Eccentricity and the English

Eccentricity and the English

Quintessentially Magazine recently asked me to illustrate a piece by Lucia van der Post on British sartorial eccentricity.
It was great fun and I also learned some very interesting cultural facts.

The article was published in the latest issue of Quintessentially Magazine – a global magazine, published quarterly, covering arts, culture, academia, travel, fashion, leisure and lifestyle for its exclusive audience.

Eccentricity and the English
Lucia van der Post

It was Voltaire, the famous French philosopher, who as long ago as the 18th century pondered on the strange fact that the English did not dress as another nations did. So perturbed was he by the English natural tendency towards sartorial anarchy that he thought it must surely be heralding a revolution. What Voltaire failed to understand, as many an observer has since, is that the British tendency to mind more about dressing interestingly than elegantly is merely the most visible aspect of a national psychology that is really quite profoundly eccentric. Which is odd given that the generally accepted stereotype of the British (most particularly the male of the species) is of a people that were deeply conformist. All that stuff about bowler hats and umbrellas, stiff upper lips and a certain stoicism in the face of bad food served merely to mislead. Behind it all is a nation that by and large is less concerned with how it is perceived than almost any other you could name. Whereas even the most modestly paid Italian likes to dress as if he were a tycoon and buys cars that seem well above his social station, in Britain you will find members of the highest families in the land driving old jalopies that have long seen better days and dressing as if they were paupers (remember how bemused Coco Chanel was by the wardrobe of her lover, the Duke of Westminster, at the time one of the richest men in the world. “He never has anything new – I had to go and buy him some shoes. He has been wearing the same jackets for twenty-five years.”) Take, for instance, Boris Johnson. No Italian politician worth his seat in the senate would be seen dead presenting the sort of shambolic figure that he does – but it’s what people love about him. He is himself and his doesn’t appear to give a damn about how he looks.

But it is this very refusal to follow convention, to be determined to think and act independently, that has lead to some of the great innovations for which Britain is so famous – from Isambard Kingdom Brunel with his glorious engineering feats and his design for the first propeller-driven steamship to Tim Berners-Lee who famously invented the world-wide web (and what’s more offered it to the world for free – something which most people would find seriously eccentric), it’s the English taste for ploughing a lonely furrow that made them what they were. The list of British inventions is long and honourable, from John Logie Baird and the first television to Frank Whittle and his jet engine, Robert Watson-Watt and radar, Alexander Graham-Bell and the telephone.

It’s those very same qualities that the global fashion world loves in our creative young designers. Christopher Kane, Erdem, Mary Katrantzou, Roksanda Ilincic – all are new and fresh and are being snapped up by retailers around the world, for they provide that essential element that real luxury should always have – the element of surprise, of delight, of serious innovation. The Americans, after all, do pared-down chic and functional sportswear, the Japanese and the Belgians do ‘conceptual’, France and Italy do high-flown elegance but only the Brits come up with an endless stream of the weird and wonderful, the quirky and eccentric. Just think Vivienne Westwood and you will see at once what I mean. She couldn’t be anything but glorious, complicatedly English. Her great contribution to the world of fashion is that she takes all our hallowed myths, symbols and traditions and at one and the same time pays homage whilst comprehensively subverting them. She takes Harris Tweed and tartans, the tailoring tradition, Gainsborough style ruffles, coronets and jewels – she hijacks aristocratic emblems, wraps the wearer in fantasy and nostalgia. And out of them all she fashions amazingly diverting and flattering clothes. But whilst she is the most extreme example she’s not alone. Smythson, Anya Hindmarch, Jo Malone, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Mulberry, Paul Smith – all have hidden in their DNA something quintessentially English, a combination of old-fashioned quality and integrity allied with a touch of wit and irony and a refusal to follow the conventional path. One has only to think of Smythson with its eye-popping coloured leathers and its witty and charming takes on the traditional postcard and diary, of Paul Smith and his habit of adding a touch of wit in the lining or the cuffs or his suits, of Jo Malone, changing the way we think about fragrance, of Mulberry for whom Alexa Chung with her wildly eclectic wardrobe and her refusal to follow normal fashion dicta is the perfect ambassador. Our long lines of wits and raconteurs from Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde down to our fistful of latter-day comedians, all display a quintessentially English disregard for convention, a love of surprise, of irony, of invention.

But whilst these are the names that are above the parapet, the ones we can instantly understand and relate to, below the parapet, less visible but doing infinitely valuable things are a host of latter-day inventors and creators – motor-car engineers, glass manufacturers, porcelain makers. In China, where Thomas Heatherwick’s extraordinary building for the Shanghai Exposition showed the outside world and the Chinese in particular that Britain was not just a place where you found good old solid quality, classic elegance and that mystic thing known as “heritage” – it was a place where this national tendency to be different, to innovate, to think outside the box came naturally and easily and where, when allied to the more old-fashioned qualities, often resulted in something special. Anybody who remembers some of Heatherwick’s more extraordinary creations – his blue glass laid like grass in the centre of Newcastle, his curving caterpillar bridge in the Paddington Basin, his soaring B of the Bang sculpture for Manchester Stadium – will recognize here a quintessentially British genius.

In Thomas Heatherwick one sees, writ very large of course, a very peculiar talent – an ability to dream, to fantasise and, most importantly, an ability to bring the dreams to life. These are qualities that are going to be sorely needed if we are going to revive our economic and manufacturing fortunes but the good news is that everything we need is right there in the DNA, ready and waiting to be activated when the conditions are right.