“I never want the Notting Hill Carnival fashion to change – and this is why”

Written by Kedean Smith

What started off as costumes that were a riposte to racist government policies and to highlight the struggles of the West Indian community have become diluted over the years at Notting Hill Carnival – so, what next? 

The first and last time I attended Notting Hill Carnival was before the pandemic. My senses were overstimulated and my anxiety was at an all-time high due to the sheer amount of people in attendance – but, despite that, Carnival felt like home.

A smoky jerk-flavoured scent hung heavily in the air from a combination of the grills and drum pans being used to cook various meats. I was greeted by brash dancehall, slow reggae, sweet soca and the unique sounds of pannists beating their steelpans until they sang in harmony. There’s no way you could be in attendance and not get caught up in the thumping loudness of the music or gyrating bodies wuking up their bejewelled and feathered waists. And this year it’s back, after a three-year, pandemic-induced hiatus.

Since the carnival’s inception in 1966, west London’s Notting Hill has become a go-to celebration of West Indian culture, with an estimated 2 million people, 50,000 performers and 30 sound systems taking to the streets during the August bank holiday. The celebration has spawned family traditions, provided a small bit of home and united the Caribbean community.  

An image shows Notting Hill Carnival goers in 1970.

This is one of the few events that define the Black British experience. Many attend for the sheer joy the parade brings and others for the outrageously bold fashions. This is the real draw: there’s nothing comparable to watching the revellers in their Mas costumes weave their way along Ladbroke Grove. Indeed, throughout its 56-year history, Notting Hill Carnival has evolved on all levels, especially when it comes to fashion. For better or worse, the costuming has changed, like many things, to accommodate trends.

“I remember going two years before the pandemic and thinking to myself I wouldn’t wear half this stuff now because it’s so skimpy,” Bianca Green, a make-up artist who started playing Mas – which is where parade dancers choose the Mas, short for masquerade, band they want to join, purchase their costume and on parade day wear it and dance through the streets with them – in the early 2000s, tells Stylist. “I played for a band which was Trinidadian; I spent hours adding feathers, beads and geometric shapes to velvet on a costume I only paid £90 for.”

In recent years, Carnival has become more about showing skin and less about the traditional aspects of the parade. The costumes were traditionally heavily infused with African and Indian elements, and religious rites were used to tell the story of slaves being freed during colonial times in the Caribbean. Years before its inception, riots took place across the UK due to the government’s racist housing policies and rising underemployment among Caribbean immigrants as they started arriving in England. Once it was established, Carnival became a way to protest and build community. 

Notting Hill Carnival is back this year after a three-year, pandemic-induced hiatus.

“When Carnival first started, there were big large-scale costumes, technical sculpture pieces – it was very imaginative,” says Marva Antoine, managing artistic director of Tropical Isles, an award-winning carnival arts organisation. “The costumes were used to portray the way slaves would dress up to celebrate their freedom, and now it’s come down to being less about that and basically less about costuming.”

Antoine formed Tropical Isles 22 years ago with her family to create a space for the youth to gain meaning and find solace through volunteer work. Using a youth mentoring program, the organisation provides a year-long programme for those between the ages of 13 and 25, aimed at improving youth development, confidence, technical skills and teamwork through crafting imaginative carnival costumes.

“The reason we can’t do [those costumes from the past] is because there isn’t enough financial support to be that creative. Along with the fact that times have changed. As designers, we now look to Trinidad for trends and inspiration,” says Antoine.  

Trinidad, which is home to the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, similarly moved away from the traditional elements of storytelling Mas costumes and now centres abstract versions of the past and showing more skin, and other countries followed suit.“I’ve played Mas from the age of four,” says Nadine Antoine, designer and entrepreneur. “When I was younger, there were more covered-up options and now everything is skimpier; there’s a lot more skin being shown on the road.” Nadine refers to the time when theatrics and construction took precedence over showing skin; a time when it was about actually showcasing the different elements and storytelling. Traditionally, if someone dressed as a blue devil, a team would work tirelessly to construct huge curved jewelled wings with a feathered headdress to match. Today’s version of this costume would undoubtedly be a blue bra with knickers to match.

“I’ve never played Mas before being a Carnival queen and it’s because the material has definitely decreased over the years,” says Shaz Roye, a make-up artist and former Miss Guyana UK. “We’re in an era right now where everyone is wearing less at all ages and the designers are pushing themselves to match these wants.” 

The first Notting Hill Carnival happened in 1966.

Freelance designer Maya Scarlett doesn’t put herself in a box creatively because, as Carnival evolves, customers are looking for new and interesting costumes that have never been seen before. “I have the creative freedom to share a piece of myself with the public, so when designing, I look at everything from architecture to nature and, of course, I look to the past as well,” she says.

Another aspect of the fashion evolution of costumes at Notting Hill Carnival is the commercialisation and outsourcing to mass produce costumes. As with anything that becomes bigger over time, commercialisation is inevitable, but when it comes to Carnival, outsourcing to China for materials and costumes isn’t something many designers welcome.

Gems and feathers have long been sourced from China as there is a scarcity of Caribbean shops selling these items. But to buy an entire look from outside of the community is something Nadine Antoine thinks “dilutes the culture, because there are seamstresses here [London] who can sew a costume for you”.

Carnival attendees celebrated the return of Notting Hill Carnival at Glastonbury earlier this year.

There is no doubt that Notting Hill Carnival is moving away from being solely about the West Indian community in London, even if it is just commercialisation to meet demands. This dilution is seen in the way costumes are made, the many different hands that are involved that don’t belong to Caribbeans and also where the materials are coming from. The carnival itself has changed in other ways to include people, food and music from outside of the Caribbean community. This is seen as a positive to many except Caribbeans. Notting Hill Carnival was born out of struggle, racism and riots endured by the West Indians in London and it should continue to be a safe place for the community.

“On a daily basis I represent my culture, but to be in a place where everybody is from the Caribbean, you’re able to see all the different ethnicities and be around people that look like me,” concedes Roye. “It still feels like home, even with the changes.” 

Images: Getty

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