’s given a bit of a twist. It’s about subversion in how you dress, rather than head-turning peacock looks. It’s not fey. It’s to classic style what ska is to jazz; a rift on it.” –Dean Chalkley in The Telegraph
Can we just all spend some time enjoying the raddest Rudegirl Pauline Black of The Selecter?
Some contemporary takes on Rudeboy style:
And, as there is not a music video or live performance (that I could find) of the Clash’s ode to Rudeboy culture, here is Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros playing “Rudie Can’t Fail”:
- * If there were world enough and time… I love 1970’s London fashion and learning all of the sub-sub-subcultural differences. Mods, Punks (and so many splinter styles there!), Teddy Boys, (the earlier) Rockers, New Romanticism, Goths, etc. (Until I get to that posting, watch the trailer for the 1979 film Quadrophenia.)
- ** Skinhead culture was originally a working class tough boy style and not racially divisive. By the 1970s, however, the racist skinhead culture associated with the ultraconservative National Front was emerging, and in ska bands such as the Specials or certain punk bands, most notably the Clash, we see band members wearing the attire of skinheads but obviously not adopting any of the racist or fascist ideologies, and instead insisting on inclusive anti-racist and anti-fascist stances in their music. Even now, there are anti-racist skinhead groups in contemporary punk culture, such as SHARP (Skinheads against Racial Prejudice) and ARA (Anti-Racist Action).
This brief BBC4 documentary nicely covers the early skinhead style:
- Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” may be questioning the virility of the swaggering rudeboy, but the music is not really in the style of the first or second wave ska I mentioned above, and her costumes (and the costuming of the men in the video) draw from a lot of great pop artists, but not really rudely culture. And that’s why she’s just a footnote here even though many younger people may think of her song first upon hearing the term.
Further Reading and Works Cited:
- Chalkley, David and Harris Elliot. Rudeboy Salon. UFO, n.d. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- “Dave Wakeling of the English Beat.” Songfacts. Songfacts, 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- Doig, Stephen. “The Rudeboys are back, 21st century style.” The Telegraph, 13 May 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- O’Hagan, Sean. “Rude boys: from Shanty Town to Saville Row.” The Guardian. 24 May 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- “Return of the Rude Boys.“Somerset House, June 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- Weir, Jason and Peter Walsh. 2 Tone Records. 2-Tone.Info, 20122. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- Whitfield, Zoe. “Return Of The Rudeboy.” Clash Magazine, 13 June 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
The (English) Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom.” Growing up listening to Toronto’s alt-rock station CFNY 102.1 the Edge’s “nooner” (lunchtime request hour), I swear to God someone seemed to request this song every fucking day.
MORE from THE SELECTER!
You can even watch a full documentary on 2 Tone Britain (BBC 4, 2004):