A Matter of Taste

What is it about the British that makes them so . . . well, British? Lucia van der Post considers Marmite, corgis, even the Queen's handbags.

Of all the things that puzzle foreigners about the English, taste is perhaps the most impenetrable. This makes it hard for outsiders, no matter how astute, to get certain things right. Just try asking an American, for instance, for his or her views on Marks & Spencer, the high-street behemoth that, in its heyday, purveyed knickers to duchesses as well as shopgirls. Too culturally baffling. The store's hold even today on the affections of the British public is sometimes as mysterious to foreigners as Vatican smoke signals. Then, of course, there's the unaccountable British penchant for warm beer, cricket, corgis, and brass bands; for irony, punk, and street fashion; for gardening and mournful discussions about the weather. The list of bewildering things about the British is long and, er, bewildering.

The playwright Peter Shaffer (Equus, Amadeus) once observed, "We really like dowdiness in England. It's absolutely incurable in us." I'd substitute "shabbiness" for "dowdiness," but otherwise he is—as we like to say—"spot on." Our innate affection for slightly down-at-the-heel houses and furniture, for clothes and habits that come with a history and patina, is ineradicable, as is, conversely, our instinctive aversion to the shiny, the bright, the overly new. This accounts for our fondness for crumbling walls, faded chintzes, peeling wallpapers, overgrown flower beds, and daisy-spattered lawns. It's why Bendor, Duke of Westminster, one of the richest men in the world, had a wardrobe that astounded his lover Coco Chanel, though later it grew on her. "Westminster," she said, "is elegance itself, even though he never has anything new—I had to buy him shoes. He has been wearing the same jackets for twenty-five years." It also explains the success of a magazine like The World of Interiors, which gives glossy form to quintessential English taste by celebrating lichenous stony paths, tumbledown cottages, and crumbling palazzos instead of swanky new penthouses and oceans of swag.

Think of certain English gardens—Sudeley Castle in the Cotswolds, for instance: It has ruins, beauty, a touch of grandeur, and it's rural. There you have it—all the ingredients that constitute the perfect paradigm of English taste. It's partly a natural instinct for the understated, partly a gift for seeing beauty where others see mere decay, partly nostalgia for the myths we've been sold down the years. Of all those myths, the most potent is that of the English country house and the lifestyle that comes with it. From the council-house dweller in the East End to the urban sophisticate in his South Bank loft to the media magnate in his Belgrave Square mansion, myths of rural England have shaped our aesthetics. Take the words used to market a book on English country houses: "comfortable, timeworn, eccentric, and elegant. That's English country style. The beauty, romance, nostalgia, and originality of these houses . . . have evolved over many years."

Much of this, as commentators have fun pointing out, is a lifestyle few have experienced, and it's doubtful it ever existed in such idyllic form. Yet $6,800 Aga stoves in faux-rustic kitchens still top the wish list of metropolitan types who scarcely ever cook. Faded chintz may, these days, come from hip young companies such as Cath Kidston or Cabbages and Roses instead of established grandees like Colefax and Fowler or Bennison, but the inspiration is much the same. Furniture that is inherited or bought secondhand is by and large preferred over even the most up-to-date models from Milan. The favorite look, if you can manage it, is still grand—which often leads to such absurdities as secondhand oil paintings in gilt frames hung imposingly in country cottages—but also faded and old.

You've only to look at the London house of Ann Shore—whose very hip home-furnishings shop Story, located in the East End, is on every fashionista's must-visit-often list—to see where the current state of well-honed taste is at. First, the house is in Spitalfields, the ancient heart of the Huguenot district—lots of lovely nostalgia there. Second, it exemplifies, in an extreme form, a certain sort of English taste: eclectic, unpredictable, eccentric. With a predilection for understatement, an eye that sees beauty in imperfection, and a sympathy for the neglected, Shore has furnished her house with the sorts of things most people can't wait to get rid of—an antique copper bathtub without faucets (filled by a hose), a rusted lavatory tank, a wooden washboard, an old ceramic sink. And, since you ask, yes, it is beautiful in a distinctly eccentric way.

But how the English do up their houses is nothing compared with how we do ourselves up. In the 18th century, Voltaire thought our tendency to sartorial anarchy must surely be the forerunner of revolution. Nothing much has changed: Foreigners still tend to find our mode of dress alarming.

There is no denying that we do not dress as other nations do. Quirkiness and eccentricity are bred in the bone. My most illuminating anecdote on this front concerns the opening ceremony a few years ago for the new Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in Hong Kong. For the grand occasion—and those who know Hong Kong know just I grand those occasions can be—the British wife of a board member was heard to remark absentmindedly that she didn't have anything to wear; but no problem, there were some curtains she didn't need any longer—they would do. So she ran up a dress on her sewing machine from the cut-down curtains. It makes you want to hug her.

But then we English have never taken glamour seriously. We can do it if we have to, but it certainly doesn't come naturally. Picture, for a moment, how the Roman mistress of a future king of Italy might have appeared: all sashaying hips, nipped-in waist, glitzy jewelry, extraordinarily elegant coiffures, painted fingernails, and vertiginously high heels. Now picture, if you will, Camilla Parker Bowles, and you'll see at once what I mean. Her whole way of being and dressing is absolutely quintessentially English. She's pretty and comfortable and funny and warm, but glamorous?

Like most of the world, we don't enjoy entering competitions where we're likely to be also-rans. That leaves us with eccentricity, whose patron saint is, of course, Vivienne Westwood—personification of the equally English flipside of Camilla's stodgy traditional style. Westwood is wondrously, gloriously, complicatedly English, and she could not be anything else. It's a perfect bit of serendipity that the makers of that other wondrously, peculiarly English invention, Marmite (a spirited extract of brewer's yeast in a jar), chose Westwood to design a limited-edition T-shirt to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. ("Marmite," she says, rather endearingly, in a surprised sort of way, "told me that there is something controversial about my image that suits theirs.")

True eccentrics, says neuropsychologist David Weeks of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, are intensely curious, opinionated, and happily obsessed with their hobbyhorses, but above all, and this is diagnostically conclusive, have simply no idea they're eccentric. They do what they do utterly naturally. Vivienne Westwood fits the description to a T. She hasn't the slightest idea why people find her odd. "Moi? Eccentric?" one can almost hear her ask.

Her great contribution to our sartorial times is that she takes all our hallowed myths, symbols, and traditions and pays homage to them while at the same time completely subverting them. Irony is also sacred to the English, and this Westwood has in abundance. Her clothes rely on images of Englishness for much of their impact, but it's odd that the great iconoclast of the fashion world borrows those images from the England of royalty, aristocrats, and the country house. The accouterments of country-house traditions—all that hunting, shooting, fishing, the grand weekend lifestyle—become sources of inspiration and parody. She hijacks aristocratic emblems—Harris tweed and tartans, proper tailoring and Gainsborough-style ruffles, coronets and jewels—and wraps them up in fantasy and nostalgia to create clothes that are amazingly diverting as well as flattering.

Which brings us to the matter of our own dear Queen, whose tastes bemuse the foreigner most of all. Unlike the British fashion press, who nitpick away—those shoes, that perm, the handbags!—Westwood, our most radical designer, with a soft spot for the slightly kitsch, has for years taken inspiration from the Queen. She understands what the Queen is all about, knows she is not there to be a fashion plate. The Queen is sui generis. Her clothes, as the Queen understands far better than the pundits, are a working uniform. They're not, as other people's wardrobes may be, merely a form of self-expression. And it's not as if she needs to power-dress.

The Queen's wardrobe evolved through working with the late couturier Norman Hartnell and the very much still living Hardy Amies. Amies believes that "the Queen has perfect couture manners, that she's aware of fashion but above it. She's created her own understated and quite elegant style, and her familiar appearance reflects the stability and longevity of her reign." Well-cut suits in bright, clear colors so that she can be seen and recognized from afar ("I can't wear beige," she's alleged to have said, "because people won't know who I am"), matching shoes and handbags, and above all "nothing to frighten the horses" are what it's all about. These days Peter Enrione still makes many of the Queen's clothes on his prewar sewing machine from his semidetached house in Acton.

The fashion press may carp, but in our heart of hearts, who among us wants a Queen who dresses like Gwyneth or Madonna? Her hairstyle and perm may appear odd at first, but think about it—she needs to keep her hair clear of her face for the same reason she wears bright colors: to be recognized in a crowd. Her taste in handbags (made almost exclusively by Royal Warrant holder Launer) may seem a tad stodgy, but they are practical, holding, we are told, a speech, her spectacles, lipstick, and a dog biscuit. Her shoes are sturdy and strong, just the thing for launching ships or tramping around hospital wings. Her evening dresses have to sport glittering royal regalia, not to mention the odd sash, tiara, and diamond or two. Her hats, by Freddy Fox, Philip Somerville, and Marie O'Regan are nearly always dyed exactly the same color as her outfit. The Queen has some 50 pairs of white gloves to help keep her hands clean, all supplied by Cornelia James. Dollond & Aitchison makes her eyeglass frames and Bernard Weatherill her riding clothes, while her sweaters come mostly from Pringle and Goodbrand of Aberdeenshire. Her kilts come from the Edinburgh firm of Kinloch Anderson, and her underwear, I am reliably informed, is made by those experts in the art of sartorial upholstery, Rigby & Peller. Many of her country clothes are purchased off the peg from established names like Simpson's, Burberry, and Barbour.

So there you have it—a roll call of establishment British clothiers. Exactly the names you would expect from a conservative, moneyed woman in her seventies who isn't given to disporting herself on the smart costas or visiting the snazzier fleshpots of the world, but whose prime interests outside her job revolve around her family, her homes, her horses, and, of course, the British countryside.

 

Quintessentially English

 

What follows is a highly selective, extremely opinionated, and very incomplete list of the places, people, and things Lucia van der Post considers to be quintessentially English.

MAGAZINES The World of Interiors, The Face, i-D.

LONDON SHOPS Liberty, The Cross, Story, Marks & Spencer, Heywood Hill, Butler & Wilson, David Gill, Bennison Fabrics, Connolly, The General Trading Company, Peter Jones, Celia Birtwell, Cath Kidston, Architectural Salvage.

DESIGNERS Vivienne Westwood, Paul Smith, Lulu Guinness, Manolo Blahnik, Ron Arad, Danny Lane, Tom Dixon, Matthew Hilton, Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Phoebe Philo, Luella Bartley, Alexander McQueen, Nicky Haslam, Philip Treacy, Selina Blow, Patrick Cox.

PRODUCTS Aga stoves, Bentley cars, Smythson's stationery, Chesterfields, the Tomb Raider computer game, Launer handbags, Pringle sweaters.

LONDON RESTAURANTS The Ivy, Bibendum, Kensington Place, Wiltons, J. Sheekey; The Riverside Café and Restaurant in Bridport, Dorset.

PERSONALITIES Lord Glenconner, Boy George, the Duke of Norfolk.

BOOKS Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford, 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Churchill by Roy Jenkins, Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, The Man of Property (The Forsyte Saga) by John Galsworthy, The English by Jeremy Paxman, Alan Clark's Diaries, Woodrow Wyatt's Journals.