With the return of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival (commonly known as Caribana) in the coming days, I’m reminded not simply of my family’s long-standing attendance at North America’s largest Caribbean carnival but also of how these gatherings allow us to pay homage to our varied roots, particularly through fashion.
As the founder and a curator for Vintage Black Canada, I continually revisit these acts of homage in my stewardship of the hundreds of images left to me by my grandfather, Roy, a professional photographer active in Ontario from the 1960s to the late 1980s. However , what has particularly struck me of late is the multiple sartorial identities in these captured memories, especially at my own family gatherings.
Take for instance, this image (above) from my mom Angela’s wedding in 1992. While she, my brother Adam, my cousin Tasha and I wore European-style ensembles, my stepfather Dennis (behind the bride) hardly, if ever, wore a suit — and it was certainly not from lack. As a Jamaican-born man living in Canada, he knew what his native community regarded and valued as formal attire.
While people don’t often associate the word “bespoke” with Caribbean formal wear, I can still recall the painstaking steps Dennis and my mom took to design his suit, presenting their sketches to a local tailor, and later combing through bolts of silk and rayon before arriving at this colour, which my stepfather paired with a custom Gucci puffed-link gold necklace. Holy Jamaican matrimony.
Snapped during a visit back home in the mid-1980s, my great-grandfather, Raymond, can be seen in this photo (above) donning a tam, a common accessory among Jamaicans. And yet I can’t help but wonder if his suspenders and monochromatic clothing were influenced by the Orthodox Mennonites we so often encounter here in Waterloo region. He had, after all, called Waterloo home since the late ’60s.
In any event, the most notable motifs in this photo can be found on my relative, second from right, whose gingham headwrap and dress with pleated trim echo traditional Africana in a way that transcends her place in the diaspora. While this style of collared dress can be observed on West Africans to this very day, her head wrap recalls for me depictions of Jamaican revolutionary hero Nanny of the Maroons and American abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Asking my mother (second from left) about her attire in the above photo got me thinking about what it must have meant to be one of only a handful of Black families living in Waterloo in the 1970s. Dressed in tan bottoms and a matching vest, her style diverged from not only her mother, Muriel (centre), but — given the tie — her brothers as well. In her own words, it felt like a “power suit,” one which made certain people at school take her more seriously . When coupled with a loose, hanging brown leather belt and matching boots, she took on the persona of an outlaw.
My mother’s agency over her identity was hard-won, as was my Uncle Errol’s (second from right). While most people will first notice his white silk ascot, I was pleased to find Errol wearing a famously Jamaican marina shirt or “ganzie” under his sportcoat. (Myself and others have written previously about this indispensable piece of West Indian fashion culture.) It was fitting to find my uncle — who would go on to become a Juno Award–winning musician known for his impeccable looks — incorporating such a wide range of styles into his wardrobe this early in his life.
It was thanks to Errol’s — and my mom and other uncles’ — fearlessness that I too felt paying tribute to my varied roots through fashion, among other cultural outlets. It was standing on their shoulders that I learned that wearing a red, green and gold Rastafari belt was an act of Pan-African solidarity, for example. In this photo in Jamaica, circa 1992, I’m seen wearing one underneath a shirt styled to imitate Cross Colours, a pioneering American brand committed to “clothing without prejudice. ”
As sociologist Paul Gilroy poignantly remarks in his work The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousnessthere is an arguably inherent social and psychological duality present in African diasporic subjects of the British (and European) Empire in the Americas. And yet if this brief dive into the body of my grandfather’s photographic work is any indication, it’s clear that with each successive generations of these cultural cues both compound and coalesce. The question I’m left with is if French Caribbean writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant was correct when he said the “awareness of our awareness” of our double-consciousness is both “our source of strength” and our torment.” Come what may, today I choose to relish in the joy these images evoke in my soul and in the blessed reminder of the man who bequeathed them to me — my Grandfather Roy.
Aaron T. Francis is a doctoral candidate in global governance at the University of Waterloo, a multidisciplinary artist, a curator and the founder of Vintage Black Canada.