The return of Cool Britannia

New York, Paris and Milan may traditionally be considered the epicentres of the fashion world, but London is beginning to make a name for itself as the individual’s fashion capital, combining a stylistic street cred with elements of its unique British heritage, which has recently re-emerged at the forefront of fashion. One of the defining, and to me most appealing, features of British style today is its youth and freshness. In Italy you can only be considered trendy as a grown up working woman in a two piece Prada skirt suit and matching black Emporio Armani heels. In France, though the young are far more politically involved than we are, their self-expression in the wardrobe department leaves something to be desired – everyone immediately connects tie-dye and big rucksacks with the French youth, and yet Paris is considered the chicest city in the world. Similarly, the Americans are perceived as being more patriotic than we, yet their style is staid, simple and conformist. Young Brits are sometimes criticised for being apathetic and unpatriotic, but perhaps we simply choose to express ourselves in a different manner, and channel our vast history and heritage through our non-conformist, yet quintessentially British style.

The English rose look is literally blossoming; floral prints are embellishing everything from underwear to skirts and scarves. Cath Kidston is a pioneer of this look, with exquisite tea-dress prints, beautifying the homely goodness of rural English eccentrics, and many London-based designers find their roots and inspiration in the green rolling hills of merry England. Luella Bartley, designer of Mulberry bags, as well as her own collections, has drawn from her upbringing in sleepy Stratford-on-Avon and Leamington Spa (of all places!), allowing her designs to embody the horsey, tweed and Wellington boots of Middle England with the inimitable naughtiness of London spirit thrown in; her first collection is described as “pony-club punk”.

The vogue for Victorian high collars and Edwardian frills, which began about three years ago, heralded the appreciation of a historically British look on the cat-walk. The lacy blouse has been reinvented for the twenty first century with short puffed sleeves, brightly coloured bows and checked prints. There’s nothing prissy about this look though; on the catwalk dainty blouses are paired with skin tight jeans and leather look leggings. Victorian modesty is out as legs are on display for all to see in skinny jeans, cropped tights and above all, leggings, which we’ve even evolved into treggings – if you’ve seen the denim-look leggings around you may agree they’re one step too far. We’ve done similar things to the blazer – what was conventionally an ill-shaped, masculine garment has become fitted, waisted, and updated with cropped sleeves and coloured stripes. This summer the straw panama hat, a symbol of the English gentleman abroad, will be seen everywhere (this I can guarantee because Primark are doing one for two pounds!).

Over the last few years, we’ve increasingly shunned the high street and begun searching for collectors’ items, particularly vintage – where the older and more battered the leather the more we’re willing to pay. By pairing vintage pieces with our shiny leggings and modernised shapes we’ve created new images of what it is acceptable to wear with what, and acquired a certain disregard for the rules – in my book you can get away with almost anything as long as its not socks and sandals. Just walk through campus and you’ll see examples of this irreverent attitude; girls are not afraid to look as if they’ve raided grandma’s dressing-up-box and tied the whole thing together with a waist-belt. While the English rural rose idea is one built on primness and all things proper, it has been truly turned on its head. An American friend of my mother’s recently commented on the messiness of the way people over here are dressing, but it shouldn’t be seen as scruffy or chaotic; it’s eclectic and eccentric in the best possible way. It’s dressing with a sense of spontaneity, and above all, a sense of humour – something we Brits are famous for.

Giles Deacon, a pivotal figure in the evolution of British fashion over the last few years, delights in his own irreverence and willingness to go against established ideas. After working for Bottega Veneta and Tom Ford at Gucci he is now based in London and has his own label: Giles. His collections have been described as the epitome of British fashion: “irreverent, witty and unique,” and his work is always slightly daring, like when he sent biker boots and leather jeans down the runway of Bottega Veneta, which, until he arrived, saw itself as the archaic grandma of Italian designers. There has been worry that British trained designers are abandoning London; Alexander McQueen recently re-located in Europe, for example, but Deacon’s daring shows that the British are capable of offering more than just another regular runway.

Britishness has been described as “a fearless unconformity combined with a sense of tradition” and Christopher Bailey, design director of Burberry, has proved himself sensitive to this. Burberry is a label redolent with Britishness, from the clean cut English-aristo to the average football loving chav; the people, not the designers have caused this, through ubiquitous adoption of the Burberry check. In a manner typical of an impeccably well mannered British gentleman, Bailey embraces the “democracy” of the brand, which was established by Thomas Burberry, who wished to dress the royal family and the man in the street. Bailey returned to the roots of Burberry to inspire its regeneration, discovering treasures such as the first Burberry trench coat, made for officers in 1914, and gave them metal studs, coloured them a shocking, almost neon blue and had them modelled by London’s most famous party girl: Kate Moss, demonstrating a similar irreverence to tradition as Deacon displays on his runway.

Vivienne Westwood’s eccentric collections demonstrate like no other the rewards of turning to our past to create fashions for the future. It’s not a coincidence that Carrie’s wedding dress in the Sex and the City film is a Westwood creation, but rather an illustration of how Brits are setting the tone for style today. Westwood’s influences – from elaborate Navy uniforms to radical punks – illustrate the historical make-up of Britain. Westwood borrows and copies directly from history yet her clothes give off a frank and provocative modernity. The titles of her collections: ‘Anglomania’, ‘Mini-Crini’, ‘On Liberty’, ‘Harris Tweed’ show Westwood is celebrating our cultural eccentricities through our clothes, and in, as she feels, “an age in which people have so little respect for the past”, is encouraging us to do so. It is not just Westwood’s obsession with the Queen that drives her to emulate the Britain of the past; her work seeks to explore how and why clothes were made, an ambition appropriate for the woman who said: “The only thing I really do believe in is culture”. In Westwood’s words: “Fashion is like walking a high tight-rope, where you risk falling off into the ridiculous, but if you can stay on that tight-rope, you can achieve magnificence.”

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