The Englishness of English Dress

The Englishness of English Dress

The Englishness of English Dress

The Englishness of English Dress


Is there a peculiarly English 'look' and if so how does one define it?From the 'traditional' dress of the Victorian rural working class through to the contemporary collections of Vivienne Westwood and a younger generation of London-based designers, notions of Englishness, either real or imagined, have always been at play in considerations of English fashion and clothing. This provocative book explores how far these fraught ideals can be applied to the dress of the past and present. English expressions of taste and creativity have had a profound influence on style over the last three centuries, and the pursuit and subversion of an English 'look' have shaped conceptions of fashionability from the pastoralism of the eighteenth-century through to the eras of Twiggy, Punk and beyond. But are these simply stereotypical characterizations that relate to an imagined 'Englishness', or is there some concrete basis for them? If the former, what has led to their development? If the latter, what definitions can be employed to unravel such complicated conceptions of national identity? What role has social decorum played in developing an 'English' style, and is this preoccupation with etiquette in fact unique to England ?With chapters authored by leading scholars in the fields of costume history, social history and cultural studies, this is the first book to examine the ways in which fashion and dress might be considered in the context of national identities as they apply in England. Presenting an overview of how particular designers and consumer groups have striven to present or contest versions of Englishness through clothing from the 18th through to the 21st centuries, it will fascinate anyone interested in dress history, national and ethnic identity or English cultural history.


Writing in the 1950s, the German gr Nikolaus Pevsner, from whose book The Englishness of English Art (1956) we have rather presumptuously borrowed our title, was alive to the constructed and disguised nature of national identity and its imagery. He argued that:

no one is at a loss when it comes to enumerating the characteristics of the English today… It is sufficient here to remember a few: personal liberty, freedom of expression … the eminently civilised faith in honesty and fair play, the patient queuing… windows that will never close and heating that will never heat … and the demonstrative conservatism of the wig in court, the gown in school and university. (Pevsner 1956: 15)

Pevsner also noted that although these national characteristics may have seemed as ‘eternal as the rock of Gibraltar, they quite patently were not. Instead, he suggested that the idea of ‘Englishness’ (like all other national identities) is predicated upon a collection of mediated memories and ‘inventions of tradition’. Where better then to seek out the remnants of an imagined and constructed English identity than among the cast-off clothing of its self-confessed proponents? Pevsner looked for the fluid characteristics of Englishness in the enduring qualities of painting and architecture. In extending his field of inquiry the present book suggests that the ephemeral surfaces of fashionable dress are as heavy with nationalist sentiment as any of the plastic, visual and folk arts.

It is thanks to the generosity of the family of Mrs Cecile Korner, another German gr that this project owes its genesis (Figure I.1). Her surviving collection of clothing and related ephemera, bought between the late 1940s and the 1980s, provides an extraordinary insight into ‘conservative’ middle-class mores during the post-war years. It raises all sorts of intriguing questions regarding clothing design, production and consumption in London and the role of dress as a form of autobiography. Furthermore the garments highlight the material practices of a particular kind of femininity, rooted in notions of ‘Englishness’ that still endure as a kind of unproblematized sartorial shorthand in the realms of fashion journalism and product promotion. In 1999 the London College of Fashion gratefully received the donation of this collection from Mrs Korner's sons. Following a period of cataloguing and some initial research, a selection of items was displayed in . . .

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