The textile legacies of the women of the Windrush Generation
A Caribbean Couturier in Lewisham, led by project lead, Joy Prime, celebrates the Caribbean women who designed and created made-to-measure garments for family and community after making the UK their home in the 1960s.
Inspired by the story of her mother, Sylvia, Joy has gathered a wealth of research from the memories and garments of those who made, wore and remember them.
This history inspired the creation of Sylvia’s Space, an immersive installation in Lewisham Shopping Centre that played host to a panel discussion, textile apprenticeship and fashion show. The installation later featured in the GLA’s Black Futures event at City Hall, attended by Sadiq Khan.
In 1963 Sylvia Prime-Holder travelled from her home in Trinidad to London to begin a new life in Lewisham. Although she was an accomplished fashion designer and seamstress in her homeland, she soon learned that her skills were not recognised in the UK and was forced to find work as a sample machinist.
Sylvia, like many other Caribbean women of the Windrush Generation, continued to produce made-to-measure, couture gowns and dresses for formal occasions alongside their day jobs in the textile factories of London.
Amongst many other items, Sylvia designed and created a number of wedding dresses for family and friends including her daughter, Joy.
Despite its lasting impact on Britain’s cultural landscape, this textile legacy has largely been excluded from the history of British fashion. When Joy Prime followed in her mother’s footsteps by studying in at the London College of Fashion, there was no mention of the canon of dressmakers and tailors that she had grown up around or their contributions to British fashion history.
Almost sixty years after Sylvia arrived in the UK, Joy, who has also worked as a couturier for many years, tells her mother’s story and that of other women like her who helped rebuild post-war Britain.
Through oral history workshops and events with elderly Caribbean residents, including the Hummingbird Senior Citizen’s Club in Catford, and engagement stands at three local festivals, Joy has shone a light on the skills and legacies of Lewisham’s Caribbean couturiers.
The We Are Lewisham space in Lewisham Shopping Centre provided the setting for the project’s immersive installation, Sylvia’s Space, that opened in October to celebrate Black History Month.
The installation was a replica of the flat Sylvia and her family moved into when they first arrived in London, complete with period furniture, family photos and a home-machinist environment.
The installation opened with an intergenerational panel discussion that explored the past and present of Caribbean fashion, the process of designing and producing a garment, and the barriers that hinder success in the industry.
During the two weeks the installation was open, Joy ran an intensive apprenticeship for a young designer with the purpose of producing a made-to-measure garment. Together with apprentice, Nicole Bastien-Morris, a couture garment was created from scratch that utilised techniques handed down through generations.
To close the installation, Joy organised a People’s Fashion Show that brought the community together to celebrate the spirit of making.
Caribbean elders and younger generations were invited model their cherished garments from yesteryear alongside contemporary items created by local makers, including the garment created during the apprenticeship.
Reflections by project lead Joy Prime
This project has been an amazing journey for me. When I started, I didn’t really know how it would pan out, but it has left me filled with gratitude for the experience, to the people who willingly shared their life experience, and the team who helped me bring my vision to fruition.
The project was very important to me personally because it gave me an opportunity to honour my mother while she is still able to appreciate it; to contribute to making visible the work and experience of some wonderful women who invisibly contributed to the fashion and cultural history of our borough.
It was also important to the wider community because it fosters an appreciation of the skills, creativity, tenacity and experiences of Caribbean women specifically and Caribbean people in general.
It offered an opportunity for a wider conversation about the social economic, political, racial and cultural issues that impacted the professional trajectory of Caribbean Couturiers and other textile professionals who migrated to Britain during the Windrush era.
I particularly enjoyed the experience of interacting with the public during the time that the installation was in place and also being able to work with the intern to create a garment for a client, reproducing the experience of sharing knowledge and skills between generations. The peoples fashion show was also very exciting and celebratory.
Future plans include the development of learning resources from the work we have done which I believe to be the greatest outcome from this project as it contributes to better representation of Caribbean women in an industry to which they have contributed for many decades.
- Joy Prime, Project Lead