LONDON – I bought a new coat today. Some call it peer pressure, I call it assimilation. You see, in London they do this thing called style. It’s chic and cultural and… completely foreign to me. And this is coming from a person who once called herself stylish. That is until I landed in London and my eyes were opened to a fashion phenomenon.
Here, fashion and style are not mere compilations of clothing – they are an extension of one’s very self. People use their style to tell a story to their city. Stories of history, rebellion, society, monarchy and art are visible as pieces from haute couture houses and charity shops alike march down the centuries old streets.
And it was in this setting that I found myself. At Gonzaga, going to school in a black trench coat, jeans and boots would be little cause for alarm. In fact, some sweatpants-clad soul might even ask why I’m so dressed up today. In London, I might get asked just how late I overslept.
To my first fashion marketing and merchandising class, I wore a prim green dress with a plaid shirt layered over it – my version of classy meets edgy. My professor referred to me as “Checkered Shirt Girl” (a disappointment, indeed, but certainly not as bad as “Stripey”, the girl in a striped shirt behind me).
Some may take offense at my professor’s words, but I see them as a cheeky reminder of just how important fashion is to the English. It isn’t something us casual Americans can simply “do” – no, instead we must watch and learn. To study abroad in Paris, one must learn French. To study abroad in London, one must learn Fashion.
So I grabbed the book my housemate’s mother had given me for Christmas, Luella’s Guide To English Style, and set out to learn. It took many park benches, coffee shop visits and late nights reading in bed, but two weeks and 326 pages later the book was finally finished.
And what did I learn, you ask? What any proper British bird would know from birth – that English style is as much a part of English culture as any overly photographed landmark in this city. It is a tradition in and of itself. The quintessential British traditions of irony, dark humour, class and satire shape and guide the London wardrobe through those formative years of adolescence and required school uniforms into the defined and individualized style that adulthood brings for the Londoner.
While in American college culture we may scoff at this kind of focus on something as “petty” as fashion – preferring to ace our tests in yoga pants and North Faces, thank you very much – it is worth exploring the reasons why fashion holds such high esteem in English culture to gain a more complete awareness on the issue.
Fashion as an industry began in Paris, where designers – then called couturiers – were hired to create new styles for nobility to wear. The first recognized couturier was an Englishman and from the 18th century on, fashion became a staple of European life. How shocking it was for Europeans when, in the flurry of World War II, American designers stole the spotlight from the inventors of fashion and became leaders of style in the 1940s and 50s.
Not ones to let Americans tell them how to dress, the English commanded attention in the 1960s by subverting fashion-as-they-knew it and made style a two-way street – quite literally. Designers were looking to the youthful streets for inspiration and standout Brits like Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes reclaimed fashion as a for-the-people and by-the-people entity. Fashion became individualized for the English, a way to tell others who you were and what you stood for. It was both political and personal – a statement made via plaid miniskirts and collared dresses.
And so it still stands to this day. The importance of fashion to the English is more than a vapid obsession, it is a part of their history and culture. Every day, Londoners open their closets and continue the tradition of style as a personal mode of self-expression. London is my home now. It is where I sleep and ride buses and miss buses and walk around and study and live. I am living its culture. So I bought a new coat today.