Dressing Up And What It Means In London And New Orleans

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This weekend, it was Satchmo Summerfest, a festival held in New Orleans every year in honour of its distinguished son Louis Armstrong. At this same festival a few years ago I gave a talk, about Satchmo, about dressing up in London and New Orleans, and in particular about Mardi Gras Indians and Pearly royalty: bead and plumage-suited carnival celebrants from New Orleans’ African-American communities and silvery button-bedecked Eastenders raising money for charity through entertainment – two great traditions that I would say are comparable in some ways.

But what I remember most clearly now about the occasion was what I wore – a silk shirt as black as a London taxi and a dress the colour of the sky and the water in New Orleans in high summer, a combination of colours that reminded me of the two cities. It seemed important to be wearing the right thing.

In New Orleans, clothes are significant. Take the seersucker suit, that particular marker of Southern gentlemanliness. This menswear classic arguably calls New Orleans home as gentlemen’s outfitter Haspel, one of its most famous purveyors, hails from the city. On a visit to the city during Mardi Gras, I saw this fact parodied in a float from the all-women Krewe of Muses. It depicted former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal clothed in those classic blue and white lines and dubbed him an “In-Sin-Seer-Sucker” – get it?

Then there are hats. Along with a dog and tattoo, they are the one thing that everyone seems to have in New Orleans – and not just gentlemen. The city is full of hat shops: Goorin Bros, Key West Hat Company, La Red Rooster and, oldest and most famous, Meyers on the junction of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue that claims to be the South’s largest hat store. “It’s because of the heat,” one Southern gentleman told me once, but I think it’s about more than that – perhaps a desire for self-elevation in a city with something of an (unjustified) inferiority complex and with a flair for the creation of a sense of occasion that headwear often brings.

In London, there is also a rich tradition of dressing up. In the many communities here where people have historically not had very much, looking your best can be an important sign of self-respect, respect for those around you, and belief in the possibility of transformation. This tradition has surely helped to create the engine of progression and prosperity that London has represented for many.

Take fashion designer Alexander McQueen. “London’s where I was brought up. It’s where my heart is and where I get my inspiration,” he said, a quote that was written on the wall near the start of a recent sell-out exhibition of his work at the city’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He came from a working-class family and was the son of a black cab driver but via London’s world-famous suit-making centre Savile Row became a legend in his field.

I certainly feel uncomfortable going out in London or New Orleans without dressing up a little. Bright black, sky-and-water blue, and often one of my two favourite pairs of earrings (see picture): pink pearls that I’d like to imagine are from some sweet swamp-born oyster; and small silver birds with delicate scratches that could be, if you look closely enough, tiny feathers.

Watching 12 Years A Slave In London

Last Sunday, I saw 12 Years A Slave. It’s an incredibly powerful film that, like all the best films, owes a large part of its impact to its visual effect. Much has been written about two key particularly shocking scenes: the first being where central character Solomon Northup is left hanging while plantation life continues around him, and the second the brutal whipping of fellow slave Patsy, made more horrifying by the fact that Solomon is compelled by his master to inflict this punishment on her.

I also found myself troubled by the film’s lush, swampy landscapes, unmistakeable to anyone who’s ever been to Louisiana. I found their beauty and familiarity added to the film’s disconcerting effect by acting as a reminder of the links between the society portrayed in the film and our own – slavery might have been abolished, but its effects continue to be felt in ongoing racism, race-related violence and in other ways, in Louisiana and elsewhere.

More positively, the scene where Solomon and other slaves encounter a group of Native Americans was a reminder of the connections and fellowship between these two groups honoured in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tradition.

Because the city has changed so much since the mid-nineteenth century when the film is set, the scenes of the film in New Orleans don’t provide as immediate a connection to Louisiana today. But traces of the events shown in 12 Years A Slave are visible in the city – the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel is built on the site of the slave market shown in the film and is reportedly deeply haunted.

Over by St. Augustine Church in Treme, there’s the well-known Tomb of the Unknown Slave (pictured) dedicated to “the memory of the nameless, faceless, turfless Africans who met an untimely death in Faubourg Treme” and intended to also “honor all slaves buried throughout the United States”.

It’s important to remember that the southern United States was by no means the only region of the world deeply implicated in the crime of slavery. As an exceptional permanent exhibition “London, Sugar & Slavery” at London’s Museum in Docklands (the city’s former port area and now part of its financial district) makes explicit, significant parts of the city’s current prosperity and its physical environment were built from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

That slavery was an international business, in which London was involved as well as New Orleans, can perhaps be seen as echoed in the making of 12 Years A Slave. The film’s construction involved a British director with Caribbean heritage, a British leading actor with Nigerian heritage, a Kenyan leading actor now living in America, Americans of many races, and others of many different ethnicities and nationalities. Coming together to construct something as powerful as this film is a fitting response to slavery’s legacy.

Meet Me In New Orleans (Kind of…)

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A warm night, palm trees, people happily chatting to strangers. It could almost have been the Marigny and not Hackney. The dive bar in a dilapidated building certainly had a New Orleans “we just threw this together ourselves” kinda vibe, but then these types of venues are oh-so-Hackney too, which also has a love-hate relationship with a shipwrecked-at-the-end-of-the-world reputation. Other clues we were in London not Louisiana: the palm trees were plastic and the temperature outside dropped rapidly once the new June sun went down, but people really were talking happily to people they didn’t know.

Normal London rules for dealing with strangers, in case you’re not familiar with them, are as follows: eye contact – weirdo; smile – get off at the next stop; and unsolicited conversation – run! In New Orleans, on the other hand, strangers will stop in the street to talk and introduce each other to their dogs.

I was at an event called Meet Me In New Orleans, which took place last Saturday and was organised by an excellent organisation called New Orleans in London, which aims to bring the music and culture of the Crescent City to the UK’s capital. I would say their mission is a valid one; all things NOLA are relatively unfamiliar to Londoners who, in common with most Brits, tend to think that the US starts with New York and finishes with California, with not much in between. But the New Orleans magic was certainly making its presence felt here. As well as engaging in friendly chit-chat, people were actually dressed up, with many girls in actual dressy dresses (a rarity in London), which made this habitual overdresser happy – I’d made what I thought was a daring last-minute decision to don my party skirt and purple beads.

The venue had made an effort to show some Louisiana hospitality and brio too, serving gumbo and pralines alongside the east London tipples on offer – gin and tonics, Japanese beer. The gesture reflected the slightly mystical affinity in New Orleans between music and food. Somehow they’re always connected there, and once you have one, you never have to go far to find the other. Louis Armstrong always used to sign his letters “Red Beans And Ricely Yours” after the classic New Orleans Monday night supper and, in the modern day, one of the city’s biggest jazz stars, Kermit Ruffins, can often be found cooking up outside Bywater bar Vaughans on a Thursday night in between his sets with his band, the Barbecue Swingers.

Which leads me nicely on to Saturday’s music. It was provided by trad jazzers Dixie Ticklers, the rocking Fallen Heroes and DJ Lil’ Koko. Early on, there was some awe-inspiring swing dancing going on, but as I can’t manage any kind of dancing that requires me to remember the difference between left and right or turn at a set time, I was much happier when proceedings descended into a free-for-all Mardi Gras mosh pit.

We heard classics like Tipitina’s, When The Saints Go Marching In, and even some Mardi Gras Indian-style call and response. But what stayed in my mind most was chief Dixie Tickler Dom James’s rendition of the eerie St. James Infirmary Blues. As I listened, I remembered being in Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street a couple of summers ago, and hearing New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield play it. Afterwards, he said it was strange that, even though the song was so linked to the city, he’d never been able to find any trace of the hospital to which it referred.

That’s because the St. James Infirmary was in London, a medieval leper refuge that’s now St James’s Palace, though, according to most accounts, this place isn’t even the true birthplace of the song. It’s supposed to have originated in an Irish ballad cycle entitled The Unfortunate Rake. My mother’s family come from Ireland, and I can confirm that you can rely on strangers talking to you there, maybe even stopping you in the street. However, the nights, even in summer, are likely to be chilly. So on balance it’s probably a good thing that none of us, myself included, are obliged to stop in the place where we started.