Why We Love British Style

There is an incredibly large fan base of all things English and British here in the US; in fact, the British film industry is very aware of the American market when making and distributing films, knowing that they can recoup their expenses if the film does well here. Americans swoon over the Royals, British period pieces, accents, history, literature, architecture, etc. But why? Why, other than our shared heritage, do we have such a fancy for the UK?

-There is an element of reserve and restraint. So much in America is about spill-your-guts, Kardashian-style self-promotion, that we actually appreciate a sense of mystery. Not revealing everything, be it skin or our private lives, has an appeal. This is something that is part of the culture across all ethnic groups: compare a British Indian to an Indian-American, and you will notice a difference.

-Elegance and grace. Perhaps this is due to the UK having an active monarchy and a noble class, but this one is probably one of the most appealing aspects of British culture. This cannot help but filter down into daily life. Maintaining a sense of decorum, a proper afternoon tea on delicate china, stationers that have been around for centuries, an Anglican chorus–all of these elements make for a sense of things being out of the ordinary.

-The clothing. There is a long-running tradition of well-tailored garments, bespoke items, haberdashers, floral prints, beautiful yet sturdy woolens knit up north that are more about true style rather than trendiness. Cuts are clean, but fabrics are attractive and appealing. Tacky is not a word that one would generally apply to stylish British clothes, be it from the supermarket, Marks and Sparks, the High Street, or Stella McCartney. There is a long history of textiles (sadly, sometimes the result of colonial exploitation in India and elsewhere), and it may be safe to say that clothes are built from the fabric up, rather than just from a design and fabric chosen to suit it. We love historical dramas because we love to admire the lavish costumes and clothes: the sumptuous velvets, rustling silks, ruffled necks.

-A sense of whimsy and eccentricity. American culture is obsessed with looking perfect and fitting a particular image; Italian fashion must always be ultra-feminine and one must “fare la bella figura.” But the British have a sense of humor about things. You might choose a funny fascinator wear to a wedding, favor quirky shoes or Doc Martens, or have worn asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s. you might opt for a brightly-colored palette à la Zandra Rhodes or Ms. Pink and Mr. Black. Though his designs and not necessarily have been called elegant and beautiful all the time, the late Alexander McQueen’s work was truly unique and theatrical. They can be best dubbed as works of art rather than clothing, and his genius was uniquely British. Eccentricity is also something that cuts across all ethnicities and classes in the UK, which is a multicultural society.

-The architecture. Palladian windows, pillars, green lawns, and even modern wonders that you can see in the form of museums, university buildings, dwellings, and more. There are still so many historic buildings dating even from medieval times, but if modern architecture’s your thing, there is no shortage of that–have a look at the Tate Modern, which is built in a former power station, very industrial chic. But it is not so often that we find a 20th/21st century British building that is completely cold and devoid of feeling the way we do elsewhere in northern Europe. There is always a sense of emotion in British style, though not over-the-top.

-There is an embracing of the feminine element. It is not inconceivable for a man to wear understated florals, discreet prints, a pale pink shirt, etc. Think of the Scottish kilt–the original skirt for men! Not everything in the UK has to be straight lines or rational angles. There is still a contingent of pagans and women who embrace flowing hair, hippie style, flowing gowns. And let us not forget the numerous immigrants from all over the world, who bring their own fabrics and styles with them, be it robes and turbans from all over the African continent or Indian saris.

Naturally, this is only an observation of one angle of British culture. There are plenty of drunken, grubby men and women spilling from pubs, scantily clad girls who go off for hen parties (bachelorette parties in American English) in Spain, and people who are as apathetic to aesthetics as they are here in the US. But there is still something enduring and appealing about the artistic and stylistic output of the United Kingdom that we don’t quite find here in the United States.

A Case Against Minimalism?

In perusing the recent after-Christmas sales, I noticed that there is quite a prevalent ethos in current aesthetics: a sleek, (anorexically-)thin model with her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, her features angular no matter what her ethnicity, wearing simple-cut, unadorned clothing in a chic environment that is usually white or gray. It looks gorgeously stylish, and some of the cuts are so classic that we can see they have been in existence since the heyday of fashion icons Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, the Givenchy designs that we still love today. But this isn’t only in the world of clothing and fashion: we can see this in the popularity of mid-century modern furniture design, industrial-chic restaurants and cafés and boutiques, and even in the trendy ethos of “clean eating.” I have always been a huge fan of Scandinavian design, have hated Midwestern furniture and its heavy, brown, complicated look, loathe over- detailed and studded handbags, and am a frugal sort who prefers to have less in terms of possessions. And dare I say, sometimes I find the gopurams (towers) of Hindu temples in my ancestral land of South India can be a bit gaudy?

But all of this has made me wonder, why is there such a dislike of the opulent, the rococo, the detailed, the maximalist? Why is there a fear of design ethic that is “too much”? Is this aesthetic doing a disservice to many people and cultures? Here are some thoughts.

-There is often a lack of emotion in minimalism. Why smile when you can pout or have a neutral expression? This seems to be the opinion of art directors everywhere. Why not have a few stray curls cascading over a shoulder that show an element of playfulness instead of every (unnaturally-straightened) hair pulled back? Why does the table have to be set with such sterile perfection in a photograph instead of people laughing and talking, a drop of wine spilled, a penne that has escaped from the pot?
I have often remarked, when in Germany and Austria, at the way that the corners of the rooms are at such perfect, sharp 90° angles that it’s almost ridiculous. In the United States, even 90° angle walls have a slight curve to them. I always read this as a fear of emotion, anything that is not perfectly straight and rigid.

-It seems to favor a “masculine” energy. Some might argue this is an essentialist argument that masculine aesthetics and energy are straight lines, hard, plain things and feminine aesthetics and energy are curves, details, anything flowing. But I think there is some truth to this argument, that anything that is feminine, rounded, and sensual does not often feature in high-fashion and high art.

-Minimalism favors a particular body type and look. 90% of the population does not look like the models in magazines and in high-fashion print. This majority, in other words, does not fit a “skinny white person” aesthetic, regardless of ethnicity. A majority of the world’s cultures outside of America, Anglophone countries, and Northwestern Europe appreciates curves, voluptuousness, and femininity.

-Minimalism dismisses folk art and traditional handicrafts and handiwork. Think of the beautiful embroidery of Eastern Europe or India, the swirling batik prints of Southeast Asia, or the multicolored stripes of Guatemalan fabric (see my last post my appreciation of textiles). Or consider Russian culture’s adoration of “bling” – if it’s opulent and gilded, Russians love it. There is something pleasing to the eye about details and ornaments.

-There is something to be said about opulence. Traditionally, more has always signified more – more money, higher status, et cetera. Only in our narrow, 21st-century secular Western societies does less equal more. In America, we can trace that back to Puritanism. There is a dislike of the lavish, the rococo is frowned upon, and being unadorned as a woman is perfectly fine. We don’t come from a culture that has magnificent palaces, jewels, historical houses of worship, or grand costumes. This is unfortunate, because I think it dims our appreciation of that which is special. Oscar Wilde adored luxury and anything opulent, and the Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City pays tribute to the famed aesthete with highly decorated settings and an aptly named “Temptation Room.” There is also an Oscar Wilde Lounge in the Hotel Café Royal in London that Wilde himself used to frequent. Decked out in red and gold, it seems perfectly suited to the writer, and one can imagine him sitting with a pot of Earl Grey, cranking out bons mots in a hand-sewn, leather-bound notebook.

What would Oscar think about the current rage for minimalism in art? Very likely, he would be quite critical of it. After all, he did say, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without the necessities!”

Textiles: The Fabrics of Our Lives

Different cultures specialize in different types of artistic media. We think of the French and we think so much of photography, film, light, and painting, for example. We think of the ancient Romans and their beautiful marble and stonework. In many countries and communities, textiles have been and still are a part of the artistic culture.

In India, textiles are such a vital part of life even today. There are different regions that are known for different types of fabrics, and certain cities that are known for certain prints, weaves, etc. My ancestral town of Kanchipuram is known for silks, there are certain prints that one would recognize are from Rajasthan, and of course there is the globally popular Pashmina scarves. Given that millions of Indian women wear saris on a daily basis, with the sari typically being a 6 yard piece of fabric, it is only natural that India would be a very heavily textile-oriented culture. Walk into any fabric or sari shop, and ask, say, to look at red saris with a paisley print–the salesperson would immediately pull out 10 bolts of fabric that fit the description!

Many indigenous Central and Latin Americans wear the unmistakable woven cotton fabrics in all variations of colorful stripes, and we can see their goods sold all over the world (such as Guatemalan purses). Interestingly, very similar fabrics and patterns can be found in Bhutan. The Nordic countries are known for their intricate knit patterns in their woolen sweaters, very necessary to ward off the chills in extreme northern climates. There are many centers of wool and silk in northern Italy, though probably less than centuries ago, and women delight in wrapping themselves with shawls and richly textured sweaters. Many Native American tribes in the Americas made good use of animals that were hunted for food and used their durable skins, decorating them with feathers, shells, and other natural materials.

West African royalty swathed themselves in kente cloth, the different colors symbolizing different attributes. This is just one example of how royalty denoted themselves from commoners. We think of the classic European royal purple, or the bejeweled Russians, magnificent robes and garments for the aristocrats in all cultures. This might seem like something antiquated, but if we reflect on royalty today, they still distinguish themselves by their outfits, often wearing luxury brands that are no longer their exclusive domain, though unaffordable for most people. Think of the countless blogs dedicated to the Duchess of Cambridge and her wardrobe, some of which include suggestions on how to duplicate her look.

Books from the 18th and 19th centuries focus heavily on the details of what the characters are wearing. Tolstoy’s Kitty is wearing a dress that shows off her shapely ankles, and then at her ball, is in a cloudlike dress. Every girl who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder lived with vicarious delight as Ma took the girls into town to get fabrics for their new dresses, calicos or muslins or poplin. Jane Austen’s characters also take notice of what the others are wearing, and judge them accordingly.

We cannot ignore the significance of textiles in religious contexts. Hindu priests wear simple white cotton dhotis with a simple colored woven border, whereas Episcopalian priests and Catholic clergy are decked out in opulent robes and colors. We recognize the stripes on a Jewish tallit, or prayer shawl. Many African-American communities take pride in dressing up for church, wearing elegant suits and magnificent hats.

Fashionista or not, one cannot help but be impacted by the significance of textiles in our daily lives. It is something that we are often too much in a hurry to pay attention to in America, a culture that is so based on practicality. But if we just take a moment, we might appreciate the swish of a dress, the shine of a silk tie, or the tantalizing texture of a hand-knit sweater.