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'It's about being unruly and unpredictable': Exhibition celebrates London's folk costumes

Notting Hill Carnival in west London, 2022
Notting Hill Carnival in west London, 2022 Copyright AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
Copyright AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
By Amber Louise Bryce
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A collaborative exhibition by the Museum of British Folklore offers a peek behind the pearly buttons of London's vibrant folk communities.

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Every three years, in the small Belgian city of Ypres, locals dress up in Papier-mâché cat heads and other forms of feline-inspired attire to celebrate the 'Kattenstoet' ('Festival of the Cats').

A tradition since 1955, it's linked - rather bleakly - to legends about cats once being thrown from a bell tower, the reasoning for which is still subject to speculation... But one thing's for sure: people have always loved an opportunity to dress up and get a little weird.

The desire to connect with past traditions, while also subverting them, is what makes folklore so compelling. Its rebellious ideas are most keenly expressed through enigmatic costumes, many of which are finally being celebrated at an exhibition in east London.

Pearly Kings and Queen do the "Knees up Mother Brown" dance in 1968.
Pearly Kings and Queen do the "Knees up Mother Brown" dance in 1968.AP/Staff/Harris

From the feathered fancies of Notting Hill Carnival to the pearlescent-button patterns of the Pearly Kings and Queens, 'Making More Mischief: Folk Costume' is an exploration of British folklore and its continuous evolution.

"There's a few traditions that take place that have been unbroken, but the majority of them are actually kind of reinventions," Mellany Robinson, Project Manager and Curator at the Museum of British Folklore, tells Euronews Culture. "We feel really strongly that folk culture is a living culture. It's constantly changing."

Founded in 2009, the Museum of British Folklore has no permanent home, instead collaborating with other museums and galleries to interpret or contribute to collections. This latest project is housed at the London College of Fashion and supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund; a follow up to the popular 2023 'Making Mischief' exhibition in Compton Verney.

London is the focus this time, with every costume a lens through which its diverse communities and cultures can be explored.

"We wanted to be hyperlocal, so we connected with Hackney Carnival and worked with Yaram Arts to showcase African culture. We also worked with Hackney Paracarnival - their costumes are made by people with disabilities. So it's a real community event, with lots of different kinds of people," Robinson says.

Folk traditions only survive by adapting, not standing still.
Mellany Robinson
Project Manager and Curator at the Museum of British Folklore

She hopes this will challenge the predominantly white, rural notions of folklore: "Traditionally folk culture has being seen as potentially exclusive. And I think, politically, it's been hijacked by the far right. So we're telling a new story about it. Folk traditions only survive by adapting, not standing still. So they need to reflect the society and the culture that's around."

Notting Hill Carnival is known for its colourful, flamboyant costumes.
Notting Hill Carnival is known for its colourful, flamboyant costumes. AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali
Notting Hill Carnival, 2022.
Notting Hill Carnival, 2022. AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali

Display highlights include outfits from Notting Hill Carnival, Doggett's Coat and Badge Race (a 300-year-old rowing race), Swan Upping, Somali May Day and Morris dancing. Meanwhile, an immersive installation shows footage by folklorist and filmmaker Doc Rowe: "You step into the room and you become part of the festival that's going on," Robinson says.

In recent years, folk culture has seen a resurgence among young people. There's the folklore-focused zine 'Weird Walk', event organisers 'The Stone Club', and the continued exploration and popularity of folk horror in film, a topic that was dissected exhaustively in Kier-La Janisse’s 2021 documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Robinson believes that environmental concerns, and a desire to disconnect from our overstimulating, tech-driven lives, are fuelling folk revivals.

"It's about reconnecting with the seasons and place. That's very much part of folk culture, because folk traditions tend to take place in a particular location at a particular time of year."

While all folk traditions contain an invisible thread to distant times and places, they can also be a way of freeing ourselves from societal oppressions.

As folk costumes continue to develop alongside the changing identities and values of cultures and communities, one constant remains: their power to harness bother rebellion and fun.

"[The subversive nature of folk culture is] about being unruly and unpredictable, and about people gathering together in numbers outside. Generally that's always been seen as a bit of a threat to authority."

'Making More Mischief: Folk Costume' is open until 22 June 2024 every Tuesday to Saturday at London College of Fashion.

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