How African and Other Cultures Influenced Jamaican Fashion for Decades

Stephen Nartey September 22, 2022
Photo Credit: MadrasFabricPreppy

Since the abolishment of the slave trade, the Caribbean fashion sense has been influenced external by African, European, and Indian cultures. The West African tradition of wearing head wraps to a large extent has influenced the Jamaican taste for head wrappings by both men and women, while the France and Scotland culture has impacted some aspects of the Caribbean‘s early fashion trends. 

Historians say the custom of allowing the enslaved to choose what dresses they could wear on Sundays and holidays gave rise to the use of the French dress of the colorful madras cloth. On many slave plantations, the dress code was the uniforms provided by the owners. Many of these uniforms were three yards of either brown, grey or blue cloth worn to protect them against the vagaries of the weather. 

In the 17th century, it was common to see the enslaved in these dresses with the men matching it with straw hats while the women wore a head scarf around their heads.  The liberty that were given on Sundays and holidays informed the fashion tastes of the enslaved who adopted the French elite way of dressing.  The adaptations that were made were the touch of African dresses such as saris and wraps that were added. The social elite of France usually wore the madras cloth which was brought from India.  It became the go-to fashion for the upper class, which inspired how many Caribbean people dress, according to Uk Soca Scene. 

The early dresses imported were made of floor-length skirt of madras cloth which the enslaved wore it over a cotton attire with glowing ribbons and threads matching it. The French dresses were remodeled by the Jamaicans by adding West African styles to it which saw the growing popular culture lifting the skirt and allowing it to freely flow In the wind. 

Historians say the French way of dressing is still popular among many Jamaicans today.  It has been adopted as a national attire in many French creole-speaking Caribbean islands like Dominica and St Lucia. Modernity and other influences from western culture, have compelled locals to make changes to the madras. In St. Lucia, the madras is known as a jip. It comprises five pieces of cloth which are inspired by the grand French robes known as wob dwiyet, whose name was derived from the St. Lucian festival that was organized to celebrate the creole culture. 

Young fashion designers in the Caribbean are merging the traditional styles with modern ones to institutionalize their way of dressing.  The wob dwiyet is a traditional recognized dress among the Dominica people.  In some instances, competitions are organized during Independence Day celebrations to see which fashion designers sow the madras best.  

The madras also have different names among different islands on the Caribbean. The Jamaicans refer to it quadrille while the Haitians wear it as part of their folk culture. 

Other African influence on Caribbean fashion is the wearing of feathers in masks and headdresses.  Feathers are considered as a symbol of human’s ability to rise above obstacles like sickness, pain and calamities. In some instances, wearing the feathers in dresses is seen as a way of travelling to another world to be reborn and to grow spiritually. Today these feathers are used to. adorn the backs of many masqueraders, while playing an important part in the costume-making process.

It’s not only African and French fashion culture that have influenced the style of dressing among the Caribbean, but, Indian as well. It is commonplace to see islands of Trinidad and Tobago wearing beautiful designs of Indian origin like the sari, lehenga and shalwar. 

The culture of wearing bangles, sirbandi, and anklets among the Caribbean can be traced to Indian culture interacting with the islands. It is also popular among Jamaican men to see them wearing shirt jac in T&T. It’s called guyanbera, deriving it origins from a poor woman stitching large pockets all over her husband’s shirt so he can carry guavas. In some instances, some people wear it with a black bow tie to give it a tuxedo look.  

In addition to the formal wear, designed in the 70s, a two-piece suit for men in Jamaica was worn on business and formal occasions as a Caribbean replacement for the European style suit and similar to the safari suit often commonly seen in Africa. 

Historians say this reveals a significant part of the Caribbean culture when it comes to fashion. 

It gives a sense that Caribbean fashion takes a lot of cultural Inspiration from many cultures. However, through the emergence of urban popularity and pop mass culture, the fashion sense among young Jamaicans have taken a new twist of culture from their African roots.

Last Edited by:Sedem Ofori Updated: September 22, 2022


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates