‘Roots’ Style: Black Lesbians in 1980s Britain

I recently came across the term “Roots”, or more specifically, “Roots lesbians.” It was while I was researching for my article on lesbian feminist dress codes, and I made a note to come back to the term and find out more about it. However, once I got around to doing this, I found it to be a much harder task than I’d anticipated. I gathered that “Roots” referred to Black British lesbians who would wear clothing from their respective cultures, sometimes entirely, sometimes combined with more typically “Western” fashions. This would partly be in order to connect with their Black identity and partly to make their Blackness and their cultural history visible (not just in wider British society but in gay and lesbian communities themselves). “Roots” style exists as an alternative to the popular lesbian fashion narratives of the 1980s – it was not uniform and androgynous like the t-shirts and jeans of lesbian feminists, nor was it leather- and sex-centric as with the clothes worn by SM dykes. Unfortunately, not being part of a popular narrative makes information about it spectacularly difficult to find. 

Fig. 1: Femi Otitoju, Lesbian Strength March, 1985. Colourised by Skittles, via Metro. This photograph of Otitoju isn’t necessarily an illustration of what might be considered “Roots” style, but the outfit she’s wearing is interesting because it is still separate from the popular 1980s lesbian fashion narratives. In Otitoju’s own words, “we weren’t what people expected to see when they thought of lesbians.” 

The only reference to “Roots” lesbians that I have come across is in Inge Blackman and Kathryn Perry’s 1990 article ‘Skirting the Issue: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s.’ The notes of the article imply that their research was based in conversations with lesbians about their clothing and there are no further sources listed related to the term “Roots.” In the article, they describe the style:

This style includes headwraps, clothing made out of African fabric, dashikis, saris, punjabi suits, Asian/African jewellery and hairstyles such as dreadlocks, cane/corn rows (maybe with extensions) and unstraightened Afro hair. Mingled with various western fashions, this fusion of styles reflects the tension of belonging to both Black and gay cultures but being prevented by homophobia and racism from complete acceptance by either. It is by maintaining this tension – in part through styles of dress – that many Black lesbians sustain their identities as Black women and lesbians without having to deny one at the expense of the other.1

While this description is a wonderful starting point, further searches for “Roots” lesbian style led to dead-ends. Because of this, rather than being a conclusive article, this blog post is more of a test of the waters. I have taken the information given in ‘Skirting the Issue’ and considered how it relates to other sources about Black lesbian life in 1980s Britain, and – since there’s so little written on the topic – I wanted to share these links and sources here. I’d love to explore this topic more, perhaps even with interviews, and if anyone reading has information to add I’d be very grateful to hear it. 

In the 1980s, in the UK, ‘Black’ was understood differently from how we might consider it today – it was more akin to the 2020s use of “people of colour.” The London Black Lesbian and Gay Centre offered a definition of ‘Black’, which was then used again in 1993 in Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, the first book published about the experiences of Black lesbians in Britain. This definition is:

[Those who are] descended (through one or both parents) from Africa, Asia (i.e. the Middle East to China, including the Pacific nations) and Latin America, and lesbians and gay men descended from the original inhabitants of Australasia, North America, and the islands of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.2

Fig. 2: Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group Newsletter, unknown designer, December 1987. Glasgow Women’s Library, LGBTQ Collections Online Resource. womenslibrary.org.uk. 

It was important to define this term in order to define the spaces that used it. The London Black Lesbian and Gay Centre was founded in 1985 by the Lesbian and Gay Black Group, which had previously been known as the Gay Black Group and the Gay Asian Group before that. The first Black Lesbian Group, based in London, was formed in 1982, though it folded shortly after. In 1984, the Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group formed, with the Black Lesbian Group still operating autonomously. In Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves’ chapter ‘Now and then: a Black lesbian chronology’, a timeline lists the forming of many other groups, events and publications. These include the launch of the Chinese Lesbian Group in 1983, the Zami I conference in 1985 (the first national Black lesbian conference, held in London), the Zami II conference in 1989 (held in Birmingham), and the formation of groups in cities other than the capital, such as Nottingham’s Black Lesbian Group and Manchester’s Black Lesbian and Gay Group, which both launched in 1991.3 

This period was clearly a defining moment for the creation of Black lesbian space and specifically Black lesbian identity in the UK. As Dressing Dykes is a blog about lesbian fashion history, I find myself now coming to the obvious question: how is clothing involved in this? While the clothes worn by the lesbians in groups like those listed above are far from well documented, it’s possible to see why a style that highlighted and validated the members’ Black identities would have been appealing. 

In a short documentary from 1983 about the Gay Black Group, an interviewee and member of the group (who I believe to be Femi Otitoju, pictured above on the 1985 Lesbian Strength march and one of the contributors to Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves) answered the question “why are there so few women in the group?” She replied:

I think it’s a lot more difficult for women from ethnic minorities to come out. Their role within the family is a lot quieter, a lot more submissive, and it’s a lot more difficult to actually establish your own identity as  woman, let alone to then say “oh I’m a lesbian” as well.4

Multiple interviewees in the documentary, though many of them were men, expressed the idea that their homosexuality was incompatible with their family life – in other words, their link to their culture and heritage. If family ties were severed or weakened because of being gay, it makes sense that Black lesbians may have wanted to re-connect themselves to their cultures in other ways. This is especially relevant when we consider the whiteness of the gay and lesbian scenes in Britain in (and arguably since) the 1980s. Another interviewee in the Gay Black Group documentary pointed out that “we are expected to […] wash away parts of our identity, so among whites are we expected to […] bleach out our Black culture?” she concluded by stating the importance of groups like the one she was attending: “This group re-asserts that culture in a positive way.”5

Fig. 3: Leaflet for the Camden Black Lesbian Group at Phoenix Road, London. Copyright. Glasgow Women’s Library. Via historicengland.org.uk. 

Clothing is a thing both tangible and expressive, close to the body and personal, yet also in dialogue with the outside world. By wearing the “headwraps, clothing made out of African fabric, dashikis, saris, punjabi suits, Asian/African jewellery and hairstyles” described by Blackman and Perry, Black lesbians were locating their Black cultures into lesbian space, via their own lesbian bodies.6 To wear clothes that asserted their heritage was to insist that their Blackness and their lesbianism were not in opposition. 

Despite this, looking Black could directly oppose the possibility of a lesbian identity in multiple real-world scenarios. If styles like Roots insisted on the multiplicity of Black lesbian identities, this was because these identities were simultaneously being denied. For example, if we fast-forward twenty years from the 1980s and land at a mid point between then and now, we find an article published in 2004 by Rani Kawale titled ‘Inequalities of the heart: the performance of emotion work by lesbian and bisexual women in London, England.’ In this article, Kawale notes that “places may be publicised as being for ‘lesbian’ and ‘bisexual’ women but they rarely have room for ‘black’ women to be ‘black’ in them.”7 

A number of the women interviewed by Kawale were of South Asian descent, and spoke about their experiences of presenting as South Asian women in lesbian spaces. Kawale writes of one participant, Amina, who was a South Asian lesbian in her late twenties:

Having initially dressed as a ‘stereotypical straight woman’ in ‘tiny tops, short skirts, bangles, makeup and long hair’, she later dressed ‘like a dyke’ in ‘tight tops, big trousers, big boots and no makeup’ to visit a particular lesbian bar […]. As a South Asian woman she decided to maintain her long hair. This, together with her brown-coloured skin, was not perceived as dressing ‘like a dyke’ by the white female bouncer at the bar who did not allow her in.8 

Despite wearing multiple markers of lesbian or dyke identity for the time – “tight tops, big trousers, big boots and no makeup” – Amina was still considered to not be lesbian enough due to the parts of her appearance that were still visibly South Asian (or Black in earlier terminology). Years after the Black Gay Group documentary, Black culture was still expected to be “bleached out” in order to be accepted in white lesbian spaces. Kawale describes how “In response to such encounters the interviewees reported to ‘playing down’ their ‘South Asianness’ in order to ‘fit in’ or ‘pass’ as ‘British’ or Western enough in terms of their appearance, behaviour, conversations, etc. and thus enjoy their sexuality on the scene.”9 For a safer and easier, though no less frustrating or enraging experience, this choice is understandable. However, it is also understandable why other Black lesbians might have retaliated with an unashamed embrace of their Black identity through clothing. 

As I mentioned earlier, there is far from a wealth of documentation of Black lesbian fashion in the 1980s (or, really, ever). Still, there are some who have referred to the clothes they wore and their attitudes towards them in written or video accounts. One of these individuals is Dorothea Smartt, a renowned poet, a contributor to Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves and an interviewee in the 2014 documentary about the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, Under Your Nose. It’s in this documentary that she briefly mentions her clothing, saying that “In those days as well, you know, I wore African clothes. You know? So, there’s me, I’d turn up at some gay club, Stallions or something […] in me ting der, and they’d be like “uh, excuse me?””.10 

Fig. 4: Maud Sulter, Clio (Portrait of Dorothea Smartt), 1989. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. V&A Online Collections. 

The above photograph is of Smartt, taken by the photographer Maud Sulter in 1989. It was part of Sulter’s portrait series Zabat, which features nine creative Black women, each as one of the Greek muses; Smartt is in the role of Clio, the muse of heroic poetry and history. The Victoria and Albert Museum, which houses the photographs in its collection, describes how Sulter used “the conventions of Victorian portrait photography” but that “the image is transformed with African clothes, non-European objects and, most importantly, by the resolute black woman at its centre.”11 

Of course, the photograph has been purposefully and carefully staged, the clothes most likely chosen by both Smartt and Sulter. It is not a representation of everyday wear. However, it is interesting to see Smartt represented in a way that visibly embraces African culture almost entirely through clothing and hair. It represents not just Sulter’s artistic vision and talent, nor only Smartt as a poet and a creative Black woman, but a moment in time when Black women in the UK were reclaiming a heritage that the society around them had consistently tried to whitewash. One of the ways that this was done was through their work, but another was through the clothes that adorned their bodies. 

This article has focused on the specific experiences of Black lesbians in Britain in the 1980s. This was for two reasons: the first is that this was the context in which “Roots” was written about in my lone source for the term. The second is because increasing the area of focus could have resulted in a whole book, rather than a blog post. This is only a glimpse at Black lesbian history in relation to Roots style, but if we were to look further we would see threads weaving across time and space. 

Consider the Black feminist movement that was growing in the US in the 1980s led by the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist group (largely comprised of Black lesbian feminists), which was active from 1974 to 1980. Consider writers like Audre Lorde, whose Zami: A New Spelling of my Name was so influential that the Zami I and II conferences in the UK took their name from it.12 Consider the links – the similarities – that bind communities globally. One similarity is clothing, worn consistently if variably the world over. Is there really any wonder why it is so often politicised, nurtured as a representation of the self and the communities we belong to? The story of Roots lesbians is one that I have been attempting to preserve, but it is not mine to tell. That job has already been done, with clothing the sentences that make up the tale.

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1: Inge Blackman and Kathryn Perry, ‘Skirting the Issue: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s,’ Feminist Review 34 (1990): 73.

2: London Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, quoted in Valerie Mason-John and Ann Khambatta, Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, (London: Scarlet Press, 1993) 9. 

3: Mason-John and Khambatta, Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, 56-59.

4: Femi Otitoju (?), Gay Black Group 1983, 1983, UK. BFI Player. From 5.30. 

5: Unnamed interviewee, Gay Black Group 1983, from 23.30.

6: Blackman and Perry, ‘Skirting the Issue: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s,’ 73.

7: Rani Kawale, ‘Inequalities of the heart: the performance of emotion work by lesbian and bisexual women in London, England,’ Social & Cultural Geography 5.4 (2004): 575.

8: Kawale, ‘Inequalities of the heart: the performance of emotion work by lesbian and bisexual women in London, England,’ 575.

9: Kawale, ‘Inequalities of the heart: the performance of emotion work by lesbian and bisexual women in London, England,’ 575.

10: Dorothea Smartt, interviewed in Under Your Nose. ‘Under Your Nose – the story of the first black lesb,’ Twice as Proud, 2013. YouTube. 

11: Victoria and Albert Museum, ‘Clio (Portrait of Dorothea Smartt)’ Collections, collections.vam.ac.uk. 

12: Zami was originally a Caribbean word for women who love women, but since the publication of Lorde’s novel it became more widely used: interestingly, in Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, one contributor dislikes the the word because it “conjures up the type of Black women who walk around with African prints on, and say if you don’t wear ethnic clothes you’re not Black enough.” Quote from Araba Mercer, in Mason-John and Khambatta, Lesbians Talk Making Black Waves, 39.

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