Return of the Rudeboy: Ska, Swagger and ‘Sapologie’ at Somerset House


After reading Sean O’Hagan’s thought-provoking preview of the ‘Return of the Rudeboy’ exhibition at Somerset House in London – titled, ‘Rude Boys: Shanty Town to Savile Row’ (The Guardian/Observer, 24th May 2014) – I placed this event quite high on my list of top 10 “must see” summer showcases, and managed to get along to view it several months later at the start of its closing week on 18th August.

O’Hagan’s article led me to assume the exhibition would be a largely superficial photographic and soundtrack-based audio-visual presentation about the cultural aesthetics of ‘Rudeboy’ (or ‘Rudie’) fashion. It gave the impression that Return of the Rudeboy would be rich in contemporary illustrative content about people whose fashion today echoes the types of clothing trends and styling associated with the ska music genre in Britain from the late 1970s through to the 1990s. But at the same time (reading through the lines) it also implied that the exhibition would be quite limited in its documented historical and socio-cultural contextualisation about the Caribbean origins, hybridisation and changing identity politics of ska, ‘Rudie’ and ‘2-Tone’ subcultures spanning those decades.

In reality, however, the exhibition proved to be much more complex, layered and rounded than had been described in the Guardian/Observer piece – for several reasons:

  • Firstly, the exhibition was the result of a year-long creative collaboration between photographer and film maker Dean Chalkley and artistic director Harris Elliott, which had always been envisioned as a multi-media, cross-arts showcase. While primarily based around photographic portraiture, the display also incorporated documentary film, immersive soundscapes, installation, mannequin-based outfit displays and artistically assembled fashion-related artefacts and ephemera (from carefully boxed shaving kits, through to jewelled cufflinks and silver-plated shoe buckles).
  • Secondly, the exhibition’s content evidenced extensive and in-depth research undertaken by Chalkley and Elliott, who had both mapped out and toured selected urban localities known to have been focal points for the introduction and dissemination of Jamaican reggae and ska music in Britain. This included visiting places as varied as Savile Row and Shoreditch in London, through to the inner-city districts of Huddersfield in Yorkshire (which had developed as a central hub for the bespoke manufacture of reggae Sound-System speakers and amplifiers in the mid to late 1970s). In each of these localities pictures were taken and lifestyle details recorded to showcase a diverse range of sharply dressed men and women – each embodying what the curators referred to as the pure and singular sartorial swagger” constitutingthe essence of what it is to be a Rudeboy (or Rudie) in the 21st century.”[1]
  • Thirdly, the scale of the photographic portfolio – displayed throughout five sizeable rooms, and along opposite walls of a central corridor leading off from the main reception/foyer of Somerset House’s South Wing – comprised over 60 poster-sized images.
  • Fourthly, the static exhibition was supported throughout its run by a diverse range of talks, curators’ tours and related film screenings of documentaries about the history of ska and Rudeboy subcultures.
A stack of  suitcases featuring photographic portraiture from the 'Return of the Rudeboy' exhibition.
A stack of suitcases featuring photographic portraiture from the ‘Return of the Rudeboy’ exhibition.

For me, the most outstanding feature of the exhibition was the level of detail applied to the process of dressing each display space, with the curators creating settings evocative of the various historical and contemporary cultural stimuli from which 21st century  Rudie aficionados have drawn inspiration for their retro fashion assemblages. For example:

  • The sharp 1940s and 1950s zoot suits, trilbies and pork pie hats favoured by post-war (‘Windrush generation’) Caribbean migrants to Britain – were evoked through the framing of photographic images within the interiors of centrally placed stacks of open suitcases and luggage trunks typical of the types carried by travellers during that era.
  • The recreation of a pristine mannequin-based garment display along the length of the second gallery was reminiscent of what one might regularly see in the shop windows of bespoke gentlemen’s tailors on Savile Row.
  • A fully functioning barber shop installation was set up in the back room, where professional stylists would occasionally be on hand to give visitors Rudeboy-style haircuts.
  • A ceiling-high Sound-System, similar in style to the aforementioned 1970s boxed speakers from Huddersfield was positioned in the corner of the final gallery to accompany the display of famous musicians around the walls whose careers and style choices have come to epitomize the ska era (such as the singer Pauline Black from the 1980s 2-Tone band, The Selecter).
Sound System displayed at Somerset House.
Sound System displayed at Somerset House.
Portrait of the singer Pauline Black, from the 2-Tone band The Selecter.
Portrait of the singer Pauline Black, from the 2-Tone band The Selecter.

Gendered performance of ‘Rudie’ theatricality

Portrait of a contemporary 'Rudegirl', displayed at Somerset House.
Portrait of a contemporary ‘Rudegirl’, displayed at Somerset House.

Contrary  to the exhibition’s gender-specific title – and a prevailing tendency for Caribbean diaspora cultural history documentaries to typically focus on black urban masculinities – each of the display spaces featured images of young women dressed in feminised versions of Rudie (or ‘Rudegirl‘) chic.  While this limited and somewhat sporadic female presence did not sufficiently shift and re-balance the overall focus away from contemporary male (re-)interpretations of ska-scene fashion and styling, it was nevertheless pleasing to see that some attempt had been made (albeit on a small scale) to address women’s participation and creative contributions to British urban Rudie subculture.

The image and the gaze

The vast majority of the portraiture on show presented highly posed street scenes – each one depicting centrally framed men and women assuming (or, perhaps, being instructed by the photographer to adopt) slightly nonchalant, self-assured stances to show off the cool elegance of their clothing artistry.  Several photographs captured men and women leaning against brick walls, enabling their bright, well-tailored and flamboyantly accessorised outfits to serve as piercingly sharp foci for each shot. Other images were studio-based, showing individuals and groups in dynamic dance modes – perhaps (one might assume) bopping along to the up-tempo beats of their favourite, classic 2-Tone tracks. Almost all the pictures – with the exception of a few featuring models in shades – showed Rudies staring straight into the camera lens in order to appear to be catching the eye and holding the gaze of every visiting spectator. It was certainly clear to me from these defiant poses that every featured Rudeboy and Rudegirl was not simply a playing the role of a clothes horse, but rather performing as the primary protagonists in their own individualised show of corporeal and sartorial theatricality.

Contextualising the Rudeboy style narrative

My only criticism of Chalkley and Elliott’s exhibition project was that they had not liaised with a range of fashion historians, cultural commentators and other creative professionals (particularly experts from the Caribbean diaspora) to compile as series of essays that could have been published as a comprehensive, illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition’s stunning visual narrative. In consequence, the only published record of the project’s display at Somerset House is a comparatively sparse website featuring a very limited selection of photographic stills, film extracts, and models’ quotes conveying statements about what contemporary 21st century Rudie subculture means to them today.

Had the curators gone down the route of publishing a full-text exhibition catalogue, it would have been useful to see interpretative analysis presented by high-profile British and international experts in this field, including (among others):

  • Professor Carol Tulloch – a renowned fashion historian who has curated major exhibitions for the V&A Museum, and published extensively, on black British fashion and styling histories and sub-cultures: most notably in the publications ‘Black Style’ (V&A Publications, 2004), and ‘The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora’ (Bloomsbury, 2009).
  • Dr Michael McMillan – curator of the pioneering West Indian ‘Front Room’ installation (Geffrye Museum, 2005), who has also carried out extensive research on aspects of St Vincentian ‘Sagga Bwoy’ and Jamaican ‘Rude Boy’ subcultures, framed within the wider geo-political, historical and aesthetic contexts of migration, Caribbean diaspora identities, cultural hybridities and dandyism.
  • Professor Monica L. Miller – the African-American author of the internationally renowned publication Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke University Press, 2009), whose work presents a comprehensive cultural history of ‘black dandyism’, from its  emergence in Britain in the 18th century through to the Harlem Renaissance era in the USA, and imore contemporary incarnations in the metropolises of London and New York in the 21st century.
  • Baudouin Mouanda – the Brazzaville-based Congolese photographer who has documented and published photo narratives about the emergence and display of ‘Sapeur’ fashion and styling in the urban centres of Brazzaville and Kinshasa. The term ‘SAPE’ stands for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes’, loosely translates as ‘Society of Tastemakers and People of Elegance’ and denotes an urban arts movement that evolved in the 1960s, and mainly takes the form of men dressing in uniquely flamboyant outfits as a symbol of their identity and social status. Mouanda’s work has also traced the roots of Sapeur styling and the poetics of ‘Sapologie’ back to the colonial era of the early 1900s, when elite Congolese men would return from their travels to France dressed in elegant and extravagant boutique clothing from Paris.
  • Robyn Orlin – the South African choreographer and artistic director who staged the major performance art showcase, ‘Dressed to kill … killed to dress’ (2010) at the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (CNHI) in Paris, France’s national museum of immigration history. This theatrical showcase featured aspects of contemporary African and African diaspora ‘Sapeur’ fashion and styling from the SAPE movements of Brazzaville, Johannesburg and the Château Rouge district of Paris. See:
Bal des sapeurs, Palais de la Porte Dorée (2010). Photo Awatef Chengal © Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration
Bal des sapeurs, Palais de la Porte Dorée (2010). Photo Awatef Chengal © Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration


[1] The full text of Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliott’s introductory narrative that appeared in the exhibition’s promotional literature, and also on the opening interpretation panel at Somerset House, read as follows:  “Over the course of the past year the duo has photographed over 60 sharply dressed individuals from across the UK, all of whom embody the essence of what it is to be a Rudeboy (or Rudie) in the 21st century, to document the life, style and attitude of this growing urban group. The curated collection of images shows the subjects presenting their pure and singular sartorial swagger in locations linked to the Rudeboy lifestyle, whether it be on the streets of Shoreditch or Savile Row.” See: [Accessed 18 August 2014].


Return of the Rudeboy exhibition website:

MCMILLAN, M. 2009. The front room: migrant aesthetics in the home. London: Black Dog Publishing.

MILLER, M. L. 2009. Slaves to fashion: black dandyism and the styling of black diasporic identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

O’HAGAN, S. 2014. ‘Rude Boys: Shanty Town to Savile Row.’ The Guardian/ Observer Newspaper, 24th May 2014 [Online]

TAMAGNI, D. 2009. Gentlemen of Bacongo: a photo journal by Daniele Tamagni [Online]

TULLOCH, C. 2004. Black style. London: V&A Publications.

TULLOCH, C. 2009. The birth of cool: style narratives of the African diaspora. London: Bloomsbury Academic.


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