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'The Missing Thread' at Somerset House Review: the Untold Stories of Black British Fashion


Robi Walters, Banana Boat. Image provided by Somerset House Press Office.

I was completely blown away by the scope of this exhibition - no stone had been left unturned. Perhaps it was foolish of me to expect anything less, but a kaleidoscopic ambition extends the collection far beyond the realm of the catwalk. One room is set up as a neon-clad nail salon, another designed around a carefully constructed tower of stereos and jukeboxes. I was expecting an exhibition focused solely around the historical misrepresentation of Black British fashion, but was presented with one which not only confronts it head on, but addresses all elements of music, photography, sport, literature and experience; situating Black fashion within broader socio-political and cultural contexts.

'The Missing Thread' is curated by Jason Jules, Andrew Ibi and Harris Elliot, in conjunction with BOLD (Black Orientated Legacy Development Agency), a creative, design development agency working to forge structural and institutional change across the fashion industry and beyond. Their aim for the exhibition was to showcase the incredibly influential work of Black creatives, which often goes without acknowledgement, due to the realities of discriminatory access and structural racism. After all, did you know that the infamous red beaded dress worn by Princess Diana on a state visit to Saudi Arabia in 1986 was designed by Black British couturier Bruce Oldfield? How about the England football kit by Charlie Allen? Both of these hugely influential pieces are now on display at The Missing Thread - as curator Andrew Ibi aptly puts it: “The problem when something is missing is that it’s not really there. It doesn’t mean we can’t see it, it’s just hiding somewhere else”.

The exhibition follows four distinct themes - Home, Tailoring, Performance, and Nightlife, each referring to the environments that served as sources of inspiration and nurturing for the growth of Black British fashion and design. Home explores the domestic sphere, investigating a feeling of belonging, and the interplay between Black and British identity. Tailoring examines the ways in which the craft developed to become a statement of defiance and aspiration. Performance spotlights the achievements of Black performers, while Nightlife reveals how clubs and similar music spaces offered opportunities for community, escape, and free expression.

Bianca Saunders 'YELLOW’ SS20 campaign. Shot and Styled by Ronan McKenzie. Image provided by Somerset House Press Office.

A fifth and final part of the exhibition focuses on the life and work of one of Britain's most influential Black fashion designers, Joe Casely-Hayford, who passed away in 2019. From the influence he seems to have had on the exhibition as a whole, it seems that Joe himself is the ‘missing thread’, uniting the collection together. Indeed, curator Jason Jules said that ‘For me, he was the best designer this country ever had, because when you put him back in his rightful place, he transforms the entire British and global landscape of how we understand fashion’.

Ask me what my favourite pieces were, and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you just one. Or two, or three. I was particularly captivated by the collection produced by clothing brand Denim Tears especially for the exhibition, which reflects the ebb and flow of people across borders through fashion - like pairing a distinctly British brand like Doctor Martens with the Jamaican flag.

I do have to wonder if The Missing Thread’s rather apt opening just after London fashion week was a strategic move, perhaps inviting a rejection of the typically whitewashed showcase of British fashion and replacing it with their own vast and vibrant celebration of Black culture, much of it in the form of clothing. Indeed, the set-up of Joe Casely-Hayford’s work is reminiscent of a catwalk collection.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to pay the exhibition a visit - ignorance is the reason why elements of Black British creativity throughout history have gone untold for so long. It’s time we started paying attention, and 'The Missing Thread' demands it.

'The Missing Thread' is on at Somerset House until 7 January 2024.

25s and Under go for £5.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn