Primped, preened, fine and dandy. Vintage epaulettes, masonic pins, fob chains, shirt boxes, ‘Sunday best’ comb collections housed in a pristine leather case. You get the picture. Accessories, accessorizing, the devil in the details and all that.
A photographic exhibition currently showing at Somerset House (London) titled ‘The Return of the Rudeboy’ revels in this minutiae. Its curators, fashion photographer, Dean Chalkley and stylist, Harris Elliott, have made it clear that the aim of the exhibition is to ‘depict a collective of sharply dressed individuals, who exemplify an important yet undocumented subculture’. A desire writ large in whip smart merchandising to accompany the exhibition, immersion in live multimedia, even a rude boy barber shop with price lists covering a Beard trim, fades, clipper cuts, and that time honoured classic, the short back and sides.
On one level this is modernism in the raw. Stylish, defiant, a sharper stitch and a refusal to buckle under the privations of modern life. Instead a skilful embrace of its sartorial possibilities, pocket squares, cravats, braces, dress scarves all placed in the service of a pioneering black aesthetic. Yet for all that detail, so lovingly recreated here, the exhibition is also shot through with a kind of selective amnesia. Perhaps the clues are already there in the largely omitted histories of rude boys as ‘dance crashers’, or as JLP or PNP enforcers in the fraught environment of late 1970s Jamaican politics, or closer to home as inspiration for ‘Paki bashing’ white skinheads in 1970s Britain. It is understandable if those are elements of the ‘subculture’ that the curators didn’t wish to focus on but while they remain ‘undocumented’ questions are bound to arise regarding their underlying motivations for not addressing these issues.
There is also the simple fact of credibility. Acknowledging the more problematic or contentious aspects of any given culture doesn’t necessarily preclude an appreciation of its many virtues. Yet we appear to operate under the zeitgeist assumption that anything shy of hagiography or vilification automatically disqualifies itself as opinion. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a gorgeous display of artefacts and invention, the bespoke ‘looks’ every bit as compelling as the photographic deliberations. And given that it’s only on until August 25, and that it’s free, and in quite beautiful surrounds, it comes highly recommended.
But people. Why are we still so scared of a little bit of honesty? That all that primping and preening, strutting and styling could also lend itself to a harsher outlook should come as no surprise. Narcissism, after all, has always functioned cheek by jowl with cruelty. (Spartans, fascists anyone?). At its most basic this boils down to, I look good, you look shit, though it’s not exactly hard to see how this mantra could be teased out to encapsulate entire communities, whole ways of life. Why would anyone think that rudeboys, those stepping razors of a convoluted present, would somehow be any different?