Costume Society, News  |  November 30, 2015

The Dress and Undress of the Kibbo Kift Kindred

'We’re trying to look what civilised people call ridiculous. We’re doing it on purpose.'

(John Hargrave, founder-leader of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift)

If you had happened through the woods and country lanes of the south east of England on any weekend in the 1920s, you might have chanced upon a striking group of hikers dressed in Lincoln green hooded cloaks and jerkins, singing songs of their own composition. The first inkling that this was more than a typical cluster of outdoor enthusiasts might have come when they greeted you with salutations in Anglo-Saxon and the new international language of Esperanto. If you were invited back to camp, however, the sight of members arrayed in ceremonial garb, the cryptic symbolism of their hand-decorated tents and their crudely carved totems would have alerted you that this was – in their own words – a ‘confraternity’ of elites and ‘not a tennis club’.

The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was founded in 1920 as a pacifist alternative to the Boy Scouts. Kibbo Kift – an archaic Cheshire term, meaning ‘proof of the strong’ – welcomed all ages and both sexes, and aimed for nothing less than world peace, to be achieved through an idiosyncratic blend of camping, hiking and handicrafts. Originally comprised of several hundred members including disaffected scout leaders, utopian socialists, spiritual seekers and former suffragettes, the group is little remembered now but their ambitious - if eclectic - vision for the new world that they expected to lead was total, encompassing education and economics, myth and magic, design and architecture and bodies and dress.

Hargrave was a largely self-taught author and commercial artist whose day job was with a leading advertising agency in London. Through this inspiration, and the contribution of the free thinkers and creative practitioners he gathered about him, he developed a complex system of living for those who dared dream of an alternative to post-war devastation. Many aspects of urban modernity were rejected in Kibbo Kift’s vision of a bold new future, and this included many staples of the 1920s wardrobe. For Hargrave, conventional clothing such as the bowler hat, was described as ‘pathetic — a tragi-comedy — the headgear of purposeless routine. It is the symbol of frustration — physical, psychological, and religious. It is an inane thing. Similarly,’ he pronounced, ‘the waistcoat, coat and trousers are the livery of a particular form of slavery.’ Echoing the rallying cries against trousers and boots (as ‘leather coffins for the feet’) by other English social reformers and artists from Edward Carpenter to Eric Gill, Kibbo Kift argued that nothing less than a total transformation of daily life, from body and dress upwards, could hope to remedy the social calamities of the civilised world.

Kinsfolk who wished to overturn all aspects of culture were to cast off the garments that came between them and ‘Fresh Air, Cold Water, and Sunlight. Naked ‘sunbaths’ were encouraged and group exercise in Kibbo Kift camp was taken in the minimum of clothes. Dancing and stretching Kinswomen wore skimpy brassiere-type tops paired with short skirts embroidered in abstract patterns; Kinsmen wore a Native-American style breech clout gee-string, decorated with so-called ‘savage’ symbols.

For public outdoor activities, a green jerkin and shorts over knee socks and stout shoes was required for men. Women camped and hiked in a one-piece dress cinched with a decorated leather belt, topped with either a wimple-style headscarf or, latterly, a green suede Valkyrie-type headdress. For both sexes, in inclement weather, these outfits were finished with a ‘cope and cowl’, or hooded cloak, giving the Kin a mysterious collective appearance as they marched in their characteristic triangular formation across the English countryside. Kibbo Kift clothing was intended to be practical but it also cultivated drama. As Hargrave asserted, of this costume (never described as uniform), it ‘releases efficiency, calls forth conscious organic unity, and proclaims our dynamic difference in impressive silence’.

The most striking items of Kibbo Kift clothing were undoubtedly their ceremonial vestments. These combined elements of the Catholic surplice with the tabard of a medieval knight, and were designed to be worn in the camp rituals that united the group in its worship of sacred energy. Cut in simple T-shapes in shimmering gold lame or primary coloured felt, they featured cryptic insignia and dramatic stiffened shoulders for men.  Through these outfits, and the ‘Glee’ costumes worn for performances of original Kin music, dance and drama, Kinsfolk most clearly communicated their retrofuturist fantasies.

Those with interests in the art and design of the 1920s, including modernism and abstraction, dress for performance and health reform, as well as histories of the new age and English social movements will find much that is intriguing about this group, who have been brought to light through new research by Annebella Pollen, Principal Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton. Original Kibbo Kift design and dress can be seen until March 2016 at a new exhibition in London, entitled Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred. The show, co-curated by Annebella Pollen and Nayia Yiakoumaki of Whitechapel Gallery is accompanied by a book of the same name that provides further detail about the group’s political beliefs, mystical practices and creative culture. Written by Annebella Pollen, designed by Roland Brauchli and published by Donlon Books, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians features over 100 images of Kibbo Kift dress, textiles, design and craft including many examples that have not been seen since the 1920s.

Annebella Pollen, University of Brighton

  • Angus McBean. Kinsman with rucksack, 1928. © Kibbo Kift Foundation. Courtesy of London School of Economics Library.
  • Herald’s surcoat, c.1923. © Kibbo Kift Foundation / Museum of London.
  • Angus McBean. Body of Gleemen and Gleemaidens, 1929. Stanley Dixon collection. Courtesy Tim Turner.