It was in the 1950s, the seeds of decolonization began to sprout, and nearly every fabric of social life was drenched in the sweet odour of a people longing for a special kind of Freedom. Independence. The euphoria found expression in native art, music and fashion. The latter, although less written about in the respectable commentary of history, still occupies a most ambient chapter in the annals of the history of that era.
The Kariba suit strode off from the land of Jamaica into Africa.
Jamaican males decided to break free from the yoke of the jacket and tie after gaining independence from Great Britain. The stylish, open-neck, over-the-pants Kareeba and matching trousers suit evolved into the country’s official standard for formal occasions, work attire, and everyday wear.
Elsewhere, the safari suit and leisure suit are other names for it, but in Jamaica, the Kareeba, a stylized abbreviation of Caribbean clothing is something unique. Its wearing involves more than just fashion and comfort. There’s also the politics of it.
When Prime Minister, Michael Manley, came into power in 1972, he and his administration chose the Kareeba as their official uniform to show that they were breaking with the past. The Prime Minister donned a fancy black one when he saw Queen Elizabeth II, and the Government even had a statute approved in Parliament confirming the appropriateness of the attire for formal events.
It has been around in different forms in numerous hot, tropical countries, but it wasn’t well-known in Jamaica till a delightful designer by the name of Ivy Ralph decided to expand from bush jackets into “a total look,” and called it Kareeba a name that is now frequently used to refer to the entire genre, irrespective of the manufacturer.
Other noteworthy politicians who wore the style of the suit were D.K. Duncan, a PNP member, Errol Barrow, the prime minister of Barbados, Forbes Burnham, the president of Guyana, the president of Ghana, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, and Julius Nyerere, the president of Tanzania. Ivy Ralph, the creator of the Kariba suit, received the Order of Distinction in 1999 for her exceptional work in advancing fashion.
A representation of “cultural decolonization” was indeed the Kariba suit. Manley referred to wearing a jacket and tie in the Caribbean’s tropical climate as the “first act of psychological surrender” to “colonial trauma” in his autobiography The Politics of Change. It was declared in 1981 by the newly elected JLP government that the Kariba suit was no longer appropriate attire for lawmakers. Then, parliament mandated that MPs, guests, and media should “dress with decorum,” which was interpreted to mean avoiding Kariba suits and guayabera shirts.
There are formal Kareebas with a tunic neck and a tiny slit breast pocket in place of the casual ones, as well as Kareebas in dark tones and shocking turquoise with opposing stitching and embroidered, wide flare lapels. They cost between $65 and $70 when custom-fitted, which was how Mrs. Ralph sold the majority of her kareebas. They sold for $10 less off the rack.
The period after independence saw most of the colonies moving disassociating themselves from their colonial masters symbolically. For some countries, flags, national anthems were the way to go and for Jamaica, the Kariba suit was another symbolic representation of decolonization.
In the 21st century, the Kariba suit is not known as it is it has evolved aesthetically and is widely known as a political suit and is worn not just by politicians, but by all men who take a liking to it.