British Fashion

This article examines British fashion, asking what are its characteristics and how has it adapted to the changing needs of British society?

This article examines British fashion, asking what are its characteristics and how has it adapted to the changing needs of British society?

First of all, we need some definitions. Fashion is the system of production, dissemination and consumption of clothing. We’re not just concerned with designers and the clothes they produce; we also have to consider how we consume fashion and adapt it to our own needs. The inherent influences and meanings change with time, social needs, technology and place.

Fashion discourse revolves around certain key terms:

? Clothing – items made and worn to cover oneself and protect oneself from the elements

? Dress – the use of clothing in a particular manner for specific purposes – e.g. clerical, academic

? Style – an individual way of dressing which incorporates clothing in a unique manner using a variety of clothes and material in traditional and/or non-traditional ways. Sometimes styles are aligned with particular social groups or subcultures.

Fashion is incredibly diverse and in a constant state of flux, which makes it ephemeral and fleeting. So why do we study fashion? Firstly, it’s part of our everyday lives: we purchase or make clothes and wear them every day of our lives. Fashion is a semiological system, a visual lanquage that we use to make statements about our social status, wealth and taste. Even people who choose to opt out of the fashion system implicitly convey their attitude to it.

Due to its visible nature fashion is integral to our identity. In social terms, broad trends in fashion reveal attitudes to class, gender and sexuality. So fashion is integral to our understanding and interpretation of social mores and constructs. For our purposes, fashion is an index of the socio-economic and cultural climate of Britain over the past four decades.

We now need to ask what is British fashion? These are some key attributes:

? Practicality with an irreverent twist

? Flirting with identity – in terms of class, gender and ethnicity

? Effortful casualness

The late Alexander McQueen said, ‘British fashion is self confident and fearless. It refuses to bow to commerce, thus generating a constant flow of new ideas whilst drawing in British heritage.’

Savile Row

If we start with this idea of heritage, British fashion is based upon very strong traditions. Men’s tailoring and quality wool are mainstays. These convey the qualities of politeness and civility, which are considered integral to the British character, particularly the English character. The axis of these values is Savile Row, a London street famous for traditional tailoring. The street is known as the ‘golden mile of tailoring.’ Its fashionability was established in the 18th century, when it was frequented by dandies like Beau Brummel.

Located in Mayfair, Savile Row is lined with traditional tailors specialising in ‘bespoke’ clothing. In fact, the term bespoke originated on Savile Row. Once customers had chosen the bolt of cloth from which they wanted a suit made, the fabric was said to ‘be spoken for.’ Bespoke suits are made specifically for the individual, cut and stitched by hand. Of course, this comes at a price: the average suit can take 12 weeks to make, require up to four fittings and cost upward of $6,000. Tradionally, Savile Row catered to the elite of British society – royalty, aristocracy and wealthy city traders.

Notable tailors include Gieves & Hawkes located at No.1 Savile Row. Even this bastion of British traditionalism has incorporated outside influences. Ozwald Boateng is located at No.30 Savile Row. He was a pioneer of the new bespoke movement. Boateng was born in Ghana in the late 1960s and brought up in north London. He began making bespoke suits in 1990, and is credited with introducing Savile Row tailoring to a new generation. Boateng's clients include international stars like Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson and Keanu Reeves. So he offers classic English tailoring with a modern edge.

Ede & Ravenscroft are the oldest tailors in London, established in 1689. They have premises very close to the famous Savile Row. They make legal, clerical and academic dress. When you graduate from a British university, the usual procedure is to hire a gown from Ede & Ravenscroft. English tailoring has been imitated around the world. The American designer Ralph Lauren draws on this tradition to create the prep-school look.

Utility wear

The Second World War took a toll on British fashion. During the war, there was a shortage of materials and this necessitated an ethos of frugality. The government launched the Utility scheme to control the manufacture of clothing. Utility wear was very drab and basic. This was expressed in the slogan ‘make do and mend.’ Consumers were encouraged to make do with what they had and repair it rather than buying new items. As a result of war-time experience, practicality and domestic functionality were instilled as important aspects of British fashion.

Swinging Sixties

British fashion exploded in the 1960s, the age of free love, flower power and psychedelia. This was a decade of tremendous social upheaval – sexual liberation, drug use and radical experimentation in art and design. The rebellious young generation began reacting against the values of their parents.

With rising levels of affluence, this generation had ‘disposable income’ – money to spend on music and fashion. They looked for vibrant, colourful alternatives to the dreary styles of the past. For the first time young people were leading fashion, style and culture. This has been called a ‘youthquake’. The new spirit of consumerism led to specialist shops that expressed their values through design. Boutiques opened up all over London, and Carnaby Street became the centre of this new scene. Some of the buildings were painted in psychedelic colours.

Mary Quant is generally considered the inventor of the mini-skirt, which first appeared in 1965. Mini-skirts were an outrageous fashion item that caused a sensation. Designers of the earlier generation were shocked. Coco Chanel described the mini skirt as 'the most absurd weapon woman has ever employed to seduce men'. Until then, girls had essentially dressed like their mothers, but the 60s represented a youthful rebellion. Mini dresses provided the perfect canvass for Op art and psychedelic patterns.

New fashion trends needed new models to wear them. The big names in fashion modelling were Jean Shrimpton and Lesley Hornby, who was known as Twiggy. Twiggy was the ideal Sixties girl. She was only 15 and she was a size 6. This gave her a boyish figure that contrasted with the hour-glass figure of middle-aged women: again, the look was youthful.


Fashion can also be used to articulate difference and dissent. It can give a voice to a collective or people on the fringe of society. This is most evident among youth subcultures. Subcultures have a shared group identity based on the consumption of music, fashion and drugs. They have their own philosophy and social codes, and their allegiance to this group is signified through ‘style’. This is the fashion of the street, not the catwalk.

One of the first academics to study youth culture was Dick Hebdige, a sociologist based at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, which produced innovative research in late 70s and 80s. Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style looks at the styles worn by British subcultures like Teddy Boys, Mods, punks and skinheads. He argues that everyday objects can be turned via a series of ‘spectacular transformations’ and made to signify as ‘style’.

The most notorious British subculture was punk, which we can use as a case study. Punk emerged in the late 70s in response to the economic recession and mass unemployment of the period. Revolving around groups like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, punk was defiantly working class, anarchic and aggressive. One of the Pistols’ first hits was called Anarchy in the UK.

Roger Sabin’s definition is helpful:

Thus at a very basic level, we can say that punk was/is a subculture best characterised as being part youth rebellion, part artistic statement. It had its high point from 1976 to 1979, and was most visible in Britain and America. It had its primary manifestation in music - and specifically in the disaffected rock and roll of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Philosophically, it had no 'set agenda' like the hippy movement that preceded it, but nevertheless stood for identifiable attitudes, among them: an emphasis on negationism (rather than nihilism); a consciousness of class-based politics (with a stress on 'working-class credibility'); and a belief in spontaneity and 'doing it yourself’. (Sabin, p3)

Coinciding with the rise of postmodernism, punk launched an iconoclastic attack on accepted meta-narratives of Britishness, monarchy and class. The Sex Pistols created a parody of the British national anthem God Save the Queen. They ripped it apart by using an aggressive musical style and turned it into a protest about modern Britain. This is visualised by Jamie Reid’s image, which defaced a picture of the Queen. Punk was nihilistic and anti-establishment.

Punks had a DIY ethos. They cut their own hair and augmented their bodies with piercings. There is an infamous feature from the punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue. It sets out three chords, then says ‘now form a band’. Punk is not about ability, it’s about attitude. Hebdige argues that subcultures are positioned in resistance to mainstream society. He writes:

The punk sub culture, like every other youth culture, was constituted in a series of spectacular transformations of a whole range of commodities, values, common-sense attitudes, etc. It was through these adapted forms that certain sections of predominantly working-class youth were able to restate their opposition to dominant values and institutions.

Style as homology

Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture offered a semiological reading of punk – examining its visual signs and tropes. For example, he interprets the safety pins and bin-liners that made up the punk armoury as signs of material poverty made to stand for the ‘spiritual paucity’ of everyday life. This in turn was a condemnation of capitalism. Dave Laing in One Chord Wonders (1985) provides more of a sociology of punk. For example he shows that many punk musicians actually came from middle-class families (43%) and that there was a strong influence of art school students.

Punk style was a bricolage of discarded symbols: swastikas, bin liners and safety pins. Hebdige argued that the punk subculture was characterised by chaos, but that it was nevertheless ‘thoroughly ordered’. It was a logical system by which objects and images were appropriated and made to signify new ideas.

How can we resolve this paradox – a chaotic style that follows clear rules? Hebdige uses a concept devised by the French sociologist, Levi-Strauss – homology. This is the ‘symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group’ and the objects it uses to manifest itself. Objects are appropriated – taken out of their original context and made to express the values of the group.

Vivienne Westwood

Punk’s visual identity was formulated by two individuals. Malcolm McLaren was a pop impresario and manager of the Sex Pistols. He had his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. Vivienne Westwood was a fashion designer and she had the creative flare to translate McLaren’s ideas into clothing. In 1971 they took over a shop at 430 Kings Road, London, and renamed it SEX in 1975. Their ambition was to bring the dark world of sexual adventure and fetish to the streets of London.

Westwood produced provocative clothing. The Bondage Suit combined references to the straightjacket and bondage/sadomasochism for ultimate shock value. She produced t-shirts emblazoned with provocative phrases. A famous photo shows McLaren in a T-shirt reading ‘Cambridge Rapist’ and Westwood in a T-shirt displaying a paedophilic image. As you can imagine, Punk outraged the mainstream of British society. Westwood changed the look of rock music forever, matching The Sex Pistols' revolutionary sound with an equally revolutionary approach to DIY fashion.

Today Vivienne Westwood is Britain’s most culturally significant fashion designer, personifying the subversive originality of British fashion. After punk had died down, she began to take an interest in the clothes and fabrics of the British establishment. Her Harris Tweed collection of 1987 took its inspiration from Savile Row tailors. Affectionately parodying the establishment, these clothes evoked the aristocracy, boarding school and country houses, as well as upper class pursuits like hunting, shooting and fishing. Westwood has stated: ‘I am never more happy than when I parody the British in the context of a classical perspective.’ Of course, Westwood’s work inevitably declared sexuality under the constraint of British understatement.

Westwood is renowned for raiding history for ideas. Her Pirates collection (1979-81) was adopted by musicians labelled the New Romantics. This work brought to the fore the habit for which she Adam and the Ants and Spandau Ballet wore billowing shirts inspired by Westwood’s study of 18th Century men’s clothing but flamboyantly fused with North American Indian and pirate styles.

Jamie Reid

Punk wasn’t an isolated phenomenon; it sent shockwaves through a number of cultural fields: film, literature, comics and fashion. The work of Jamie Reid is a visual counterpart to the Sex Pistols' music. Reid's work made the greatest single contribution to punk's visual identity. He designed the cover of the notoriously titled Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.  The typography resembles letters cut out of newspapers like a ransom note of a letter from a serial killer – symbolic violence punk style.

Like the Sex Pistols' music, Reid's visuals used an aggressive montage form, pillaging fragments of pop-cultural detritus. The Pistols lifted their riffs from a repository of stock rock n’ roll prototypes. Reid appropriated his materials from the ‘trash populism of tabloid culture and downmarket advertising’.

The cover of the 7-inch single, Pretty Vacant stands out. Reid uses a collage of two tourist coaches, the destinations of which are 'nowhere' and 'boredom'. The front cover features the shattered glass of a picture frame, beneath which is emblazoned, in ransom note lettering, the name of the band and the song. ‘Nothing, at the time, so vividly articulated what it was like to hear the Pistols shattering the edifice of rock 'n' roll mythology: it was exactly like the sound of breaking glass — and you didn't know where the shards were going to fall.’ (p25)


In conclusion, we use fashion to construct and represent our identities. Fashion can be a creative and subversive practice. By consuming products you can define yourself as separate from the mainstream and part of a subsidiary group, a subculture. British fashion has been dominated by the legacy of tradition, but it also has a subversive flair. Vivienne Westwood mocks traditional notions of Britishness by creating parodies of royalty, aristocracy and historical costume.


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