It was the late ’80s: I’d just turned eighteen and, desperate to establish my own identity, decided to reinvent myself before meeting up with friends around town. De La Soul had just released Three feet high and rising and on that particular morning, as a tribute, I had gone to the hairdresser’s and asked for a flat top similar to band member Posdnuos’.
To complete my new haircut, I made it a point to spray paint a CND peace sign on an old baggy t-shirt, which I proudly paired with an oversized denim shirt, cream Bermuda shorts, and basketball boots. I really thought I looked amazing, cool and edgy. And it was this new incarnation of me walking down the street to the bus stop that saw my dad coming from the other direction.
My father didn’t really do any recreational activities outside of the home, and this day was no exception. Despite the fact that it was a Saturday and he wasn’t at work, he was dressed in a smart navy pinstripe three-piece suit, crisp white shirt and tie. A red silk handkerchief was even sticking out of the front pocket of his jacket. As he approached, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how differently we were dressed.
He must have thought the exact same thing as he looked at my outfit and wondered what on earth had gotten into his son. When he finally reached me, he didn’t even stop to say hello. He just smiled and nodded as if we were just vague acquaintances before continuing on his way, leaving me giggling on the sidewalk.
I’m sharing this story not to illustrate the fashion gap between the generations, but to focus on a more pressing question: Why did a middle-aged Jamaican man volunteer to don a three-piece suit on his day off?
Given this kind of poverty, it seems only natural that when they finally have some hard-earned income of their own, they would use it to express themselves through clothing.
It wasn’t just my father who was like that; my mother was too. She kept getting compliments on her elegance and style—even from total strangers on the bus, even though half the time she hadn’t been anywhere more remarkable than the supermarket.
For as long as I’ve known them, my parents have both been smart dressers, always immaculately dressed up when they left the house. On one memorable occasion, when I was visiting my wife in the hospital after the birth of our eldest daughter, my father was mistaken for a visiting doctor just because he was so smartly dressed.
And when my middle brother, the TV presenter, announced that he had been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace and wanted to take Mum along as his plus, she didn’t bat an eyelid. Instead, she disappeared upstairs, only to come back with a chic powder blue ensemble complete with a hat, matching shoes and handbag, casually declaring, “I’ve been waiting for a good excuse to wear this!”
This is my mother’s wardrobe for you, ready for any eventuality, including heads of state. Her approach to buying clothes speaks volumes about her. It’s like Kevin Costner’s character says field of dreams: “Build it and they will come.” Only in my mother’s case is it more like: “Buy the fancy outfit even though you don’t need it and it will give the perfect occasion to wear it.”
I think part of my parents’ love of fashion stems from growing up in rural Jamaica in the 1940’s. They didn’t have much clothing, maybe one set for everyday wear and one for Sunday wear. I’m almost certain none of them owned a pair of shoes until they were well into their teens. Given this kind of poverty, it seems only natural that when they finally have some hard-earned income of their own, they would use it to express themselves through clothing.
Another influence is that of Sunday Best, which I mentioned earlier: the idea of reserving a set of finer clothes for special occasions like going to church, weddings or funerals. I imagine that when your everyday clothes were patched and worn out, knowing you owned an outfit that was the complete opposite would have been kind of encouraging and a reminder that you weren’t just one thing, that yours Poverty didn’t always have to be Define yourself by looking like a million bucks every now and then even if you didn’t have two pennies to rub together.
But many people, including my parents, found that one of the best ways to rise above the tide of hostility and racism was to always present the best versions of yourself.
You can see this thinking in the black and white photographs of the first West Indians who arrived in England by ship MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock on 22 June 1948. In response to the call from the ‘mother country’, people from Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago and other islands left everything they knew to fill the post-war UK labor shortage. And boy did they show up looking smart!
Young men in suits, ties, and trilbies, with shoes polished enough to reflect your reflection in them. Young women in beautiful dresses, hats and immaculate white gloves. Even the children came in their own Sunday clothes, all neatly pressed and spotlessly clean, long white socks pulled up to the knees. They are all dressed as if on a grand church outing, so full of hope and expectation, much of which would unfortunately be lost in the face of poor living and working conditions in the countryside, which would prove to be far more maternal than they had led to believe.
But many people, including my parents, found that one of the best ways to rise above the tide of hostility and racism was to always present the best versions of yourself. When my mom and dad showed up at school’s parents’ evenings dressed smarter than my teachers, it sent a message: we have high standards and expect the best. As they walked out the front door and looked as if they were on their way to the opera, everyone said: We may live in a cramped parish hall in a slum of Birmingham, but we are on the way to better things, just wait and see.
Maybe that’s why my father was so disappointed when he saw me on the street that day, dressed like the fourth member of De La Soul. He must have thought that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand the importance of presenting yourself to the world at your best.
But thanks to my parents, I’ve had more freedom to discover and express my best self. Even now in my early fifties, rather than taking a backseat in the mandated “dadwear,” I still like to push the envelope a little, much to the amusement of my two teenage daughters. I’ll happily dress like a misplaced trawler man in a heavy wool sweater, watch cap, and baggy Nigel Cabourn dungarees while I’m standing in line at the post office. I can be seen donning a huge, sheepskin-lined vintage Swedish Army overcoat with collars so massive I resemble Count Dracula while grabbing a bite at McDonald’s.
And while long socks and Bermuda shorts never looked good in hindsight, I can appreciate the fact that my 18-year-old self had the confidence to try it, a confidence that was actually a pretty enduring legacy from both of my parents.
Mike Gayle’s novel, All the lonely people (Grand Central Publishing) is now available in paperback.