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The Voice

ROOTS RASTA RUNWAY
published: Sunday | July 11, 2004

By Alicia Roache, Staff Reporter


Deejay Chuck Fender performing at Sting 2003.

THE SIGNIFICANCE of Rastafarianism to fashion and a 'Jamaican identity' internationally is undeniable. The worldwide infiltration began with Bob Marley in the 1970s when reggae became immensely popular overseas, beginning with the release of the Catch A Fire album in 1972.

Today red, green and gold are the most obvious images of Jamaica in fashion and it is perhaps the only image with which anyone can identify Jamaica in mainstream western culture. Yet the contribution of Rasta to creating a Jamaican identity through fashion has been largely ignored and sidelined in the mainstream fashion industry locally.

From as early as the 1980s the image of the Rasta found acceptance, albeit superficially, in western culture. Controversial, cross-dressing rocker Boy George wore dreadlocks, flamboyant jewellery and had a penchant for red, green and gold, a colour scheme he mentioned in the hit Karma Chameleon.

More recently, rockers from the band Korn came out sporting dreadlocks. No Doubt's Gwen Stephani wears Rasta-inspired designs in her music videos and a host of other international acts have embraced the image of the 'Rasta'.

THE RASTA LOOK

Although many Rastas shun Eurocentric images in the practice of their beliefs, people from Europe, America and the Far East have attempted ­ and still attempt ­ to replicate the 'Rasta look'. From the '70s, the most obvious and perhaps the most tasteless form of imitation has been the 'Rasta hat', a knitted tam in red, green and gold with false knitted dreads attached.

The hat is not as popular today as it once was.

Since then 'Rasta' has taken on a more 'sophisticated' appearance in fashion. In 1999, celebrated international designer John Galliano for Christian Dior took the image of the Rasta in fashion to a new level with a Rasta collection. In his collection was 'luxury' Rasta-inspired clothing and accessories, from Rasta bags to Rasta boots and sneakers. According to hairboutique.com, models at the December 1999 fashion show sported dreadlocked hairstyles "carefully arranged and styled to add to the glamour of the clothing that the models were displaying".

In Jamaica, very few designers utilise the image of Rasta in their collections. However Amber Cohen, one of the few designers dedicated to promoting a Rasta aesthetic through her design house Mutamba, believes that a greater appreciation of the image and culture of Rasta, even in the fashion industry locally, is necessary. "Rasta is really the only culture Jamaica has right now," she says.

She agrees that Rastas in Jamaica should explore marketing their own image in the fashion industry.

Balla, who designs for Rastafarian artiste Capelton, also agrees. "Yes, Rasta community shoulda tek centre stage inna CFW (Caribbean Fashionweek) and mi woulda stand up an represent that," he said. "Rasta love fashion same way and Rasta buy fashion too, so it fi tek centre stage and represent too."

"That's been Rasta's main aim for a long time", says Cohen. She posits that Rastafarianism, having evolved from members of the poorer class of society was, and in many ways is still, limited financially. "They (the government) don't have the spirituality and we don't have the money," she says. "Rasta is the spirit of what Jamaica needs to develop our economy," she asserts.

MONEY TO BE MADE

That may be true. The way Christian Dior has marketed their 'Rasta-inspired'sneakers at US$370 (Ja$22,570) or their V-neck sweater at US$840 (Ja$51,240) suggests that there could be money to be made from the fashion industry for Jamaica if it markets its most enduring image. And, undoubtedly, Jamaicans in the persons of Bob Marley and other Rastafarian artistes have been the most popular and sustained proponents of the culture and image.

Yet, as Cohen highlights, where Rasta is concerned, other cultures are more accepting of the dress than are Jamaicans. "Europeans will wear it, Chinese will wear it, but Jamaicans will not wear it. We are afraid of ourselves. We are afraid of our culture, we are afraid of our skins, we are afraid of our gender," she argues.

RASTAS EMBRACED AROUND THE WORLD

Nonetheless, Rasta seems to be embraced in countries around the world. Cohen explains that in Germany there are stores dedicated to Jamaican poet and Rastafarian Mutabaruka. However, a belief in Rastafari is not necessarily a part of embracing the culture and the fashion, Cohen suggests. "I don't think they know what it is, but I think they can feel it's something positive so they embrace it," she says of the foreigners who embrace and wear Rasta-inspired clothing. "The concept of goodness and oneness, people feel it and they are attracted to it. There is nothing negative about the red, green and gold; people will wear it."

While the interest in Rasta may be simply superficial Cohen says that may not be such a bad thing, since there is strength in numbers. "I don't care if it s superficial. It's better to have a million people backing you... The PNP or the JLP don't care who they have in their party, they don't care who is a thief or who is a pauper...," she says. "The more people you have representing you, the stronger your movement will be," she says.

The movement abroad seems confined to the colours and the hair, but in Jamaica Rasta fashion takes on a deeper meaning. For Rastas, the colours red, green and gold have a specific meaning and their placement on anthem of clothing is significant. They are representative of the colours of the Ethiopian flag: green, which must be on top, means the vegetation of Ethiopia; gold, placed in the middle represents the mineral wealth of Ethiopia; and red, placed at the bottom, represents the blood of Ethiopians.

According to designer Balla, himself a Rastafarian, if the colours are placed any other way a Rasta will not wear the garment.

BOBO DREADS DRESS DIFFERENTLY

Buttons and pins with images of Haile Selassie I and the Lion of Judah are also used to adorn the clothing of Rastafarians. Bobo Dreads dress differently from members of other Rastafarian orders, such as Nyahbinghi and Twelve Tribes. Bobos typically wear long robes and tightly wrapped turbans. These modes of dress, however, have as yet to be incorporated into mainstream fashion. According to Balla dressing for Rastas is "just a part of their identity".

However, some Rastas have acquiesced in the exchange of dress with Western culture. Popular entertainer Frisco Kid/Ancient Monarchy says that though dressing is important, differentiating the 'orders' by dress is not so easy. "Nowadays the warriors dem nuh really watch certain orders. Yuh free fi put on wha yuh waan fi put awn, he said.

"Mi love urban clothing too yuh nuh," says Balla. "I experiment with different colours. Not necessarily wid red, green and gold, because other colours bring out your personality as well," says the designer.

But just as how Christians dress up for special ceremonies or to go to church, Ancient Monarchy explains that at certain times, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, priests will wear their turbans and white robes in observation of the Sabbath.

Rastas dressed in khaki or army fatigues, Ancient Monarchy says, represent the "revolutionary warriors, a plainclothes soldier on the battlefield".

"Sometimes yuh si mi dress in camouflage, sometimes yuh si mi dress inna plainclothes," he says. I and I dress fi impress myself. From mi a dress fi impress, mi a impress di King."

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