Suits and Boots: A Guide to Ska Style

With New England summer winding down and cooler weather approaching, it’ll be time for all the rude boys to get their suits out of the closet and get set to look sharp at a show.

Wait. What’s that you say? Rude boys? No, no. I don’t mind. I always relish the chance to nerd out about ska.

In the 1960s, rude boys were either glorified or vilified in the poorer sections of Kingston, Jamaica. They were discontented youth, violent and prone to crime, and many ska and rocksteady artists of the time had songs about them. Tunes such as Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message to You, Rudi,” Alton Ellis’s “Dance Crasher,” and many more featured rude boy culture.

Rude boys favored sharp suits, skinny ties and pork pie or Trilby hats. Think Dan Akroyd and John Belushi as The Blues Brothers, and you won’t be far off.

In the late ’70s, the style was revived along with ska music by the 2 Tone Label and its associated bands: The Specials, Madness and The Selecter.  The 2 Tone logo featured a cartoon drawing of a cool looking dude in a sharp suit and skinny tie nicknamed “Walt Jabsco.” The artist based the drawing off a slick looking Peter Tosh from one of the earlier Wailers records and thus the rude boy was reborn, not as a violent gangster, but as a fashion archetype and a label to describe fans of ska music.

This era also saw the birth of the skinhead and the working class style of flight jackets, Fred Perry polo shirts and jeans held up by braces, rolled up to show off a neat pair of Doc Martens boots. Coming from hard-working families in the UK, skinheads started off as hard-drinking, hard-dancing youth who favored ska, reggae and punk — a far cry from the racist image portrayed today.

There were also female counterparts to both. There were the rude girls with their pressed skirts, loafers, tights and bob haircuts, and skinhead girls who dressed mostly the same as the boys.

This was also where ska picked up its black and white checkered motif. Originally a design symbolic of racial unity, it has since come to just mean ska in America.

As ska continued into the ’80s and started to trickle over to America, so too did the styles. Here you have the great melting pot in effect as the rudies and skins were joined on the dance floors by punks and dreadlocked Rastas. The music, as well as the styles, became more mixed with various branches sprouting off the ska family tree.

Nowadays the styles at shows can get pretty eclectic, but you’ll still find your adherents to the rude boy faith. In fact, get those suits pressed and boots shined and head to the Parlor Bar in Newport on Friday, September 11 as The Copacetics and The Hempsteadys dish out the ska! Just don’t be no dance crasher…

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