The Rise of the Rude Boy: Jamaican Style

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When one thinks of the term Rude Boy (Rude Bwoy) in the United States, the suggestive song lyrics of pop singer Rihanna’s tune of the same name come to mind. However, on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, Rude Boy refers to a half a century-old cultural figure that challenged the appearance of youth gang culture through dapper fashion.  “The rude boy culture came to define an ethos of self-worth, determination and creativity,” states Jean-Philippe de Dieu, “for a generation of migrants ready to strike back at a conservative and racist society.”

The origins of the Rude Boy is traced through a group of young men who were unemployed and affiliated with street culture in the newly formed nation of Jamaica. The country found independence in 1962, but experienced a high rate in unemployment for young Jamaican men.

This lack of opportunities for both economic and personal growth led some to partake in gang-oriented activities that occurred in the country’s capital of Kingston. Although it has been a term that identified men of a certain group who appeared with a certain look, i.e. Black Jamaican men, not every Rude Boy was a menace to society.

In Dapper Style

As Rude Boys were closely associated with Jamaican street culture, they were also purveyors of American film and English Dandy clothing. The Rude Boys of 1960s Jamaica wore close-fitting pressed suits with “white breast-pocket handkerchiefs, polished brogue shoes, white starched shirts with throat-strangling ties, and topped by trilby hats that they set at a cocked angle,” (McMillan, 2016). Some Rude Boys opted for loose trousers with a white button-up shirt and tie that recalled the American Zoot Suit, which was a symbol of non-White American resistance in the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots (McMillan, 2016).

By appearing dapper and refined, Rude Boys challenged the status they were given. In her book, “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity,” historian Monica Miller states that Rude Boys were “ stylin’ out to subvert racial order, perform their identities far from a lost homeland, and redefine Blackness and cosmopolitanism.”

The Sound of the Rude Boy

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The Rude Boy persona was also closely associated with then-upcoming music genres like ska, rocksteady, and dancehall celebrations (McMillan, 2016). Musician Desmond Dekker was a Jamaican-born singer who became the international face of Rude Boys. He sang both in groups and on his own, and was made popular with the songs “The Israelites” (1968). Early in his career, Dekker dressed in slim suits, bow tie, and ruffled white shirt. As he aged, Dekker continued to wear fashionable slim suits that correlated with the style of the time, including an all-red velvet 1970s leisure suit and a pair of checkered slacks with a loose V-neck top and camouflage cap. Dekker’s style is a great example of the changing and adapting fashions of Rude Boy style, which has been characteristic of the group since its 1960s origin. This sartorial influence proved strong during the mass immigration of Jamaicans to Great Britain during the 1960s and 70s. The style caught on with young British men who incorporated the style with other fashion groups in British street culture. Even today, it has garnered a following with British men who combine dandy fashions with urban street culture.

For more on how the Rude Boy is influencing modern fashion, check out the book “Return of the Rude Boy,” by Dean Chalkley and Harris Elliott, “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity,” by Monica Miller, or “Saga Bwoys and Rude Boys: Migration, Grooming, and Dandyism,” by Michael McMillan.


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