Academic journal article New Formations

Feeling It: Habitat, Taste and the New Middle Class in 1970s Britain

Academic journal article New Formations

Feeling It: Habitat, Taste and the New Middle Class in 1970s Britain

Article excerpt

In 1976, in an article for the magazine New Society, the novelist Angela Carter described the cultural significance of the High Street furnishings and kitchen shop Habitat. For Carter, Habitat signalled a generational shift in how people treated their furniture, how they felt about it, and how they lived with it. 'Habitat purchasers', wrote Carter, 'are not over-awed by their own dining-room suites. They will live with their furniture, not alongside it - as my mother did. My mother always thought her mahogany table was too good to use as a table. It inhabited the rarely used dining-room like a rich lodger'.1 For Carter's generation and class, furniture was no longer the heirloom or the hand-me-down, no longer the heavy and dark wooden tables and cupboards of a Victorian, Edwardian or inter-war age. In 1976 furniture could have a lightness, both literally and figuratively; it didn't have to last forever, it didn't need to have a sense of posterity attached to it. It could be made of plastic; it could be bright red; it could be expendable.

If Carter could find a new cultural gravity in specific items like tables, she also found a new lightness and informality in the experience of shopping at Habitat:

The shops are the antithesis of the department store, with its hushed decorum and imposing, beadle-like, senior counter-jumpers, where merchandise is mediated between the firm and you by supercilious assistants who fetch items from locked glass cases, items known only to themselves, and spread them out on counters which mark the division between buyer and seller with absolute precision. There is no sense of a ritual exchange in a Habitat shop. The staff, usually young, wearing name tags, negotiate with the informally clad customers on friendly, easy terms. Merchandising is democratised. There is music, a pleasant sense of subdued bustle. Everything for sale may be felt, handled, touched; no locked showcases. The goods are displayed with such reckless prodigality it is easy to forget they have to be paid for (What the Hell, p207).

A world of glass cabinets, with a mausoleum-hush, gives way to a world of informality, where the haughty advice of shop assistants (assistants who might be more snobbish than their clientele) is replaced by the authority of knowledge gained from touching and feeling. Such shifts in the shopping experience have been felt before: in the nineteenth century when fixed pricing was introduced; and again when haberdashery shops turned into department stores; and in the early twentieth century when self-service supermarkets were introduced.2 In the 1970s the Sixties Revolution still had unfinished business, and you could see it in those fusty and frosty department stores that Carter is referring to. Shops such as the imaginary Grace Brothers in the sitcom Are You Being Served? register a world of aristocratic taste and social deference. Such a world was hanging on and holding out against new formations of informality, social mobility and sexual freedoms (however limited and uneven) that seemed to be on the rise. You can see it above in the defensive arrangement of cabinets and chests; you can see it in Captain Peacock's carnation; and you will hear the rumblings of another order in the cockney twang of Miss Brahms (Wendy Richards) and Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister) and in the libidinal currents of permissiveness that animate the shop floor.

For Angela Carter, Habitat didn't just represent a more informal and sensual experience of shopping, it named a whole way of life:

But if I can easily imagine myself sitting on a piece of the William range ('Craftsman-built furniture which has a solid frame of beechwood'), reading the Sunday Times colour supplement, waiting for my Elizabeth David lunch to be ready, I can't imagine, say, a Rembrandt on the wall opposite, even if it were an unframed repro pinned up as casually as all hell (What the Hell, p206).

We could say that a sofa imagines a world, it imagines particular users and a range of cultural activities, it imagines connected objects, and it wants to disqualify other different worlds. …

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