Friday, July 12, 2013

British Country Winter

I have become obsessed lately with a kind of midcentury British winter country look: chunky jumpers; kilts; boots; brogues; scarves. If my last sartorial theme was Seven Sisters Summer, this season I am all British Country Winter. Here is the, ahem, monarch of that style:

I am not into wearing headscarves like that; however I love those giant silk scarves themselves, and own quite a few in that style. It's so hard to wear them without looking dowdy, though – but that is the challenge of British Country Winter.

Last Friday I teamed my argyle knee socks with my dad's Balenciaga wingtips, which I am ashamed to say have scuffed toes because of my bad habit of resting the toes of my shoes on the floor when I sit at my desk. As a fun aside, the argyle pattern is said to be derived from the Clan Campbell tartan, whose lands are in Argyll.

This is a beautifully made navy and jade wool kilt by Fletcher Jones that I bought on my recent Savers trip. Intriguingly, it's size 17 – a size I have never seen before.

I probably bought it because just recently I was discussing Fletcher Jones kilts with my aunt. I was under the impression that the brand was still in business but she said it wasn't. This is correct; it went into administration in 2011 and all the stores closed that year. Just goes to show how off my radar the brand is.

Fletcher Jones is a very traditional brand specialising in well-made, well-fitting investment suiting for a mainly older clientele. I would never have shopped there. The above image depicts its Chadstone Shopping Centre store during the 1960s. It has recently reinvented itself as an online store selling a limited range of basics. (The womenswear range is only pants and jeans.)

I think some loyal Fletcher Jones customer (or her relatives) must have donated her collection of kilts to Savers, because there was also a cream-coloured one and a russety-brown one. But the navy and jade was the most to my taste. My mother will probably laugh at me when she sees me wearing it, because it looks more than a little like my high-school winter uniform skirt.

I bought this jumper above as it combines traditional cable-knit, polo-neck styling with the bright colours I love. I think colour is a good way to wear conservatively styled clothes without looking too dowdy. Plus, it's super cheerful in winter.

I also had my eye out for a Fair Isle jumper. Ever since I got my Christmas jumper I've been a little obsessed with them. Like argyle (which is still associated with golf), Fair Isle knits were popularised in the 1920s by the Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor.

By all accounts he was a prize dickhead: a permanent adolescent whose own dad said, "After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months." However, in terms of his influence on menswear, he is up there with Beau Brummell. Other fashion trends sparked by him include the glen plaid (better known now as the Prince of Wales check), the tartan suit, and the midnight blue evening suit. His personal tea blend – Twinings Prince of Wales – is one of my favourites. I refer to making a cup of it as "cracking a Prinny."

Vintage Target! 

My new Fair Isle jumper isn't as colourful as I would've liked, but I like the snowflake motif and the grey and gold colours. I happen to own a stretch pencil skirt in the same gold, so on Monday I paired it with the jumper (with a black T-shirt underneath), plus herringbone textured tights and my new black patent mary-janes.

To jazz it up a little, I wore my silver pendant, which I got from the Rose St Artists Market. It's made from an old piece of silver-plated cutlery.

There's a certain nostalgia – a class nostalgia – about British country style in a similar way there is to Ivy style. The clothes originated as practical garb for country sports such as riding, shooting, golf and fishing, but have now themselves become emblematic of a certain posh, landed country lifestyle.

I'm reading a fascinating book at the moment called Gentry by historian Adam Nicolson, which tells the story of this uniquely British upper middle class through the archived diaries, papers and correspondence of particular families. They built and consolidated their social power through property, strategic marriage, political alliances and colonial trade.

But land – the saleable commodities it could nurture, and the rents it could generate – was the heart of the gentry, which is why they're so often called the landed gentry. Country dress has changed very little over the last 50 years – check out this insane online guide, which unironically uses the word 'jolly'.

What if 'classic' styles are classic not because (as we are often told) they 'never go out of style', but rather because this very sartorial petrification communicates wealth?

This hasn't escaped class fantasist Ralph Lauren: here's his Fall/Winter 2012 collection:

But British country style overlaps with what we could think of as 'academic' or 'intellectual' style. Here I'm not speaking of bohemian or creative style, but the 'tweediness' we associate with Oxbridge in the first half of the 20th century, or with stereotypical lady librarians, or perhaps with Bletchley Park staffers during WWII.

Last week I gave a talk on the costumes from the film Cabaret, and was intrigued by Brian Roberts' (Michael York) dress. Brian, you'll recall, is a PhD student living in Germany in 1931. His friend Sally Bowles is a bohemian, but Brian is more straitlaced.

That's actually quite close to how real 1930s clothes look. I found some pics of period knitwear. Note how short the jumpers and vests are, because of the high-waisted, baggy, pleated pants.

This old-fashioned Oxbridge nerdiness is, perhaps, what the Doctor Who costume designers had in mind for Matt Smith, although the shortness of his pants gives them a punk edge, and the tightness is fashionable right now.

His new outfit, with the waistcoat and frock coat, is much more reminiscent of teddy-boy styling:

But I do love the wingtip boots! Mixing browns, blacks, greys and navies is a key aspect of British country style. However, if you go too far in one direction you get steampunk; too far in the other direction, you get Frankie. It's going to take me a while to nail this style.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

fuckin hipsters...go ahead deny it. Hipsters don't self-identify.

Mel said...

Are you trying to insult me by calling me a hipster? Oh, bless!