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Notting Hill Carnival: A Style History

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[IMAGE – credit David Sedlecký 2014)

So Notting Hill Carnival, the second largest carnival in the world after Rio, has been and gone for another year and hopefully we have all by now recovered from the Red Stripe, rum and jerk chicken induced coma that is an essential part of the experience. Floats and soundsystems have been enjoyed, memories have been lost and extravagant sequin and jewel encrusted outfits have been marveled at. But this year, we found ourselves wondering: where did these come from? When did it become customary to wear your own body weight in feathers and beading?

The official Carnival site tells us that the origins of this elaborate get-up go back to the Caribbean, and particularly Trinidadian, Carnivals of the 19th Century – to which Notting Hill Carnival owes its heritage. Celebrating the abolition of slavery and their newfound freedom to dance, make music and express themselves, revellers used costumes and masks to parody the dress of their former slave owners. Carnival de Mas, the proper name for Carnival’s masked troupes, takes its name from the European masquerade – which it appears to both reference and send up – though it owes much more to the decorative masks and headdresses that form a crucial part of many traditional African cultures and ceremonies.

The early Notting Hill Carnivals drew on these costume traditions to create spectacular outfits that were more often than not designed to scare or awe the crowds. With the floats and troupes increasingly a focal point of the whole event, more and more money and effort has gone into crafting ever more impressive displays. Today, as with other Carnivals around the world, the outfits are all made by hand using renowned Trinidadian designers and artisans and take a whole year to complete. So now you know!

Among all this, we could find no definitive answer as to why/when costumes started placing so little actually on the body and yet so much around it; however, maybe the clue’s in the climate: South of the equator, who wants to dance outside for an entire weekend dressed like Henry VIII?

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