London’s Notting Hill carnival gears up for return amid surging cost of living

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Nestled in a railway arch in Brixton, south London, a large studio hosts a colourful array of elaborate costumes and flamboyant feathers, all designed to bring to life a Mas Band parade at London’s Notting Hill Carnival.

Billed as Europe’s biggest street party,  the carnival returns over Britain’s August Bank Holiday weekend after a two-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, the challenges facing organisers and participants are not nationwide lockdowns but soaring prices amid inflationary pressures blighting the country.

Ray Mahabir, 58, the artistic director at Sunshine International Arts (SiA) who runs the Mas Band studio, said the return of carnival was “bittersweet” given the economic situation.

“Not knowing what we’re going to meet is one of the main concerns for us,” he said. “Now, everyone doesn’t have money or don’t want to spend money because they’re not sure what they’re going to meet.”

Notting Hill Carnival CEO Matthew Phillips told Reuters a few bands were not going to be able to participate this year.

“Everyone is going through this cost-of-living crisis at the moment which ultimately means not as many people are able to buy costumes, which has a knock-on effect … a lot of costume designers are not doing it to make a profit,” Phillips said.

Mahabir said this year prices of everything had doubled, with a full costume set costing almost 1 000 pounds ($1 185).

These costs are also noticed by other members of the studio. Costume manager Natalie Russell, 35, said the price of feathers, which is often used on a lot of the costumes the studio designs, had tripled.

“Over a pound for a single peacock feather. Which is insane considering how many and how much we use,” Russell said.

The resilience of the carnival

Mas Bands provide the costumes for the Notting Hill Carnival, where members of the public can buy a costume and join a band on the parade route.

The name derives from the word “masquerade”, and has its roots in the emancipation of enslaved people in the Caribbean during the nineteenth century.

Prior to emancipation, they would ridicule and mimic the elaborate gowns worn by their masters at celebration balls, incorporating elements of their African traditions including costumes made of natural materials.

These traditions have continued, evolving into modern Caribbean carnival as a fusion of African and European culture.

The Notting Hill carnival attracts more than a million visitors and is seen as symbol of London’s diversity and rich multicultural history.

Artist and Notting Hill Carnival board director, Linett Kamala, 52, said the effects of COVID-19 and funding challenges faced by organisers had been an “extra tough challenge” this year but, after patient preparations, there was a lot of excitement for the return of carnival.

“It couldn’t come soon enough,” Kamala said.

The carnival began as an indoor event in 1959 in response to the poor state of race relations in Britain and as a celebration for the Afro-Caribbean community, growing over the years into the colourful outdoor celebration it is today.

“Carnival and carnival arts are resilient, it will alwaysfind a way,” carnival boss Phillips said. “It was how it was born in the first place.”