Britain has long had a special place in the world of fashion. Encapsulating a unique national eccentricity, it’s widely regarded as a true global maverick - never afraid to experiment or redefine the rules. Ask an Italian designer where her ideas were inspired and she’ll look west, ask a New York designer and he’ll look east, both pairs of eyes converging towards the same little island - both trying to capture the London look.
However British fashion didn’t forge its reputation out of nowhere. Indeed, there have been ups, downs and a fair few cups of tea along the way. To be better understand the unique history of British fashion though, it’s probably best to start at the very start.
The Very Start
Although the origins of British fashion can be traced as far back to the loincloths of early man, it’s not exactly helpful for understanding the aesthetic found on Oxford street today. With this in mind, it’s best to start in more recent times. By recent we mean the dawn of the 18th century, but hey, it’s all relative.
Back in these days both men and women’s fashion were drastically different to anything seen today. In between avoiding bouts of cholera, the former would typically dress up with a linen shirt, waistcoat and full-skirted knee-length coat - topped with knee breeches, tricorn hat and wig. Meanwhile the women of the era were slightly more modest, keeping their knees hidden behind an embroidered type of court dress called a mantua. Paired with a matching petticoat, it was an outfit that quite literally took the breath away - a whale bone corset was a prerequisite.
Clothes tended to be decorative and elaborate, reflecting the fact that each piece had to be handmade in a small workshop, normally family run. Fine silk or wool were the materials of choice (not that there was much of that) and clothes were very much built to last. Due to the amount of work that went into each piece this was definitely an era that prioritised quality over quantity in the wardrobe department.
The Industrial Revolution
As the 18th century unravelled, fashion ambled along at its own comfortable pace. After a few years people began tying their wigs backs, after a few more they disappeared altogether - only resurfacing in the most formal of occasions. However, all things considered, there wasn’t too much upheaval. The industrial revolution, starting in the latter decades of the century, changed all of this though. As the economic benefits of working with machines became apparent, increasing numbers of textile workers ended up employed in vast textile mills - the economies of scale making the materials produced cheaper than anything else. Before long, the fabrics industry had moved from a family affair to one of unprecedented scale.
Conditions inside these dark satanic mills were often unpleasant. Lost fingers and lives were often dismissed as the price of progress by owners, knowing full well that there was little alternative employment in the newly spawned cities. It therefore seems bizarre that fashion actually became brighter as the revolution hit full swing, women's fashion anyway.
One of the byproducts from the coal industry was a range of vibrant textile dyes. While probably toxic by today's standards, mauve (more like a hot pink) and striking purples became commonplace in the finer dresses of the time. Meanwhile “Scheele’s green”, a dye extracted from copper arsenic, resulted in beautiful pastel-like tones - an effect only marginally tainted by the fact that poisonous arsenic residue would be absorbed straight through the skin of the wearer.
In stark contrast, well-to-do men began adopting the black business suit en-masse. As is often the case, fashion is driven by need. In this case the driving force happened to be the need to get to work without looking stained from the surrounding soot spewing cityscape. Little did they know then, that we’d still be wearing it today.
Heading Into The New Century
One of the key moments in fashion history occurred during the close of the 19th century. This was the popularisation of the home sewing machine, of which sales peaked around 1890. Armed with the tools and knowledge, the productivity of the clothing industry began to really pick up speed. Beforehand, materials could be produced on a large scale yet clothing would still have to be pieced together by hand - often a painfully slow process. Alongside this development came that of increased globalisation. Now ideas from all corners of the world (or at least the empire) were making their way to Britain, in glossy journals housed in the bags of eager steamboat passengers.
With these boats also came new dyes and materials, available in large quantities for the first time. Coupled with the aforementioned proliferation of sewing machines, it comes as little wonder that British fashion really began to take on a life of its own during this period - bolder patterns and more revealing silhouettes replacing the old Victorian sensibilities. There was just one small bump in the road - a little thing called World War One.
The Influence of The Great War
The outbreak of the war signalled a more restrained fashion industry. Economic restraints and the need for material for war efforts led to a simplification of fashion. Nowhere was this more apparent than the militarisation of women's clothing.
With most men fighting on the front line, the role of women in society radically changed. The flowing lines and tight skirts of the Edwardian era were unpractical wear as women moved into the traditionally male-dominated farms, offices and munitions factories powering the war effort. All of a sudden, practical military-style clothing became the standard for the working woman, for not only could items be produced in high numbers, they also looked smart and helped to create a stronger sense of solidarity throughout the nation. Dresses were simplified and shortened to become more practical, while, popularised by Coco Chanel, loose fitted clothes became mainstream, allowing a greater range of movement.
If a person had to pinpoint the birth of modern fashion, 1914 would be a pretty good year to pick. It was during this time that the boundaries of men and women’s fashion began to blur, often becoming one and the same. Men’s fashion was largely dictated by a need to adapt to the demands of trench warfare, spawning the timeless trench coat seen to this very day.
A Golden Period
As the dust settled and the price of war was truly realised, Britain and its allies entered a period of prosperity - the golden twenties as it’s often known. Defined by its distinctive art deco style, bold geometric lines and golden elements found their way into architecture, industrial design and fashion. Many of these influences were taken from patterns used by ancient civilisations including the Greeks and Romans. Following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, a worldwide fascination with ancient Egypt began, leading to fashion playing with jewels and overly defined shapes. If you ever find yourself in London take a look at the Egyptian escalator in Harrods to see how far this influence reached.
These roaring good times were the catalyst for the modernisation of fashion. The uniform nature of the military look was gone but the practicalities remained in the form of clothes that were easy to move around (and party) in. Without the restraints of the war, women began to favour glamorous, sleeveless dresses and long gloves. Men on the other hand, kept the basic suit and tie look from before the war but expanded the range of materials and colours used to match the optimism of the time. This ‘Gatsby’ look, as it was later dubbed, would typically pair a coloured blazer or jumper, with pressed trousers and a bow tie - perfect for a cheeky swing dance at the end of the night.
As always, the bubble had to burst at some point. And when it came to the British fashion industry it really burst big time. The great depression, while most impactful in America, devastated exports of all British goods, doubling the UK unemployment rate to twenty percent. With little to go around, people became much more careful with their resources. ‘Make-do and mend’ was the mantra of the time and fashion adapted to become more conservative than the decade previously. Of course the depression was to lead to something far more serious than the loss of detailing on dresses. Cue World War Two.
World War Two
When it came to British fashion, World War Two would absolutely transform the landscape, perhaps more than any other nation. Wartime rationing meant that clothes would either have to be made from materials at home, bought on the black market or purchased using government coupons. When added together, the total amount of clothing coupons allocated could purchase a generous one outfit per year. The coupon value of items was dictated by the amount of material required to make them and the time used up in labour - suits and large coats were therefore the most expensive items of the time. People had to choose very wisely.
In 1942 the UK government introduced the ‘utility scheme’, a set of clothing regulations that used a limited amount of quality controlled fabrics. This allowed the government to carefully control costs, making well-made clothing accessible by removing ‘luxury’ features such as extra pockets and buttons on womenswear. In order to encourage people to accept utility scheme clothing it was vital to make items as fashionable as possible, all within the confines of economic constraint. Fortunately the fashion industry responded, aiding a big push towards a bright and playful style that used new modern (a.k.a. cheaper) materials such as ‘rayon’ in women's clothing.
Using models to advertise this new range, they were a huge success. Men had less fun with utility clothing, the styles keeping fairly uniform over the years. In fact, there was widespread outrage when the government cut the standardised length of socks to nine and a half inches; clearly the war wasn’t enough to worry about.
A New Generation
The war may have finished in 1945 but rationing continued up until 1954. This kept clothing relatively constrained in terms of the amount of fabric it used. Dresses were kept with a straight, slim silhouette while men still seemed largely content with sharp sombre business suits in their newly created office jobs. After the suffering of war, those returning valued stability above all else, reflected in the uniformity of styles. In Britain many of the styles were influenced heavily by those coming out of Paris, keen to re-establish itself as the fashion capital of the world. Indeed many UK companies simply copied french designs then produced them cheaper, signalling the start of fashion retailing as we know it today.
As a new generation reached adulthood, never having lived through war, they began to fully experiment with styles - rebelling against the conformity of their parents before them. Writers in the 1940s had predicted that British fashion would become world famous due to the quality of its tradition and textile industry. However it was quite the opposite approach that propelled British fashion designers to unprecedented heights, able to capture the spirit of a new egalitarian, affluent world.
With more money than ever before, the post-war baby-boom generation found that fashion was their greatest expenditure, using it to consciously set themselves apart from older generations. Boutiques sprang up across the country, offering an ever-changing array of merchandise to choose from. Famous designers on Carnaby street prompted a paradigm shift in how people viewed fashion. Previously lines had been drawn largely based on class, however now fashion ran on lines dictated by age. These designers purposefully made clothes that only the young could wear, emphasising the virtues of youth through skinny fit clothing, mini-skirts and bold new materials such as PVC.
The whole shopping experience was also new and exciting - boutiques embraced mod culture with colourful displays and loud pop music. Everything about it was cool, from the people, to the physical spaces to the clothes. Coupled with the fact that anyone, regardless of background, could join this movement, it was no wonder that the British fashion industry suddenly ignited, becoming a sensation the world over.
Of course, it’s hard to spread ideas unless people are exposed to them. Fortunately this period of British fashion coincided perfectly with a global explosion of British music - its influence making its way across the Atlantic on the wave of a little something called Beatlemania. Other bands such as the Rolling stones, the Hollies and the Kinks followed close behind, capturing the imagination of youth culture with their experimental sounds, captivating stage-presence and an iconic British style.
The World Plays Catch-up
Although British fashion was at the top of the world, its global dominance couldn’t last forever. French designers, caught off guard by British innovation, had regained a foothold in the fashion world. The centre of culture had also moved away from the mods, finding itself rooted in the free-love, hippie movement of San Francisco. Faced with a lack of business experience and high costs, many of the owners of British boutiques were forced to shut their doors for good by the time the 70s came around.
However the rise of British fashion did show something vitally important; it was indeed possible to unseat Paris as the fashion capital of the world. Soon other cities would have their day in the sun: New York, San Francisco and Milan just to name a few. While London never reached the same level of unrivalled dominance again, the 60s gave British fashion a reputation for being the leading innovator and source of ideas for designers the world over - a label it keeps to this day.
Spikes in British fashion were to come in the following decades, linked irrevocably to the rise of new musical countercultures. The first notable example was the original Punk movement of the mid-seventies, followed by the Bowie inspired new romantics of the early 80’s. “Rule-Britannia” emerged as a global influence in the 90’s, powered by the edgier, more working class Brit-pop artists. This was indicative of an undercurrent running beneath the British fashion world. Music and fashion are at the heart of what it means to be British.
The New Millennium
As the clock struck midnight on the 31st of December 1999, many people wondered what the future had in store for them. Unfortunately, it turns out that it had some rather poor fashion choices.
Aside from the rise of the “Rachel from friends” haircut, the rise of fast-fashion on British high streets resulted in an inevitable decline in quality. Taking inspiration from the cat-walks, fast fashion uses lesser quality materials to create super affordable imitations, available off-the-peg. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with increasing the availability of fashion to everyone, it led to a decade where the quantity and variety of clothing was now more important than the quality. After all, why buy one excellent jacket when you could buy five cheaper ones in different colours? With the outsourcing of manufacture to nations with lower labour costs and designs plucked from the runways of Stockholm, Chicago and Turin it was not a good time for British fashion as a whole.
A New Hope
Luckily British fashion never dies, it just goes to sleep briefly. With the rise of the ‘ethical consumer’ more people are starting to look for clothing that will last them decades or more. Increasingly fashion brands are looking to take lessons from the last century and a half to bring British fashion back to its rightful place. At Archie Foal we’ve taken 200 years of local handiwork, sourced the best materials from around the world and used them to create new styles from the wonderfully traditional. With the durability of the 40s, the dapperness of the 50s and the unrestrained innovation of the last half-century we like to think we condense the best of British fashion into all of our clothes. Watch out world, we’re back, and we’ve got some new ideas.