British Fashion Trends

Fashion is a semiological system, a visual language that we use to make statements about our identity. Fashion provides an index of the socio-economic and cultural climate of Britain over the past five decades.

Fashion is a semiological system, a visual language that we use to make statements about our identity. Fashion provides an index of the socio-economic and cultural climate of Britain over the past five decades.

British fashion is based upon very strong traditions. Men’s tailoring and quality wool are mainstays. The axis of these values is Savile Row, a London street famous for ‘bespoke’ clothing. Bespoke suits are made specifically for the individual. Even this bastion of British traditionalism has incorporated outside influences. Ozwald Boateng was a pioneer of the new bespoke movement. He began making bespoke suits in 1990 and introduced Savile Row tailoring to a new generation.

With rising levels of affluence in the post-war period, the young generation had ‘disposable income’ – money to spend on music and fashion. Youth culture exploded in the 1960s. The rebellious young generation reacted against the values of their parents. This was the age of free love, flower power and psychedelia. Carnaby Street became the centre of this new scene. Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt in 1965. This was an outrageous fashion item and caused a sensation.

Psychedelic design on Carnaby Street

Fashion can also be used to articulate difference and dissent. This is most evident among subcultures, which have a shared group identity based on the consumption of music, fashion and drugs. Allegiance to this group is signified through ‘style’. One of the first academics to study youth culture was Dick Hebdige, who argues that subcultures take everyday objects and transform them into a style that can be used to express their values. Hebdige uses the concept of homology. This is the ‘symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group’ and the objects it uses to manifest itself. For the exam, you need study specific subcultures and make sure you understand the relationship their style and values.

The most notorious British subculture was punk, which emerged in the late 70s. Punk was aggressive, working class and nihilistic. Its visual identity was formulated by the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, whose Bondage Suit combined references to the straightjacket and sadomasochism for ultimate shock value.

Vivienne Westwood's Bondage Suit

The graphic designer Jamie Reid made a great contribution to punk's visual identity. The Sex Pistols recorded a parody of the British national anthem God Save the Queen. This was visualised by Jamie Reid’s image which defaced a picture of the Queen and used letters cut out of newspapers. It resembles a ransom note or a letter from a serial killer – symbolic violence punk style.

The kaleidoscope of British subcultures also includes mods, with their sharp suits and Italian scooters, and skinheads, with their Doc Marten boots, Ben Sherman shirts and obsession with Jamaican reggae music.

British fashion has been dominated by the legacy of tradition, but it also has a subversive flair. We use fashion to construct and represent our identities. By consuming products you can define yourself as separate from the mainstream and part of a subsidiary group, a subculture.

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