Great Britain is famous for many inventions that changed the world, from the steam engine and the world wide web to the toothbrush, but it’s also famous for doing it in style. Many staple items that have gone down in fashion history and still hang in people’s wardrobes around the world today were the brainchild of creative British minds. This September, as London Fashion Week shines a light on what’s new and what’s next, we take a look at the legacy of some truly British outfit innovations.
While nowadays it may only be the reserve of the most formal of occasions, the top hat is an icon of Victorian style, popularised by society names such as the infamous dandy Beau Brummell and later, Prince Albert. The first top hat is often credited to the English milliner John Hetherington around 1797, but, like many great fashion fairy tales, we can’t say if this is definitely the case, even though it appears to be the first documented reference. What we do know is that they were made of beaver fur but, as the beaver population declined, later incarnations were made of silk – as they are today. The use of fur was also unfortunate for those who made them: the stereotype of the mad hatter, immortalised in Alice in Wonderland, is a result of the mercury used in the felting process of the fur, which caused numerous health complications for those exposed to it. The association of the top hat with wealth and status has remained over the years. Due to the fine materials used and its classic shape, it was one of the most expensive hats you could buy. Those wearing them were men of aristocracy or industry with high social standing and the top hat quickly came to define the traditional English gentleman look.
Every top hat needs a masterfully tailored suit to go with it, and London’s Savile Row has been the epicentre of such craft since 1805. Over the centuries, suits have defined men’s formalwear trends, most notably the dinner suit, which is commonly referred to by its American name, the tuxedo (the name ‘tuxedo’ appeared because of its popularity with members of the Tuxedo Park Club in New York, one of the hottest hangouts in the 1860s). Despite its association with black-tie events in modern times, it was first commissioned by the then Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, to wear at informal dinners. Not finding any previous record of suits made to the specifications Edward asked for, the king’s tailor Henry Poole invented the shorter-cut evening jacket. Poole then offered the suit to UK and international clients as the trendiest new style. Today, there is still a Henry Poole shop on Savile Row.
IN THE TRENCHES
British fashion is about more than dressing the elite though – Brits are also great inventors of outerwear to protect people from the rain. The trench coat is arguably the most famous of these and is still seen in the shows of London Fashion Week brands Burberry and Aquascutum. Both names were instrumental in bringing the trench into being and compete for the title of ‘inventor’. In the second half of the 1800s, Thomas Burberry and John Emary of Aquascutum invented a durable, waterproof material, but it wasn’t until World War I that they found a true purpose for it. Worn by officers, who previously wore wool coats which were heavy and absorbed water, they were practical while also signifying their rank. Trench coats quickly took off as a way of showing solidarity with the troops. The style rose in popularity during World War II, as well as becoming fashionable with British women who were living more outdoor lives while men were at war. Further cementing its status as an icon, the trench coat was spotted on film screens over the following decades, worn by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Transcending practical wartime dressing to signifying Hollywood glamour and timeless, chic dressing, they have been worn by the crème de la crème of celebrities from Katharine Hepburn to Kate Moss.
In the 1960s, as the UK went from a land of innovation and war victories to a breeding ground for social revolution and ‘youthquake’, the miniskirt made its debut. Once again, many have claimed the title of being ‘the first’ to design it, including French designer André Courrèges and English designer John Bates, who worked as Jean Varon. However, it’s most commonly credited to Mary Quant. Quant was the epitome of the decade’s look with her Vidal Sassoon haircut and waifish figure. Her designs were playful, colourful and branded with her cartoon flower logo. Sold through her boutique on the trendy King’s Road in Chelsea, she was well-placed to understand the women of the time and what they wanted. Quant named the style after her favourite car, the Mini Cooper, which epitomised the fun and flirty skirts she was designing. The miniskirt was far more than just an item of clothing: it represented rebellion – and sexual liberation, as the Pill became widely available. Quant’s contribution to fashion is so great that next year, the Victoria and Albert Museum is celebrating her in Mary Quant (from 6th April 2019). London has a rich history of changing the way the world dresses, nurturing talent and showcasing tomorrow’s looks at London Fashion Week. It is certainly the fashion capital of the world.
London Fashion Week
London Fashion Week takes place every February and September to coincide with the new fashion seasons. It is a chance to see designers’ work and place orders for what will be stocked in stores. Out of ‘the big four’, alongside New York, Milan and Paris, London is the youngest, set up in 1984. In its almost 35 years, London Fashion Week has helped to project British talent on to the global stage including Alexander McQueen. Tickets to shows are by invite only, but you can visit London Fashion Week Festival for catwalk shows. www.londonfashionweek.co.uk; www.londonfashionweekfestival.com