Celebrating Rastafari Style

At the 25th Rebel Salute festival, where thousands of fans celebrated Reggae and Rastafari culture as legends such as Big Youth and Marcia Griffiths performed, the styles on display were as colorful as they were spiritually significant. The Abyssinians wore traditional African dresses. Jesse Royal performed in military prints and African necklaces. Queen Ifrica covered her head in a thick coiff of grey dreadlocks. The musicians’ messages were political and bold, in the tradition of Rasta ‘reasonings,’ addressing social issues and calling for peace. The codes of Rasta dress – gold, red, and green stripes derived from the Ethiopian flag adopted by Marcus Garvey, and from the gold of the Jamaican flag – were everywhere on and off the stage. For Rastas, green is symbolic of the land, yellow represents peace and hope, and red recalls blood and strength. These styles celebrated emancipation, individuality, and the return to the African homeland.

Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2017 Ready-to-Wear show in New York. Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier for NOWFASHION.

While these highly stylized codes have had a massive impact on fashion since the post-independence 60s era, which saw the rise of Ska, sound systems, and, most importantly, Bob Marley, it is rooted in profound cultural rituals of the Rastafarians, and in their radical rejection of colonial and capitalist culture: ‘Babylon.’ Rasta culture, born in the 1930s, was rooted in Marcus Garvey’s Afrocentrism and in the revolt against slavery. It called for a rejection of Western and capitalist norms, including styles considered racist, such as European fashions and haircuts. Instead, the Rasta community calls for a simple, natural way of life, embracing the texture of their hair and wearing simple, natural fibers. 


While Rastas were long persecuted in Jamaica and abroad, with police cutting off their dreadlocks and treating them like subpar citizens, Rasta style became a trend when Marley embraced the culture and began wearing his hair in dreadlocks, vowing never to cut it. He defined a movement that swept over the world, linking spirituality, music, and fashion. He sported the Rasta stripes: tight military shirts showing off the lithe body sculpted by the strict Ital diet and rigorous exercise required by his culture. In his tragically short life he changed consciousness worldwide and became a style icon, influencing The Clash, Lenny Kravitz, hip-hop artists, and generations of musicians that followed. Movies of the era, such as Rockers and The Harder They Come, brought attention to this obscure community that mostly lived in the extreme poverty of Kingston’s ghettos. The world adopted Reggae and its spiritual message, drawing inspiration from its clean way of life. 

Tommy Hilfiger Spring/Summer 2016 Ready-to-Wear show in New York. Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION.

Today, Rastafari precepts, style, and music have become a fascination worldwide. Fashion designers continue to find inspiration in its celebration of individuality and colorful prints. Think of John Galliano’s Rasta collection for Dior in 2004, where Rasta stripes adorned the straps of the classic purses, bikinis, and sneakers. For Valentino’s pre-Fall collection in 2016, Rasta colors were splattered, tie-die style, onto an oversized trench coat. Rihanna, the poster girl for the Marley cult and island style, flaunted Tommy Hilfiger’s 2016 red, yellow, and green net Rasta dress for the “Work” video, shot in Kingston. And for his Spring 2017 collection, Marc Jacobs sent white models coiffed with dreadlocked wigs down the runway, denying allegations of cultural appropriation. Just now Chanel chose Selah Marley, the braided granddaughter of Bob, for its newest Coco campaign. Meanwhile, in the US and Europe, braids and dreadlocks are still banned by many schools and companies.  

While these homages to Rasta style are mostly inoffensive and promote the island’s music and history, they are fundamentally antithetic to Rasta beliefs. Using symbols of African pride, liberation from imperialist and capitalist society, and spiritual enlightenment and harmony for mass-market or luxury goods is simply insensitive. Instead, designers could support local communities by collaborating with artisans and local designers, honoring Jamaican style and the integrity of this culture that continues to thrive in a world of hyperconsumerism.