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Black & British: A Fashionable Windrush Story

In the spring of 2021, the Museum of London acquired two fashion ensembles and a group of oral histories from Tihara Smith and her Granddad, Lazare Sylvestre. Together, these acquisitions tell a multi-generational story about immigration, life in London, and a shared love for fashion.

Rianna Norbert-David & Lucie Whitmore

Assistant Curator & Fashion Curator

20 June 2021

In 1948 the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, filled with hopeful and vibrant people from across the West Indies. This was the well-known beginning of an important time in London’s history, and those passengers helped to rebuild a recovering Britain after WWII. Over 60 years later, at the time that the ‘Windrush scandal’ was gaining mainstream news coverage, Tihara Smith had already embarked on the creative journey of telling her family’s story of migrating to the UK from the Caribbean.

Ensemble from Tihara Smith’s Windrush collection

Ensemble from Tihara Smith’s Windrush collection

Graduating from UCA Epsom in 2018 with a final fashion collection that spoke directly to their influence, contributions, and legacy, Tihara says that her designs “put a positive spin on the Windrush generation to counteract the negative coverage in the news”. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement following the tragic murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Tihara’s ‘Windrush Collection’ seemed to draw more interest as voices from the Black British community were being amplified. There was a particular interest in Britain’s complicity with slavery and racism but also the instrumental roles that those from the Caribbean British colonies (and their descendants) had played in the financial, political and social success of the country. With the world’s eyes opening to the influence of migrant communities, by Windrush day 2020, Tihara’s collection had garnered even more attention, both for the striking design and the personal story that it told.

Lazare’s story

Lazare at an exhibition fight for Brixton and District Boxing Club, mid 1960s, Campbell’s Photography Studio. Image courtesy Lazare Sylvestre.

Lazare at an exhibition fight for Brixton and District Boxing Club

Mid 1960s, Campbell’s Photography Studio. Image courtesy of Lazare Sylvestre

Tihara’s collection tells her own family story, and particularly focuses on her Granddad, Lazare Sylvestre. Lazare was born and grew up in Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia. After a brief stint working with the US Air Force on Ascension Island, he came to London aged 19 in 1958. He arrived on the SS Montserrat on a Friday evening, and the following Monday morning started his new job at Boots in Piccadilly Circus. He soon moved on to work at a nearby garage, where he was scouted to become a boxer because of his build. He had a successful amateur boxing career, competing around London and in Germany.

Lazare married Holifay Bramwell – originally from Jamaica – in 1976. Lazare recorded the series of oral histories for the Museum of London with Tihara and his daughter, Lorna, as the interviewers. The conversation between the three generations draws the listener into Lazare’s own memories, including his first impressions of London and his dislike for fish and chips, 12-hour dance marathons at his favourite venues, and the highlights of his boxing career.

Lazare Sylvestre - My boxing career

Creating a Windrush collection

Ensemble from Tihara Smith’s Windrush collection, back view

Ensemble from Tihara Smith’s Windrush collection, back view

It is not only Lazare’s story that is present in Tihara’s collection, but also the wider Black British experience. Easily recognisable in the ensemble acquired by the museum are statement pieces that were popular among fashion lovers when Lazare was a young man in London, such as flared denim jeans and brown leather boots.

While developing the collection, Tihara was struck by the Stand firm inna inglan exhibition at Tate Britain, which featured photography of Black communities in London. The display encouraged her to focus on her own family’s immigrant history as a starting point for her collection. She found old photographs of her family and studied popular items of clothing from the period.

She looked to Neil Kenlock’s photography of Black Panther members in 1970s London for further inspiration. The Black power fist logo and slogan ‘Black & British’ embroidered onto the raffia vest reflect the feelings of marginalisation and resistance of the time, while the red lion symbol links to the pride and experience of being Black and British.

The shirt in the collection is made from a vinyl tablecloth purchased in Peckham Market, which was reminiscent of the crochet or lace tablecloths often used in the West Indian front room. The West Indian front room, known for elaborate decoration and ornamental objects, were the pride and joy of the Caribbean diaspora. This was a space reserved for special occasions and entertaining guests.

Traditional St Lucian basket, photo courtesy Bertha Norbert

Traditional St Lucian basket

Photo courtesy of Bertha Norbert

When researching the traditional crafts of Saint Lucia, Tihara was inspired by the carefully embroidered straw bags and fans that have a strong connection to the history of the island. Two millennia ago, the Arawak Amerindians on the island hand-wove baskets and sculpted pottery which has had a lasting impact on the creative makers of the rural communities of Choiseul, in the south of the island. Creole (Kwéyòl) Heritage month is an annual celebration in October of the nation’s Creole heritage (a blend of the cultures and language of the native Arawaks/Caribs, the colonial French and the enslaved African peoples brought to the island) highlighting the ancient arts and crafts practices.

Bag by Tihara Smith, photo courtesy Bertha Norbert

Bag by Tihara Smith

The baskets and fans are made using grasses found growing in farmland areas in the region. These are woven together by hand using a special technique by skilled craftspeople, they can also be made using straw raffia and embroidered with a coloured raffia on top. Tihara visited a local fabric shop in London that stocked a similar raffia material reminding her of the woven goods of Saint Lucia. This then became one of the main fabrics in her collection.

A fashionable family

Tihara’s interest in fashion and sewing dates back to her school days, but creativity runs through the generations of her family. Lazare has always been a stylish man with an interest in clothes, and a particular taste for Italian tailoring. He used to love getting dressed up to go out dancing, and in an interview with the author Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff he described his outfits: “I had on my colourful West Indian clothes, in a likkle sharp suit and a likkle trilby hat. […] They nicknamed me 'tailorman' because I was so well dressed.” In the oral history clips, Lazare discusses his own personal style and fashion icons, his sewing skills, and the places he purchased clothes around London.

Lazare Sylvestre - My fashion

Lazare wearing suit, and Lazare and his friend Vernon on Ondine Road

Lazare and his friend

Left - Lazare wearing a ‘Slim Jim’ tie, bought from a door-to-door salesman who would come at weekends to sell clothes and accessories, mid 1960s, Campbell’s Photography Studio.
Right – Lazare and his friend Vernon in Dulwich. He wears the first cap he bought when he came to London, date unknown, Martin Charles. Images courtesy of Lazare Sylvestre.

Lazare wearing the donated suit at a wedding

Lazare wearing the donated suit at a wedding

Date and photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Lazare Sylvestre

The suit in the acquisition was made for Lazare by Winceslas ‘Winston’ Giscombe, a tailor from Kingston, Jamaica. The pair first met at The Silver Buckle; a Camberwell pub. Winston approached Lazare and said he'd like to cut him a suit, as he had a good shape for tailoring.

Lazare remembers: “I laughed at first, not knowing that he was a tailor, but I thought I’d give him a chance. He ended up making me around 5 or 6 suits.” Before meeting Winston, Lazare used to buy his suits from “the top tailor shops at the time […] But after Winston started making my suits, I didn’t want to buy from them as they weren’t as good.” This is the last suit that Winston made for Lazare. He purchased it as “just a casual ting,” but ended up wearing it to be best man in a friend’s wedding, as well as various other special occasions.

Winston the tailor man

Winston came to England on a ship called the Ormonde in March 1947, when he was 28 years old. Though the arrival of the SS Windrush in 1948 is generally cited as the start of post-war Caribbean migration to the UK, the Ormonde docked in Liverpool with over 100 Jamaican people on board a full 15 months earlier. Many had purchased one-way tickets, risking everything on starting a new life in the ‘Mother Country’. The passenger list shows that Winston was heading to west London but, like Lazare, he settled in the south of the city – living around Peckham and Camberwell.

Lazare Sylvestre - About Winston aka Tailor Man

When Lazare first met him in the 1960s, Winston was working from a garden shed at his home in Camberwell. Previously he had worked for a tailor in east London, and would return to the same area to buy fabric. The east end was home to a vast number of Jewish immigrants, many of whom worked as tailors, and it is quite possible that Winston’s employers were Jewish too. As Lorna Holder has observed, there were also many Caribbean tailors in Britain who served their local communities, and a smart suit was deemed essential, for older men in particular.

The passenger lists of the SS Windrush reveal that over 100 of the Caribbean passengers were artists and craftspeople, including 1 hatter, 10 shoemakers, 11 dressmakers and 34 tailors. One of those tailors was Clifford Fullerton, who came from from Kingston, Jamaica. As documented in this interview recorded by the Black Cultural Archives, Clifford came to London specifically because he wanted to improve his tailoring skills. He went on to open a tailoring business with his wife in North Kensington, and in 1952 he became the first Black Associate Member of the City of London Master and Foreman Tailors Society.

Suit made for Lazare Sylvestre by Winston Giscombe

Suit made for Lazare Sylvestre by Winston Giscombe

While we do not currently know many more specific details of Winston’s career, we hope to add context to his experiences by exploring the lives of other Caribbean tailors who settled in London. The suit he made for his friend Lazare, alongside the oral histories and Tihara’s designs, tell a powerful story of the creativity, skill, and culture that came to London with the Windrush. These objects allow us to share that story with future generations of museum visitors.

Lazare Sylvestre - Thoughts on Tihara

Find out more about Tihara's work on her website.

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