One of the great attractions on Bermuda Day is watching the Gombey troupes come out in full force for the parade. With their colourful costumes and distinctive heart-throbbing drumbeat, the Gombeys have been dancing and entertaining Bermuda for centuries.
The Gombey is Bermuda’s unique ethnic art form—and dance, drumbeats and costumes are its key elements. Rooted in slavery, the Gombey has been an integral part of Bermuda’s culture for centuries, despite undergoing many changes. Colourful costumes worn today were not part of nineteenth-century Gombey dress. They were adopted in the twentieth century.
The Gombeys that captivated visiting Englishwoman Suzette Lloyd on Christmas Day 1829 were wearing “plentiful bedaubing of red and yellow paints, scarlet cloth, flowers and ribbons,” according to her description in Sketches of Bermuda, published in 1835. E. A. McCallan, born in Bermuda in 1874, recalled in Life on Old St. David’s that the Gombeys of his youth wore “no uniform or fancy dress” except for “an illuminated tissue paper-and-frame house on the head of the most active member of the band who danced and pranced while the others sang.” Theodore L. Godet, writing in Bermuda, noted the “miniature chateau” headdress and “hideous masks.”
Modern-day costumes originated with the influx of workers from the Caribbean, mainly St. Kitts and Nevis and Antigua, in the 1920s and 1930s. They established new “exotic” groups who wore elaborate costumes.
What are the main elements of a Gombey costume? On the dancer’s head, you will find a scarf tied under the chin and the magnificent peacock-plumed headdress, from which a mask hangs to conceal the face. Next, you will notice a white, long-sleeved sweatshirt; white gloves; a velvet cape decorated with embroidery, ribbons, mirrors, tassels and ribbons; and an apron or skirt. Pants decorated with rows of fringe and white sneaker boots complete the attire. When fully dressed, the dancer is covered from head to toe.
The Gombey costume has a dual purpose—disguise and adornment. Costumes allowed the dancers to hide their identity from slave masters. The mask was never taken off in public, and the Indian scout of the group would run ahead to mark safe houses where dancers could be assured of refreshments without fear of reprisal.
The colourful costumes that took hold nearly 100 years ago have become even more elaborate, a reflection of a more affluent society. In the past, a cape may have had mirrors, ribbons, bells and strands of Christmas beads. Sequins, jewels and beads of all shapes and sizes are more recent additions. In the past, mirrors were purchased from a commercial company, such as Bermuda Glass, and cut to order in various sizes and shapes. Nowadays, they are bought ready-made and smooth-edged from Gibbons Company, the source of most of the decorations and material.
Headdresses have also become more ornate, with glitter and more peacock feathers used. While the feathers were once supplied by the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, Gibbons Company is now the source, and the stems are dyed, more often than not, a variety of bright colours. While Gombeys once made do with imported pink masks, they now make their own masks with wire mesh purchased from a hardware store and spray-painted brown. Traditionalists frown on a new trend—the painting of original designs on masks. Capes were always made of velvet, usually black, but nowadays the range of colours has expanded to include red, purple, green or blue. Alan Warner, manager, snare drummer and historian of Warner Gombeys, believes velvet symbolizes African animal fur.
Costumes are heavy with symbolism—mirrors ward off evil spirits, peacock feathers represent pride and strength. According to Warner: “Everything that we choose reflects our time in Africa, even our riches. So, when we start talking about the beads and the colours of the beads, we mean stones, diamonds. This was our heritage. The costume basically became what we knew, what my grandfather and those gentlemen knew was their mojo bag.
“In Africa, they had a little pouch and they called it their mojo bag. They had all those trinkets in the bag and those trinkets came out of the bag when they went to the costume.” The costume-making tradition has evolved over the centuries, but remains firmly imbedded in able hands of Gombey families.
The above piece is an excerpt from a longer article by the same name that ran in The Bermudian magazine, May 2003.
Making Gombey costumes is a labour-intensive exercise encompassing an average of 80 hours for an adult costume. Materials cost anywhere from $300 to $400, and buying one ready-made is likely to set you back at least $750 for cape, skirt and pants or $1,500 for the complete costume. Trying to tie down a costume maker to specifics is like getting old-style Bermuda cooks to spell out the exact measurements of ingredients used in their favourite dishes. The following is an estimate of materials required to make a man’s costume.
For the cape, skirt & apron:
2 1/2 yards of velvet
3 1/2 yards of gabardine for lining
18 yards of fringe, assorted colours
7 skeins of wool
25 yards of ribbon of various colours
36 packages of embroidery thread
100+ beads, assorted colours & sizes
100+ sequins, assorted colours & sizes
50-plus bells in various sizes
For the mask:
Wire—may use a wire hanger
Brown spray paint
Various paints for decoration
Wool braids (optional)
For the headdress:
Peacock feathers, minimum 50