1 May 2010

Brits Spotting

How do you define British fashion? Or to be more precise can you define a monolithic 'British Style'? I have always been fascinated by the perception of British fashion from abroad. Having lived in London all my life it is interesting to view it from the other side of the lens, so to speak. Where men's fashion is concerned would it be Galliano or McQueen, punks or skinheads, tartans or tweeds, Mayfair or Shoreditch, Pugh or Paul Smith, Topman or Primark? Creating a singular coherent thread which constitutes all of British style is as elusive a concept as trying to define even just London style at this very moment in time.

Fashion and style are not simply a top-down or bottom-up trickle effect, but rather there are a number of spheres, many of which may overlap, that develop organically and interact with each other in a constant dialectic. Whether that be through different subcultures, youth cultures or the arts, there is an exchange and development that allows fashion to thrive.

What I always find odd is how London designers who are fresh out of art school can all be facing the same struggles but rarely come together to work or communicate. That is not to say that they ought to collaborate, but rather the way in which the New York school of Abstract Expressionists worked off each other and created diverse yet strong work, perhaps young designers could have more stylistic conversation and as such create all the more impressive works. Fashion can never exist in pure isolation, it needs context and communication. I suppose that is one of the reasons that I am such a fan of SHOWstudio.

If a British Style does exist it is through the manufacturing, packaging, marketing and commodification of such an idea by the fashion media. The fashion media is different from other branches of the media in that it is intimately linked with the production of fashion. Designers rely on the magazines to promote their work, but also to create a wider meaning for their work. All the more, magazines such as Vogue can create a career, a power which is hard to mirror in other spheres. The analogy used by Angela McRobbie in her book on British Fashion Design is that of a floaty silk dress being held precariously between two pillars. One pillar is the art school system (such as CSM and LCF), whilst the other pillar is that of the fashion media.

How then does one create a concept of British Style? Simply put it is through the collection and application of specific memories, traditions, myths and iconographies. Place a model in front of a red phone box or a double decker bus or a black cab and she is most definitely in London, regardless of what she wears. There are ideas and objects that become embedded in the national identity over time. For example, most British people may not actually play cricket, or indeed be very interested in it, however it becomes part of that national identity. Similarly bowler hats are not a very common sight on the London streets, and yet every souvenir shop tends to have a stack of them (usually imprinted with a Union Jack) for people to buy - taking away a souvenir of Britishness that in reality perhaps does not even actually exist.

However it is not important whether the imagined concept does or does not actually exist - provided it is thought to exist, it does. British Style is based around such thoughts, as are the concentration of other national styles when seeking to provide a singular example of an aesthetic. We could all name what we assume to be New York Style or Parisian Style, however that description would be ephemeral, more an idea than a fact. Fashion is after all based in fantasy, but that does not make it any less real. Giorgio Armani famously said that he does not only sell clothing, he sells lifestyle - it is the ideas behind the clothing.

Consider the photograph above. The setting is clearly a pub, with its iconography of the poster of Edinburgh ale, playing cards, cigarettes and pint of Guinness. It is an image that can be easily exported and is traditionally defined as British. Ignore the fact that it is illegal to smoke in a pub and the image is part of the imagined concept of Britishness.

The model with his cropped hair and polo shirt reminds me of those iconic photographs by Nick Knight of skinheads in the 1980s. Not only is the styling reminiscent of Knight's work, but also the direct immediacy of the shot - with the model confronting the viewer much in the same way as those in Knight's portraiture. Coupled with this is the photographer's decision to shoot in black and white with a defined grain, yet again evocative of Knight's work. I feel that the photographer has used such a history in his visual lexicon to place contemporary fashion within a sense of Britishness.

Brits Spotting
GQ Japan
May 2010
Photography by Junji Hata

Do I feel that these images and fashions are particularly British? Well the designs are certainly by British labels, and the visual coding of the images evokes a sense of Britishness, however I doubt you would encounter such styles on the street all that frequently. Yet, does that even matter? This editorial uses the fantasy of Britishness to present contemporary British fashion in a very specific aesthetic, and it is a remarkably successful attempt at that. Analyzing the shoot is in this instance perhaps more important to me than the clothing found therein, but I feel that the construction of identities in fashion photography and fashion itself is fascinating.

Currently playing: I'm Beamin - Lupe Fiasco



  1. I think it is more the attitude rather than a certain aesthetic that produces a style, in reference to one of a country in particular. I think that attitude is influenced by factors like politics and even weather... so no, I don't think its entirely necessary to include a telephone box or Doc Martens/Ben Shermans in a photo to make a British photo "British".

  2. I'm sure attitude does have a lot to do with it. You did find some interesting photos. I guess the word "posh" might come to mind. Yet, I highly doubt that might not be the actual trend in what you see around you there.

    Just living in different parts of the country here in america. Here in the heartland we are a might conservative. And yes, kids come to school in their pjs a lot here. We are so in our comfort zone. Crocks and all. When I think of back East..dark heavy colors...and wearing practical things to keep your feet from getting wet. California, less always seemed better. And people who live there seem to enjoy flaunting it just as much.

  3. i love British fashion, you have everything!

  4. Hmm I think it's maybe the whole attitude of being British. I think British people tend to take more chances and wear things that are more unique. Where I live I notice people tend to follow trends more, but in Britain people just want to be unique and stand out. I can't really describe it, but it's more the attitude than anything else. The want to wear different things.

  5. i think i love this selection of british photoshoot. amazing how you get inspired by some vintage styles too. keep it up.



  6. Hmm as a Canadian girl, when I think of British fashion I think of:

    -the idea of "looking smart"; it's a phrase that perfectly captures how Brits like looking put-together and presentable
    -iconic items that instantly evoke a sense of Britishness: Hunter boots, the classic trenchcoat, Burberry plaid, Liberty prints

    You're right in saying that in reality British fashion is much more pluralistic and difficult to define.

  7. Yes, I think these photos look quintessentially British - but only one stereotype of the British persona - what about the aristocrats, the arty young things etc? Britain is like a multifaceted gleaming gem stone! :0)

  8. very fantastic photos.

    I´m back in my blog and I just want to say hello to you.

  9. Love your blog! I've mentioned this article in one of my blog posts, talking aboutmy dissertation on British style. xx

  10. Quel univers c'est plus que surprenant!!! mais en tout cas les photos sont très belles j'adore tous ces clichés.