Charlotte Dickerson & Tola Dabiri


Tola Dabiri & Charlotte Dickerson Carnival Conference March 2013

Here’s One We Made Earlier. The 2nd Carnival Archive Conference March 15th and 16th 2013

Tola Dabiri & Charlotte Dickerson

Tola Dabiri & Charlotte Dickerson Transcript (Click to read/hide)

Tola Dabiri:

This is a presentation we were actually going to do yesterday, but we had so much in the programme we actually ran out of time, so we’re doing it today instead. We did have a late night last night so it might not be as polished as everybody yesterday morning, but we’ll do our best.

I’m Tola and this is Charlotte and we work on the Carnival Archive Project as part of the team. What we’re going to do is a very short presentation which we hope will inspire you to start thinking about the role of women in carnival generally, and particularly around Carnival Queens. There are some pictures of some wonderful Southend Carnival Queens [ slide ]. They’ve got a tradition of Carnival Queens going back about 70 / 80 years.

Just a brief introduction about the Project, as you probably all know the Carnival Archive Project has been running across the Eastern Region since October 2011. It’s an HLF funded pilot, a regional pilot for what we hope will be the National Carnival Archive, fingers crossed for us there.

It’s been running in four locations, Southend, Norwich, Luton and Northampton. We have the most amazing archive team, and I love this picture [ slide ] to describe the archive team, because it has been a very precarious but skilfully balanced team who have creatively held this whole thing together, it wouldn’t happen without them, so thank you very much to all of them, you’ve been a joy to work with.

We found out lots of really interesting things through the Project, but one of the things that kept coming up again and again was this whole thing about Carnival Queens and women in carnival. We found some wonderful treasures, but what we also found was that it was very difficult to find out real information about what women really felt, and how they came to run carnival associations; we found all of that very difficult.

Actual academic research about Carnival Queens, well I think I got in touch with Yale, the Herbert Museum, the University of Newcastle, University of Manchester to find somebody to come and actually do this presentation properly, based on academic research, but there is none, so that’s definitely some research that needs to be done. At least if there is some, if it’s out there, we couldn’t find it, and that again comes back to discoverability.

This is our call to action to all women out there in carnival, and all those wonderful men who support women in carnival, not forgetting you, to tell your stories, share your stories, and make sure your stories are recorded and known.

Charlotte Dickerson:

I’m going to tell you a little bit about some of the main roles for women in carnival that we’ve been looking at. When we started researching this doing the archive and speaking to women so many came forward, and particularly ones that had been Carnival Queens. They were so proud of what they’d done; they really needed to share their stories and were so pleased that someone was interested.

Carnival is an interesting thing for women because it’s one of the few art forms or performances where they can have equal status to men, they can really get involved, and often they get involved in the organising as well, which is really important, empowerment.

I’m going to take you through some of the main roles of women in parades.

We had the May Queen: The May Day celebrations were celebrated in England for years, the Spring Equinox has been celebrated, rural societies, as far back as we know really.

Then when the ancient Romans came in they brought with them their celebration of the Goddess Flora that you can see up there [ slide ], and that sort of really feminised the parade and things like that, it made it about flowers, it was about springtime, it made it about women as well, and this will kind of shape the way that we celebrate May Day today.

The Catholic Church also around this time had a celebration, a crowning celebration, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The May Queen was specifically a young, unmarried woman, she wore white, she wore flowers, which showed she was very pure and very innocent, but today it’s sort of moved away from that, it tends to be a child now, so that idea of showing her purity isn’t really there anymore.

Then we looked at traditional English / British Carnival Queens, and these very often have roles that last throughout the year, they’re not just a one day thing. You can see some of the Carnival Queens we found there [ slide ] from whom we found out some interesting things, mainly from Northampton there. Because of the public role they have, it’s not just one day a year, they often have chaperones, and we found out that even now in Sheringham the chaperone will ensure that the Carnival Queen doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, and she doesn’t have boyfriends while she’s the Carnival Queen. I’m not quite sure whether that lasted a whole year or her whole life. Again, like May Queens, they tend to be getting younger in a lot of carnivals, whether that’s just to avoid the objectification of women issue we’re not quite sure.

Carnival Queens have got a carnival court and there will be Princesses or Maids of Honour, but we have found few examples of Carnival Kings or Carnival Princes, and so it does tend to be a very female thing, this leading the carnival. The Queen is crowned before the carnival starts, then they ride in the parade and then hand out prizes at the end, so they’re really the figurehead of the carnival.

They were traditionally selected on the way they looked, how they moved, their deportment and things like that, but now it’s supposed to be about their attitude, their personalities, their interests and things. Whether that’s definitely true I’m not sure.

In Wellingborough though the Carnival Queen was traditionally selected on how much money she could raise for charity. All the girls who wanted to be Carnival Queen were given a collecting bucket, they went out there, and whoever raised the most money for the hospital then got to be Carnival Queen, so quite a nice thing if you had a rich father I think.

Then looking at the more Caribbean Carnival Queen [ slide ], which is very different to the traditional English Carnival Queen. In the Caribbean a lot of carnival is about mimicry, about mocking former colonials, and so the Carnival Queen’s dress tends to be a way of mocking the elaborate, cumbersome dresses worn by aristocrats as they went to their parties. This has grown over time and now the costume is so important to the role of the Carnival Queen.

It’s not just about one woman going up there; it’s a whole mas band who’ll pick a Queen. They all wear different costume, and then this costume is really how it’s judged, things like the movement of it, the emotional response it gets from people, all that kind of thing. It’s not like the English Carnival Queen, just about one woman doing one thing [? 7:59], and so it’s vitally important. They have a Carnival Queen show, they’re all showing off their amazing dresses, but the actual judging of the Carnival Queen there is judged on the day itself.

Tola Dabiri:

In conventional gender politics, as it’s portrayed in our class society, images like this [ slide ] are seen as objectifying and disempowering women. I apologise for the children in the audience, I don’t think it’s too rude. We’ve been looking at the rudest photos we could find about skimpy mas, but this wasn’t too bad.

Is that a case in carnival; is wearing an outfit like that objectifying or is it empowering?

Charlotte Dickerson:

With that in mind as we started exploring the subject we looked again at some of the images we had in the archive and wondered, when you think about it from that point of view, is that what it’s showing you, is it objectifying women here? Women that are very pretty [ slide ], in lots of subservient roles here. This one in particular [ slide ] we found quite shocking, you know it’s only from the 1980s.

However, when we started to delve into this idea deeper, we started looking at the stories in the archives and oral histories from speaking to people, we found it wasn’t really the case, people who were Carnival Queens didn’t feel objectified, they felt empowered by their role. A lady who was Carnival Queen in Northampton in the 60s, we were looking at this issue, said:

‘It’s a strange thing really because in these days we have political correctness, but in those days you didn’t need political correctness because people used to look upon us with respect. Even as a young girl as a local Carnival Queen I was looked upon with great respect, and I appreciated that very, very much. Today it’s not the same.’

She was implying that it was a respected position but it’s not now. However a current organisers of Caribbean style carnival said that women in the Caribbean see the carnival as a chance to be free of the pressures of society:

‘You often see high powered business women using the day to express the side of themselves that is usually hidden.’

So this sort of blows our argument out of the water really.

What we’d really like to know is what you think about it, because, as Tola said, so little research has been done into this that we’d like to know your views on it.

Tola Dabiri:

So join in the debate and tell us your stories. That’s the archive [ slide ], so if you’ve got any comments to make please just come to the archive and make them there. Thanks very much indeed.

Hilary Carty:

I think we can take some views right here and now. As I sat there I was thinking, gosh who can we pull together to capture this story, because it really is an important one that we just don’t let slip, so if there are any budding archivists or writers amongst you let’s gather and let’s see if we can’t start to capture this story. I’m sure there are going to be some questions for Tola and Charlotte in response to the big debate in question.



At the moment are you just gathering stories from those four regions around this area and later on going nationwide?

Tola Dabiri:

That’s right yes. Unfortunately, because this is a HLF regionally funded pilot project, we were told quite firmly at the beginning of the Project that we could only collect from the Eastern Region, which we think is a real shame, but it does add to our call for more funds to do the National Carnival Archive, but anything related, ‘I used to live in Luton but now I’m in Dominica but here’s my archive.’ We usually let a few things slip in.

HC;There’s space on the website you were saying yesterday where you were encouraging people to register that support.

Tola Dabiri:

Absolutely. If you go to the website there’s a tab which says ‘support us’, where you can fill in your reasons why you think we should get the funding for a National Carnival Archive. It would be really helpful if we could take that to HLF and say, ‘all these people think that we should have the money as well …’


Not really a question I just wanted to share something, because what came to mind when you were speaking about the Afro-Caribbean nature of carnival, women in carnivals, and another aspect that’s becoming very popular is calypso, women are singing calypso. What has been happening is women enter calypso competitions, but they’re putting aside a special night for women in calypso, so you have a female calypso monarch and the overall calypso monarch.

What’s been happening recently where I come from is that there’s a regional calypso monarch competition for females, so you’ve got people from Barbados, St Lucia, St Vincent’s, Antigua, Montserrat and two other islands. I think it was the fourth year they’ve done it, but then the women use that as a platform, so you have them singing about domestic violence; women in politics. They sing about topical issues, so they use that as a platform to push issues in the Caribbean.

Tola Dabiri:

That’s brilliant. Thank you for that. We’ll write it down and try and get some photos from you and we can then put it in, that would be really great.


Have you got any makers and designers, as demonstrated by Ali yesterday, there’s a huge number of women making carnival in Britain behind the scenes, it’s not just outside.


Charlotte wants you to know that she was in fact a Carnival Princess for 3 years in a row when she was 8, and as a disabled child she found that very empowering, it gave her a lot of confidence to lead that procession, she sat at the front as the mascot, so she feels it was positive.


You said initially the Carnival Queen was picked on attributes, certain attributes were picked by a panel of judges to decide on who the Carnival Queen was and then it lasted throughout the year, but those things have changed. What do you think they’re basing them on now, how open is it, where is the awareness about becoming a Carnival Queen?

Charlotte Dickerson:

Actually this is quite interesting, because when I was researching this and trying to find the list of criteria for Carnival Queens in a lot of the English small town carnivals it was quite difficult. It used to be literally that the ladies would parade up and down and they’d be picked on what you could see, how they moved, how they looked, that sort of thing, whereas now it’s much more about talking to them, it’s about what they’re interested in, what their personal attributes are, so it’s moving away from just based on looks or style really.


So anybody can apply to be a Carnival Queen?

Charlotte Dickerson:

Absolutely anybody. It’s one of those things where they are looking for more people to do it, because it’s something that’s going slightly out of fashion. It would be great if more people applied and it carried on.


You were asking about the objectification of women. It seems to me that a lot of girls [IA 16:33] prefer to [IA], if you want to call it proper costumes, [IA], when it comes to designing costumes it’s hard to strike the balance between getting something different to what’s becoming very stylised, very samey costume, trying to get what people want, which seems to be as little as possible. They don’t even want to wear the headdresses, they don’t want to wear the [IA], and they just want wear as little as possible. The women seem to be choosing it rather than being forced to wear it, they want to wear as little as possible, so maybe finding a way for designers to work with that.


Do you know why women want to do that?


It’s quite interesting because [??? 17:34] Carnival, we’re a London company [IA 17:41] costumes which aren’t skimpy, they’re very covered. The very first national the [??? 17:50] the 21st carnival, they had their Queen show last year and the costumes were nothing of skimpiness at all. They had different designers but they were huge, exciting, stimulating, all of that minus that bit, we had that huge collection, so I think we need to be a bit careful about thinking that everyone does that, because there are some companies that don’t, that design and they do end up with different costumes. Horses for courses I suppose.

Hilary Carty:

That’s the challenge to get a proper reflection of the diversity of views, because you are seeing both extremes, as it were, of the skimpiness and the more elaborate costumes for the Carnival Queens; all the more reason for us to get that in the Archive Project.

I just want to say a big thank you again to Tola and to Charlotte.


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