Friday, 16 May 2014

What is British Style?

The Union Jack gets a 60s makeover. Via

In Bettina Ballard’s In My Fashion, I encountered an unfamiliar woman. It was the “English woman of fashion”, who “when she is right, she is very very right, outshining anyone at a country race meeting or pouring tea in impeccable tweeds before the fire in a country house … there is no woman in the world who can wear a ball dress and a tiara with her distinction.” Who was this woman? Certainly no one I recognise today. And, if she was doing it very very right, who, by implication, was doing it very very wrong? Do tweeds and a ball gown really define the “English woman of fashion”?

British debutantes on their way to a ball, 1953. Via

Dior agrees with Ballard. He writes, “British women know perfectly how to dress for sport and holidays. For these occasions the world has to learn from them.” And there is similar again, in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Good Taste, in an essay by Marjorie Beckett: “No one looks better in sports or country clothes. It is not just a matter of good British woollens and first-class tailoring; we choose instinctively the right accessories. Safe in the lap of tradition, we have no doubts about the right walking shoes, sensible stay-ons, the muted colours of shooting tweed…” This was written in 1958, four years after Dior’s quote and two years before Ballard’s but there is an element that still rings true today: that British women are most comfortable with fashion when they know what is expected of them. As the German journalist Karl Silex wrote in 1933, “The Englishwoman never, as long as she lives, gets rid of the idea of uniform in her clothes.” But us poor English woman – at our very best appropriate, never reaching the dizzy heights of chic! It’s hard not to feel insulted by Anne Scott-James’ assertion that “The English, alas, hate fashion” or Pierre Balmain’s statement that “What I love about English women is that they do not really care for clothes.”

Luella's take on traditional English style, via

Is this actually a sly compliment from Balmain? After all, his chief mannequin, the British model Bronwen Pugh, was praised for her “habit of slightly disarranging her hair as she entered the salon, giving herself a nonchalant air that is a sign of supreme English elegance”. There are several British writers seem to suggest this deliberate imperfection is actually an essential component of any ‘British style’. Hardy Amies writes, “Just as our great country houses always look lived in and not museums, so our ladies refuse to look like fashion plates”, while Cecil Beaton notes that English women “appreciate something with a patina on it,” as well as our love of picking out clothes “that suggest a mood and create an atmosphere”. Perhaps it’s because we are so aware of the codes of dressing, we have the most fun when we are trying to subvert them. Luella Bartley, who devoted an entire book to dissecting English style, made her name as a designer by reinventing the most British of items, ranging from the ball gown to the hacking jacket.

Teddy boy and girl photographed by Ken Russell, 1955. Via (also do read the article for some great quotes)

But these ‘essential’ items of British style are all also associated with the upper class. I doubt that in the fifties the average woman had a ball gown or a set of country tweeds hanging in her wardrobe. Karl Silex notes that it takes “an enormous amount of petty cash” to be well dressed in England. “It is all too expensive for the office girl.” Another great strand of British style is our great street style, the tribes of Teddy Boys, Mods, Punks and Northern Soulers who band together with the attention of standing out. This is a British tradition every much as dressing for Ascot. On a visit to a pub in Wapping in the 1930s, Schiaparelli remarked that the “simplicity and inventiveness of what used to be called in England the ‘lower working classes’ was inspiring.”

Who’s left out of this picture? According to Mary Tuck in The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Good Taste, it’s the aspiring “Class Bs”, “the only main English social group not to have developed an individual style of their own; probably because these Daily Telegraph reading, Surrey-dwelling climbers so intensely wish to be Class A that they cultivate the Class A look with assiduous and successful care.”

When tradition meets a bit of inventive subversion, it can create a powerfully unique look. At its best, according to Luella Bartley, it “is totally natural, fiercely individual and girlishly contrary.” All very fun for us British woman, getting dressed in the morning. For fashion as a business, however, you can see the problems in exporting this style. If our style is, whether we like it or not, built around class, how do you sell it to people outside that system? Anarchic fashion that, in Alexander McQueen’s words, “refuses to bow to commerce”?

Biba's take on tweeds, 1960s, via

Ballard hints in her book that the answer might lie in ready-to-wear. And, of course, a few years later, the youthful energy of sixties British street style made a global impact. However, with popularity, comes the terror of over-commercialisation (would an American designer, for example, share this same dread, I wonder?). Kennedy Fraser feared the triumph of the bland when she mourned the death of Big Biba in 1977; the street came up with Punk. Luella wrote of her fear that British fashion is losing its edge in the twenty-first century: I’m struggling to find a convincing counter-argument.

Vivienne Westwood ball gown, at 'Fashion for the Brave', 2010

‘Style’ is now disseminated so rapidly, it can be almost impossible to tell if a photographed comes from New York, London, Paris, Helsinki or Melbourne. Does this help us be braver with our style, to step away from our uniforms, or does it make us blander? In a recent issue of British Vogue, in an article about the appeal of British models abroad, the photographer Tim Walker stated, “Because we are an island, a punk nation, we are constantly challenging accepted notions of beauty.” It’s this punk spirit, which I find most invigorating about British style, whether reading about a Teddy Girl, or designers such as Lucile who insisted on doing things their own way. And, while I don’t know how we can maintain it, I know the world would be a duller place if we lost it.

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