The costume design in Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Ax’ is a revolution of style

The costume design throughout “Small Ax,” a collection of five films directed by Steve McQueen that feature West British Indian life at a particular time, is a mosaic of intricate details. Ordinary clothing, to the untrained eye, is, of course, brilliant artifacts of the West Indian style of expression. Look at the moments with the wardrobe in your mind, and you’ll see a vibrant, unique personal style hiding in the grooves. An A-line dress becomes more of a dress after we learn that a young woman made it by hand; polyester garments decorated with a pattern like stained glass become healthy when a person wears it. “The important thing is that everyone is about a particular style and way of doing things,” McQueen said. “If you look through all the events, it’s not just in the clothes; it’s all style. Not just what you do, but the way you do it. “

For British West Indians in the ’60s,’ 70s and ’80s, fashion was a non-existent revolution. In “Small Ax,” McQueen captures young people of Caribbean heritage pushing back against the established and all-encompassing norms of English conservative society. It is evident in the way black people walk, talk and dress. They determine style by code; most obvious are flecks of ites, gold and green throughout the series.

“The style in ‘Small Ax’ is a little ax,” said McQueen, quoting the African proverb, which Bob Marley and the Wailers liked in 1973. Jacqueline Durran, who won Oscars for her work on “Anna Karenina” and “Little Women,” working as a costume designer on two of the films: “Lovers Rock” and “Alex Wheatle. “I wanted to give it as much detail as I could,” said Durran, “instead of being so general. ”

The second film, “Rock Lovers” – set especially at a birthday party for a 17-year-old named Cynthia (Ellis George) – reveals the originality used by the Windrush generation, the 500,000 Caribbean people (including children) who immigrated to Britain between 1948 and 1970. Dressed in pre-planned outfits, young women wear costume dresses, and the male peers dancing in a suit and flying down buttons. One character named Franklyn (Michael Ward) is dressed in a navy shirt with a geometric pattern that looks like a starry night in the Caribbean. Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), another participant, wears a handmade purple dress – one of the few pieces made especially for the film.

The fourth installment of “Alex Wheatle” also features youth street culture swagger. The film follows the true story of a young British Jamaican adult novelist. Wheatle, who was a consultant to the film, brought in pictures from a young age to help Durran design her style at the time. “We had a very special and detailed qualification,” she said. “It was a great information point for all of us.”

“Alex Wheatle” fashion influences and serves as a humorous relief. In one memorable scene, a young man named Dennis (Jonathan Jules) who is related to Alex (Sheyi Cole), makes a purchase – an attempt to free him from dressing up as a square and to “Brixton cool.”

“Are you cooking, or are you the beast? Where did you come from on Earth? ”Dennis jokes.

“Shirley Oaks,” says Alex chipper, “in Surrey.”

“And will they dress you there with clothes made by farm animals for her?”

Khali Best as Badger, Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle and Jonathan Jules as Dennis Isaacs in Alex Wheatle

(Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video.)

Dennis, who wears a special beret and pea coat, walks Alex around the streets of Brixton, finally stopping to stay in front of a menswear store. Pointing to a little drip in the window, Dennis tells Alex that “anything Farah is on target. ”

McQueen said the menswear store they visited is a landmark. It was a “black shop,” he told me, despite the store not owning Black. “And in the revolution, I don’t think that shop was damaged because it was the Black man’s shop in terms of clothing.”

McQueen was born in London, in 1969, but his parents emigrated from Trinidad and Grenada. He grew up a little immersed in fashion, and developed an offer for style. He sold an old tweed suit to a friend at Ladbroke Grove. His sister, like Stephanie (Tamara Lawrance) in the last program “Education,” was a costume student. She took the ferry to Calais, France, bunk in to runway demonstrations in Paris. McQueen took relief in the style magazines that would bring her back. “I was like, ‘Wow, what’s this?’ It was about youth culture, ”he said. “It was about people making their own stuff. It was about taking a polo and cutting off his arms. ”

At times his mother would use her sewing machine to make her clothes suitable for parties, but she did not always understand her children’s style. “We were not waiting for Christian Dior; we were not waiting for Louis Vuitton. You got that pattern, and you got that outfit. It was about inventing, ”said McQueen. “It was good to try; we were discovering who we were with music and fashion. ”

Director Steve McQueen, left, and John Boyega as Leroy Logan on set

(Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video)

Young Alex Wheatle also finds himself in music. As he becomes comfortable in his new home in Brixton, he spends all his money at record stores and gets fascinated by the underground reggae music scene and the culture of the sound system. . He develops his own sound called “Crucial Rocker” and funds the use of a speaker by selling herbs.

Music is a key strand of “Small Ax” and a pillar of Caribbean culture. (Growing up, McQueen named a ska band called Specials and the Fun Boy Three.) Lisa Duncan was the costume designer for the first film, “Mangrove.” The keynote speaker, Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), is from Trinidadian who will open the Notting Hill restaurant in 1968 which will soon be a cornerstone for the West Indies diaspora. In one scene, a steel band plays in the middle of All Saints Road. Here, Caribbean fashion is less represented through the characters Frank, Altheia (Letitia Wright) and the rest of the Mangrove Nine we see in utilitarian streetwear; however, the Grenadian Shortknee masqueraders and Jamaican country dancers pocomania best represent the life and traditions they left behind.

That kind of uniqueness came from having a diverse suit team. In addition to Durran and Duncan, McQueen listed designer Sinéad Kidao. All three are from the United Kingdom and have received support from the region – half of whom are of Caribbean descent.

That diversity is evident, especially when it comes to the multicolored style of the working class. Kidao was the costume designer for “Red, White and Blue,” the third film in the collection that highlights Britain’s offer for Caribbean harmony and positioning to resist injustice. Leroy Logan (John Boyega) makes sense from the uniform he wears. As a research scientist, he often wears a T-shirt and corduroys under his lab coat and others with a suit. He then becomes a constable in an effort to put the racist police culture of London on the inside. When Leroy is off duty, he wears streetwear that was typical for young British Jamaicans in the ’80s; in an early scene, Leroy is wearing a gold T-shirt from the Black and African Second World Arts and Culture Festival.

Kidao, who also designed the costumes for the last film in the anthology, “Education,” loosely based on McQueen’s construction, said that Britain was a costume that “meant unification,” but it strangely ends up being the West Indian consumer. “Police uniforms were very controversial among black communities in the early 1980s in the UK, and the image of a Black man in police uniform was pressing on people in black and white communities,” Kidao said. “I think the costume celebrated Leroy’s remoteness.”

John Boyega as Leroy Logan, left, and photography director Shabier Kirchner on the set of

John Boyega as Leroy Logan, left, and photography director Shabier Kirchner on the set “Red, White and Blue.”

(Will Robson-Scott / Amazon Prime Video)

If Leroy’s costume turns cold with West Indians, in Britain, the style in “Rock Lovers” is a sign of a warm Saturday night feel: thick fog, heavy bass, sweaty walls and slow dancing. The hair is wavy, and the decoration is applied to “show the beauty of Black skin,” said JoJo Williams, the artist who worked on each of the films. The men’s shirts (something inspired by what McQueen’s father wore) complement the women’s dresses in a way that felt deliberate. “Everything had to be brought together; you can change partners and still match, ”said McQueen. “The fights and the differences and the things that put it together have to be all in one room. Nothing could hold out because otherwise it would look weird or draw your eye. Everything has to be in order. ”

As the party’s intense crescendos, Parker B (Alexander James-Blake), the selectman who plays disco, reggae and loves rock, hangs light bulbs around his neck. McQueen had a reputation for that kind of energy. “It’s black; it’s called Black, ”he said. “What happens in the situation when people do is called black. People are not making predictions. They are there, and they do things … whatever it is, it is black. ”

In each film, the costume design is a kaleidoscope for how the generations within the West Indian community interact with each other and represent themselves. Each outfit or accessory evokes emotion and symbolizes either harmony, revolution or, perhaps, both. “The first time we see Alex Wheatle, he’s naked. It was taken from any identity, and it was given an identity. The identity is consistent; this is his prison uniform, ”said McQueen. “With ‘Lovers Rock’ it feels completely different. It’s complicated. Those who work 9 to 5 are staying for Saturday night. And, them live as they want to be, how come they want to be. They live to be free in an instant. Rock Lovers was the church of these young people. It’s freedom. ”