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Tribal fashion

An advert for Cordings, a brand synonymous with upper-crust dressing. PHOTO: TUSTING.CO.UK

Is everything in Britain about our tribe – class, in other words? On the face of it, fashion would seem to be the exception, not least because the aristocracy is legendarily uninterested in what it wears. If we’re talking ceremonial occasions such as the coronation (to which, naturally, they would be invited, under strict dress code) or the Lords (ermine etc) it’s a matter of a specific uniform rather than a matter of personal choice or – heaven forbid – wanting to look good. Fashion itself – the joyful, ruthless business, the industry, the churn of the new – has always been synonymous with trade, and therefore entirely infra dig.

The posh have had their outfitters (Cordings, Gieves and Hawkes, Lobb and the rest of the Jermyn Street mob) to furnish them, from the provision of their first tuck box, with a look unchanged for generations, consisting of tweeds (including plus-fours), Argyle socks and those sticks you sit on when resting between bouts of blasting away at small birds. So far above fashion’s rules was Debo – Deborah Countess of Devonshire, Mitford daughter, as top drawer as they come, short of royalty – that she was famously photographed feeding her chickens in a ballgown.

Hippies (pictured here in London, 1967) were one of a dozen fashion tribes born in what is still considered one of the most style-defining decades. COLIN JONES/TOPFOTO

And yet. And yet. And yet, of course, for most of the twentieth century the rejection of fashion was precisely what identified them as a tribe, indeed, the ne plus ultra of tribes, the one that doesn’t have to worry about what anyone thinks of them. Their moth-eaten woollens (my mother-in-law, who was at school in Germany with the late Duke of Edinburgh in the 1930s, before she had to leave the country in a hurry, attested that his socks were full of holes) and their casual way with formal wear may also, of course have been a sort of camouflage in revolutionary times. But one thing we can be sure of is, if Debo’s ballgown was ruined in the henhouse, she had a few more to choose from. She didn’t have to care.

Below the top drawer, however, things were beginning to stir from the end of World War II. In France, Monsieur Dior was making of couture something if not democratic then at least artistic: he was making a gigantic fashion statement. His New Look may have been sold to the upper crust but it was first and foremost about swish, about glamour, about drama and about seizing centre stage, and its ripples spread. In the Sixties, when the youthquake hit London, we fell in love with fashion as self-expression and instantly – this being Britain, where self-expression is all very well but rules are rules – a dozen strict fashion tribes were born: Mods, rockers and beatniks, hippies, Teds and New Edwardians. Yet still (with one or two exceptions such as the Marquess of Bath with his beads and his wifelets, and Debo’s sister Nancy Mitford, who dressed in Dior and lived in Paris) the aristocracy looked the other way.

Filtered down from the upper-class rejection of fashion is a British puritanical suspicion of dressing up

It wasn’t in fact, until the – vulgar, vulgar, vulgar – affront to the nobility that was The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook (Ann Barr and Peter York) came out in 1982, that the aristocracy had to lower itself to address the issue. All their most cherished, time-honoured rituals of dress, from the pie-crust collar to the pearls to the waxed cotton jacket, were held up to the vulgar gaze. And what was worse than being first ruthlessly categorised and then – in some quarters at least – made a laughing stock, one’s favourite outfitters found themselves mobbed by the hoi-polloi, eager to get hold of a bit of posh.

Of course, once names such as Barbour and Burberry became “fashion brands” available to anyone who had the money – to footballers and glamour models and self-made men and women, not to mention (the very idea) the company itself being bought up by Italian fashion conglomerates – the upper classes recoiled in horror. They launched a stealthy counter-offensive in the features pages of Vogue, which for decades fell for it – stylists in love with their long aristocratic bones and their flair with hunting dogs and their highly photographable castles. Outfitters themselves relied on the discreet product of such as Cefinn, brainchild of Samantha Cameron, born an Astor, late of Smythson. One of us (them), in other words.

What has filtered down, unfortunately, from this upper-class rejection of fashion, is a resolutely British puritanical suspicion of dressing up: of being no better than we should be, of wanting to look fabulous, and to show off. Since the Cavaliers were found guilty on account of their lace collars, our gloriously subversive dandyist undercurrent – as British as its opposite – has been stamped on as threatening. Call me biased – I am – we should look to a country like Italy, where fashion is taken very seriously, dressing up for public display is practically a religion, and the emphasis is on inclusion not exclusion: putting on the ritz is a gift to one’s fellow humans. We show ourselves generously, we appreciate others enthusiastically, we don’t divide ourselves off from each other by unwritten rules and the world is a happier place. Because dressing up should never be sneered at, it should be applauded, loud and long. Irish wolfhounds and stately homes? Give me a WAG in Versace, any day of the week, because – believe me – that’s where the fun is.

Christobel Kent is a Gold Dagger-nominated author. Her latest novel “In Deep Water” is out now

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Arts & Culture, June / July 2024, Style Maven

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