"Rockers": How One Cult Film Defined Reggae Style
"Rockers": How One Cult Film Defined Reggae Style
- Words Tristen Harwood
- Date August 26, 2019
“I want to do the reggay with you” sang Toots and the Maytals in 1968, introducing reggae to a global audience. Since that time, reggae has become an influential and expansive musical category, often applied as a sweeping label for all Jamaican popular music—including dancehall and dub—amongst others. Beyond its myriad genre associations reggae has had a far-reaching influence, figuring in the origin of hip-hop and even the history of punk rock. Likewise, reggae has had widespread influence on clothing and style. Much more than dreadlocks, ganja leaves and the red, yellow and green knitted caps, reggae musicians have always drawn on, reinterpreted and (more importantly) influenced global clothing styles.
Few things distil this style more than the classic reggae film Rockers (1978). A fictional film shot in Kingston, Jamaica, the film features both acting performances and music by several eminent reggae musicians of the time including: Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace, Big Youth, Gregory Isaacs, Dillinger and members of Burning Spear. With the film as a guide, we trace the style influence of reggae on designers like Supreme, Martine Rose, Wales Bonner and Levi’s, to name just a few.
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Reggae emerged in the late 1960s, soon after Jamaica had achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1962. Global from its outset, reggae’s origins can be traced to Jamaican R&B, which drew from American R&B music. Central to the plot of Rockers—which itself was originally intended to be a documentary on Kingston’s reggae scene—vinyl records and independent recording studios were a core component of reggae music and culture.
Rockers centers on the carefree Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, a drummer—both in the film, and in real life for Burning Spear—who earns very little from playing live gigs, so plans to make cash hustling vinyl records. The film’s opening scenes show him strutting around the Kingston tenements where he lives, chasing down money from his friends and wife to buy a motorbike so he can transport and sell records at sound systems (DJ, speaker and turntable party setups), which were central to the reggae scene and would come to play a foundational role in hip-hop through Jamaican-born, Bronx resident DJ Kool Herc. However, before Horsemouth can get his operation up and running, gangsters steal his motorbike.
Rockers’ plot follows Horsemouth as he rounds up a stylish ensemble of friends, planning to get his bike back and end the reign of the gangsters in Kingston. The film draws plot elements from the Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves (1948) and adopts a structure similar to that of a Spaghetti Western, a genre which was popular in Jamaica at the time and also influenced another classic reggae film,The Harder They Come (1972), starring and featuring music by reggae and ska legend, Jimmy Cliff.
The style in the film is a stark contrast to the run-down architecture of Kingston. In the aforementioned scene, Horsemouth swaggers past shanty housing wearing U.S. Army trousers, a knit vest and a yarn hat. The trousers have been tailored to perfectly fit his slim silhouette; custom tailoring was a key element of reggae style in Kingston, the typical trouser cut seen throughout the film is fitted through the hip and slightly flared at the ankle. Other characters can be seen wearing custom-made, pressed gabardine trousers in a range of colours, not dissimilar from those seen during Prada’s Fall/Winter 2017 runway show.
Horsemouth wears a green and grey jacquard knit vest nonchalantly over his bare chest, seamlessly transforming a potentially preppy garment into something cool and easy. The vest closely resembles the aesthetic and style of a Wales Bonner piece, showcased during the Spring/Summer 2019 season. Not simply picking out elements of reggae style at random, Bonner’s design process consistently engages with black diasporic cultural production; her website features informative reading lists, showing the theoretical underpinning of each of her collections.
Although not directly referencing reggae, Wales Bonner’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection, shares a number of parallels with reggae fashion—both in silhouette and style, and with individual garments. These touches are embodied in form-fitting turtleneck zip-ups, ringer T-shirts and racing-striped tracksuit pants. It recalls a scene in Rockers, where Horsemouth is shown dashing through Kingston on his motorbike wearing a fitted black tracksuit, with two yellow stripes down its sides. Along with the U.S. military “surplus” influence, soccer gear—especially that imported by European giant, adidas—was a characteristic part of reggae style.
Arrow fitted button-downs are another key component of reggae style in the film. The shirts are worn untucked and only partially buttoned if at all, in a range of patterns cut from cotton and shimmering polyester fabrics. In a brilliant image from the 2004 book Rockers Style (a book documenting the costuming of the film) an unnamed character wears a leopard print pointed-collar shirt under a black T-shirt with a yellow dragon graphic, with only the pointed collar and sleeves of the shirt are exposed. The outfit is finished with plaid tailored-trousers and a quick-release canvas belt. The shirt recalls labels willing to be more daring with their shirting, including brands like Dries Van Noten, Prada and Wales Bonner.
While other designers have pulled inspiration from reggae-influenced fashion, Supreme has consistently engaged with reggae culture by collaborating directly with the artists that shape it. From Bunny Wailer to Bad Brains, to Barrington Levy and Hyman “Jah Life” Wright, Supreme has used its massive streetwear label to highlight (and, indirectly, inform its fans about) the imagery and the styles woven into reggae culture. For the Spring/Summer 2019 season, the brand capped off its collection with a partnership with Buju Banton, tapping the artist for its iconic “photo tee” series.
Of course it’s not just the faces of dancehall and reggae that Supreme works with; Supreme’s consistent use of Clarks footwear—especially the Wallabee—is another, albeit indirect, nod to reggae style. Clarks Desert Boot, while popular in the U.S. and U.K., saw major popularity among Jamaica’s “rudeboy” culture. While the footwear’s roots in military fashion, made it easy for men of all stripes to fall for, its connection to illicit activities helped Clarks maintain its rudeboy cool; the Desert Trek silhouette, launched in 1971, eventually earned the nickname of “bank robbers.”. Given that Rockers’ plot revolves around a record-focused robbery (and the Robin Hood-esque antics that follow), we can imagine more than one of Rockers cast of characters has donned a Desert Trek or two.
When dissecting reggae style, we can’t forget dub icon Lee “Scratch” Perry, who along with Supreme, has worked with Martine Rose. Perry is probably as recognisable for his unrestrained, eccentric sense of style—with his brightly dyed red hair and beard, multiple chains, rings and bracelets, patched hats and futuristic T-shirts—as he is his music. He understands the importance of style better than most, even stating, “Everything I wear is telepathic!”
The influence of reggae in Martine Rose’s design language is much more subtle. The most salient example is her beermat hoodie, although it’s also distinctly drawing on British pub culture, the eclectic appearance of the hoodie parallels the style of Lee “Scratch” Perry who can often be seen wearing hats and other garments completely covered in bottle caps and bizarre patches. Perry might be an international ambassador when it comes to reggae style, but it’s clear that his contemporaries—many of whom appear in one way or another in Rockers—share fashionable sensibilities.
Indirect Fashion influences aside, Levi’s Vintage Clothing named an entire collection after the movie for the Fall/Winter 2018 season, tapping into the blended history of Jamaican style. Beginning in the 1950s, Jamaican music fans would travel to the U.S. to search for vinyls to play at sound system parties (not unlike those attended by Horsemouth). As different musical influences landed in Jamaica and blended into the eventual sounds of ska and reggae, so too did the fashion. As documented in both Rockers and Levi’s Fall/Winter 2018 lookbook, this included patchwork denim, colorful corduroys and eccentric accessories—including patterned “beaver hats.”
The influence of reggae goes far beyond vinyl, founded not just on an exchange of music, but a blending of fashion aesthetics. In the case of Rockers, a film so intimately tied with the scene in the late 1970s, the film’s second coming as a fashion film was practically predestined. “Kingston is so packed with people—‘strivers,’ as they are sometimes referred to—who are all trying to get ahead and get a leg up. You’ve really got to do something to stand out from everyone else, and there were a limited number of ways in that context and with the resources those people had at the time,” Rockers associate producer Avrom Robin, explained to Vogue. “One is style—how you dress.” With personal style as a key tenet of reggae style, seen in Rockers and embodied by the number of fashion brands who have tapped into the genre’s wider diaspora, it’s clear that reggae deserves recognition not just as a musical innovation, but a fashion one as well.