Teleica Kirkland on The Art And Creativity Of Carnival Costumes (Have We Lost It?)....

Jamaica Carnival 2019

Jamaica Carnival 2019

Having spent 7 weeks travelling around the Caribbean researching costume history I came to understand that many people’s views of what a carnival costume or celebratory event costume should be involved very little in the way of actual costume. In fact, in some cases, I could go so far as to say that bare naked flesh had appeared in the place where beautiful sequins or lavish design used to be. Now, there could be several reasons for this but here I’m going to offer 3 of my own musings:

1. It’s hot in the Caribbean;

and I don’t just mean hot I mean hot as hell like an oven permanently set to burn to a crisp, so I suppose in a way, perhaps wearing less clothing may actually be the sensible thing to do.

2. Keeping up with the da Silva’s (not to be confused with the Kardashians);


Rio carnival in Brazil is the biggest carnival in the world, followed very closely by Trinidad. Rio carnival involves thousands of carnivalists (artists, makers, performers, and dancers) and millions of revellers every year. Most of the images of Brazilian and lately Trinidadian carnival costumes that are spread around the world typically consists of beaded bra and briefs/ thongs, feathers and/or painted and sequinned bodies.  Brazil, being a not so distant neighbour to the Caribbean could possibly have had a huge influence on the development of the more recent Caribbean carnival costumes. It is certainly true that the costumes coming out of Trinidad in particular have had a phenomenal influence on costume development in the rest of the region. However, there is much more cultural expression involved in both carnivals than naked ladies!

3. Could it be that old inbred beliefs and behaviours be hard to break?

However, I think the issue of flesh-flashing may be a bit deeper than just trying to keep up with what the surrounding countries are doing.

Try as they might the western world cannot forget or deny the brutal history of this region. Indeed the fortunes of the west were built from the toil and tears of its inhabitants, could the skimpy costumes be part of this legacy?

The sexual abuse and degradation of enslaved Africans has been widely publicised. It could be suggested that a people whose social, physical and economic development has been based, in some way, shape or form, on sexual degradation and exploitation will come to understand and believe that the presentation of themselves as sex objects will define and vindicate them to some degree. This, of course, doesn’t speak to the sexual agency and the ability of Caribbean people to reclaim their bodies and have autonomy over how they use their own personage. It is of course up to the individual how they display and use their bodies for their own and others entertainment. Yet the yolk of historic perception around the naked Black body cannot be denied or dismissed and I would suggest there needs to be a lot of deeply emotional, psychological and spiritual work around that perception and the outcome thereof before we seek to suggest full reclamation of our psycho-physiological selves.

But basically, sex sells. Sex sold then when enslaved Africans were not the legal owners of their own bodies and so didn’t profit from it, and sex sells now when African descendants are the legal owners of their own bodies and are barely profiting from it, still.

Having seen the carnivals and the carnivalists on a few of the islands and how little costume they wear it makes me wonder why and when did the flesh-flashing come about, and can it really be a legacy of enslavement but justified in the name of fun, entertainment and tourist activity? And what of the impracticality of this costuming style when found in the UK or European carnivals?

Indeed, what has happened to the creativity has it become a competition to see all the different ways you can cover a pair of breasts and vulva and nothing else? I’m not that old but I remember when going to carnival or any celebration meant dressing up in fun colourfully creative and imaginative garb, what happened to that?

One of the most creative costume makers I’ve ever met was a cheerful portly English man from Manchester (who I understand learnt his craft from a Trinidadian carnival veteran) who has since moved to Germany and developed a carnival there. His costumes are imaginative, creative, fun and eco-friendly, often reusing sweet wrappers, tin foil, or other detritus to achieve a certain look. His floor costumes are not often gauche or overly revealing but they are spectacular, in the same vein as the traditional carnival artists of years past.

Creativity with materials is not old fashioned (see an example from the glorious Lost Tribes presentation from this years Carnival) …

Trinidad Carnival 2019

Trinidad Carnival 2019

and being naked is not modern so why so little of this beautiful craft? Where are more of the spectacular floor costumes of Caribbean people? When I put this question to carnival artists Mackey Holder (Barbados) and Leader of Diamonds band (Antigua) they tell me it’s what the young people want and it's what they find fashionable. I’m told young people want to show more skin, bras to be smaller to emphasise the bust, skirts to be shorter and shorts to be tighter to emphasise the bottom. Young people believe this is what makes them desirable, attractive and popular…and we all want that! But are they right, does showing more skin and wearing a skimpier costume make you more desirable? I suspect on the surface it does to some people but in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really and whilst this whole subject definitely deserves deeper analysis and investigation it is my concern (and my opinion) that in the meantime too many of us as a people will still only find vindication and self-worth in how much sex appeal we appear to have.

Teleica Kirkland is a fashion historian, Associate Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Studies (CHS) at London College of Fashion and a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths University. She is also the founder and Creative Director of the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora (CIAD) an organisation dedicated to researching the history and culture of dress and adornment from the African Diaspora.

As an academic, she has travelled extensively establishing links with researchers, custodians and practitioners across the globe. In August 2014, Teleica curated Tartan: Its Journey through the African Diaspora; CIAD’s first major project. In May 2018, Teleica chaired CIAD’s first International dress conference entitled Si Wi Yah: Sartorial Representations of the African Diaspora. Four times a year CIAD hosts a research hub called the CIAD Exchange where researchers in the field of African Diaspora dress studies are able to present their work in front of an audience. 

For more information:

Email: [email protected]


Twitter: @CIADuk


Photo Credit:AGENDA

Photo Credit:AGENDA

Chantal Miller