Britain is home to some of the most influential designers of all time, and has been a hub of fashion innovation for decades. London, the jewel in its crown, is one of the world’s fashion capitals, and the city’s ever-changing styles dictate international trends.
The swinging sixties and punk movements were both started on the streets of London, which is home to some of the most famous shops and highstreets in the world — from upmarket Bond Street and the stores of Oxford Street to the boutiques of Portobello Road. London Fashion Week is also a must-see event in the fashion calendar, making the capital city an essential destination for any fashion fan.
The history of British fashion
Until the turn of the 20th century, people looked almost exclusively to the royals for their fashion inspiration. The British monarch most renowned for their love of fashion was Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1533 to 1603. Elizabeth’s ostentatious dress was not only a matter of personal taste, but also a political statement, as she used her flamboyant garments and jewels to skilfully disguise the truth of struggling economy and a limited budget.
By the end of her reign, Elizabeth had totally transformed the dress of the country from the plain garments of the Tudor period to the extravagant clothing that defines what we now refer to as the Elizabethan era.
In the 19th century, Queen Victoria had a very different impact on history. When her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, she entered a deep state of mourning and wore black for the rest of her life. This established black as the traditional colour of mourning, and it is still worn at funerals around the world to this day.
Into the 20th century, British fashion was dictated by rationing during the two world wars and was by necessity very plain. This resulted in an explosion of colour in the post-war period; this came to a head in the swinging sixties era, which was born in London and featured vibrant prints and big colours. What is now considered one of the first ever youth movements is best remembered today for introducing the miniskirt to the world.
Into the seventies, London was the birthplace of the punk movement, which garnered the nation’s attention with its shocking music and outrageous outfits. Enraging the conservative establishment and thrilling the disenchanted youth, the ultimately short-lived movement shook the foundations of British pop culture.
While there were only a few thousand hard-core punks in the country, the punk ethos still remains part of British fashion culture, with both British designers and the public not being scared to push the boundaries. This sets British fashion apart from the many other European countries, which are defined by their chic and subdued style.
British fashion designers
Thomas Burberry may not be a household name today, but his legacy lives on in the Burberry brand, which is one of the most successful of the 21st century. However, Burberry didn’t start out as a fashion company. In 1870, Thomas Burberry invented gabardine, a twill-woven fabric that was incredibly durable and waterproof. The material became popular with everyone from army officers and fishermen to arctic explorers, such as Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole.
Today, Burberry has changed considerably from the company founded all those years ago, now selling high-end designer clothing defined by an instantly recognisable check pattern. More popular than it’s ever been before, the British brand is listed on the FTSE 100 Index and has more than 500 stores in over 50 countries.
This success comes after a major revitalisation, spearheaded by Chief Creative Director Christopher Bailey, which was much-needed after the brand became synonymous with so-called ‘chav’ culture. During this period, the Burberry pattern earned the nickname ‘chav check’ due to it being widely counterfeited, as well as the brand offering a relatively cheap line.
To resurrect the brand, Bailey dropped the now-tarnished check from almost all of Burberry’s designs and ceased production of the more affordable garments aimed at the lower end of the market, such as baseball caps and bikinis. The brand then made a conscious effort to target middle-class millennials, and Burberry has gone from strength to strength in the last few years to regain its status as an exclusive, luxury label.
Dame Mary Quant’s impact on the world of fashion is almost unrivalled. Credited as the main pioneer of the miniskirt and hot pants, Quant’s playful and colourful designs defined the swinging sixties. Jean Shrimpton, considered the world’s first supermodel, played a large part in popularising Quant’s designs, and London’s fashion sect followed her lead.
More than just a garment, the miniskirt sent shockwaves through conservative sixties Britain. This did nothing to stop it sweeping the nation before becoming an international trend. Miniskirts and minidresses are still a popular choice today, and in 2009, the Mary Quant miniskirt was commemorated on a Royal Mail stamp as part a ’10 British design classics’ series that also featured the Tube map, the Spitfire, and the red telephone box.
Over a career spanning more than 50 years, Dame Vivienne Westwood has produced some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed clothing lines in the world. Alongside her boyfriend and business partner Malcolm McLaren, Westwood exploded into the public consciousness in the 70s when they invented punk, one of the most divisive fashion trends and music genres of the 20th century.
Combining outrageous make-up and hair with bondage gear, safety pins, spiked dog collars and Nazi insignia, the punk style was incredibly provocative. Spearheaded by The Sex Pistols, who were managed by McLaren and styled by Westwood from her King’s Road boutique, the movement had a short and intense lifespan that captured the imagination of Britain’s disillusioned youth. The punk spirit lives on in British style to this day, with the British public being renowned for their willingness to experiment with loud statement pieces.
Since almost singlehandedly spawning the punk movement, Westwood has gone from strength to strength in the fashion world, launching her own incredibly successful and well-respected label and winning multiple industry awards, including British Fashion Designer of the Year in 1990, 1991, and 2008. Westwood’s designs are now almost unrecognisable from her early forays with punk, and as a mark of how much the influential designer has changed over her career, Princess Eugenie wore Vivienne Westwood dresses to the pre-wedding dinner, ceremony and the after-party of the 2011 royal wedding.
Perhaps more than any other designer of recent times, Alexander McQueen practised fashion as a form of art. His catwalk shows were often dark, brooding, and avant-garde. McQueen’s designs were also famous for their high level of technical mastery, which the designer developed during his time as a tailor on Saville Row, where he made suits for clients such as Prince Charles and Mikhail Gorbachev. His skillset was developed further when he was hired as the chief designer at Givenchy in 1996. He left this post in 2001 to found his own label.
Highlights of his career include making clothes for David Bowie and Björk, as well as winning the British Designer of the Year award four times between 1996 and 2003, and the CFDA’s International Designer of the Year award in 2003.
Known as “the hooligan of English fashion”, Alexander McQueen was renowned for his daring and provocative designs. He is perhaps most famous for his controversial “bumster” trousers, a revealing design which sparked the trend of ‘low-rise’ jeans which dominated the late-90s and early 2000s.
More than anything, the designer’s career was defined by his most unconventional and original moments: McQueen recreated a shipwreck on stage for his 2003 S/S collection, and a life-size and ghostly hologram of Kate Moss was projected on to the stage of his 2006 A/W show.
McQueen’s most imaginative and talked-about collection was the 2001 VOSS show. The performance took place in an enormous two-way mirrored box which housed a catwalk-cum-psychiatric ward, all white with padded walls. The audience faced a reflection of themselves before the show began, and during the performance, the models, who adorned hospital headbands alongside the sensational clothing, could not see the audience.
For the finale of the VOSS show, another box was illuminated within the larger box. It was occupied by a naked model draped over a chaise longue wearing a gas mask, surrounded by hundreds of moths. This startling finale completed McQueen’s tortured and beautiful take on mental illness, and the show has gone on to have extra poignancy after it came to light that the designer struggled with depression throughout his life before committing suicide in February 2010.
British style icons
Alongside its designers, Britain is also famously the home to some of the most influential models in fashion history. These personalities have shaped the way women dress around the world. Here’s a look at the greatest British style icons of all time.
Jean Shrimpton is one of the most influential style icons in British history, and is often credited as being the world’s first supermodel. Known as ‘the face of the sixties’, she appeared on numerous iconic magazine covers during the decade for popular publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Elle, Newsweek, and TIME.
Shrimpton’s rise to superstardom, which was ignited by her collaboration with photographer David Bailey, marked the transition in international fashion from the aristocracy-inspired, prim-and-proper look of the fifties to the more fun, playful, and youthful movement of the sixties.
This transition was defined by the miniskirt, which was popularised in London by Mary Quant. Jean Shrimpton made the garment a worldwide phenomenon when she sported a dress that ended 10cm above her knees to the Victoria Derby in 1965, which was sensational for the time.
The Victoria Derby, such a big event in the Australian state of Victoria that its annual date is a public holiday, was a famously aristocratic meeting. Gloves, stockings, and a hat were seen as mandatory accessories for the women at the event, so when Shrimpton ditched all of these in favour of an outrageously short dress, it was quite the scandal. So much so, it was the first thing to knock the winner of the race off the front pages since the first-ever Victoria Derby in 1861.
This appearance made headlines around the world, truly launching the miniskirt as an international phenomenon and cementing Shrimpton’s place in fashion history.
Lesley Lawson, known across the world as Twiggy, was in many ways Jean Shrimpton’s successor. Another of the world’s first supermodels, she became known the world round for her stick-thin physique, androgynous style, and prominent eyelashes. Her frame was the perfect fit for the unisex style sweeping the world from its home in sixties London, and her multiple appearances on the cover of Paris, British, and US Vogue during 1967 propelled her to international superstardom.
When she travelled to the USA in 1967, several newspapers reported on the Twiggy “phenomenon”, including the New Yorker, which dedicated almost 100 pages to the model. Twiggy became a brand, with her name being featured on a range of cosmetics.
At the time, Twiggy was criticised for promoting an unrealistic body ideal for women to live up to, and she is now attributed as being the model who triggered the trend of ‘size zero’ models that persists to this day. Twiggy retired from modelling in 1970, but after a career as an actress and singer, returned to the world of fashion as the face of Marks & Spencer. She is now credited with the “Twiggy effect”, which is that today, women in their 60s and 70s are continuing to dress stylishly into their old age.
After more than 25 years as one of British fashion’s leading ladies, Kate Moss is an institution. The list of designers she has modelled for includes almost every one of fashion’s biggest houses: Chanel, Versace, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Alexander McQueen, to name a few. She’s appeared on the cover of British Vogue 30 times, and is one the biggest names in fashion across the world today.
Moss came to prominence in 1996, when she was at the forefront of the ‘heroin chic’ look, which was exemplified by skinny, androgynous models with pale skin, dark circles under their eyes, and dark lipstick. That year, she starred in a Calvin Klein campaign that sparked a discussion about anorexia in fashion, with figures such as Bill Clinton condemning the trend.
Being caught in the centre of this controversy did nothing to halt Moss’s rise to superstardom, and she went on to become one of the biggest names in fashion. However, her career took another blow when she was embroiled in allegations of drug use in 2005. H&M dropped her from its autumn campaign, which was reportedly worth £4 million a year, and Chanel and Burberry also cancelled contracts with her.
In 2006, Moss was cleared of all drug charges by the Metropolitan Police, and has since gone from strength to strength, designing a range for Topshop in 2007 (and another in 2014) and a range of handbags for Longchamp in 2010. She was made the face of Mango in 2011, a position she still holds to this day. In 2012, she appeared alongside eight other British supermodels to celebrate British fashion during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics and, in 2013, she received a Special Recognition award at the British Fashion Awards in acknowledgment of her contribution to fashion during her 25-year career.
Moss is such a large cultural icon that she transcends fashion, and she was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME in 2007. In 2008, she was even honoured by a £1.5 million, 18-carat gold statue depicting her in a yoga pose. The sculpture, which is displayed in the British Museum, is said to be the largest gold statue made since Egyptian times.
Very few people have as big of an influence on high-street fashion today as model and TV presenter Alexa Chung. The three-time winner of the British Fashion Council’s British Style Award, in recent years she has been credited with popularising both the Peter Pan collar and the smock dress.
After being scouted as a 16-year-old and working as a model for four years, Chung quit modelling in 2005 after becoming disillusioned with the industry. She went on to become a TV presenter, first as the host of Channel 4’s Popworld, then as one of four anchor T4 presenters, where she became known for her distinctive personal style.
A few years after her breakout, Chung began to create more fashion-orientated programming, most notably in her segment on Channel 4 programme Gok’s Fashion Fix. Simultaneously, she made a return to modelling, walking the runway at London Fashion Week as well as becoming the face of New Look and later Longchamp.
In 2009, high-end handbag designer Mulberry created the ‘Alexa’ bag, which was inspired by Chung. In June of the same year, she appeared as a contributing editor of British Vogue, cementing her status as a British style icon.
The Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine (Kate) Middleton
Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, is arguably the biggest British style icon of today. Her effect on the world of fashion was first felt when the blue Issa dress she wore during the public announcement of her engagement to Prince William sold out within 24 hours of the event. This has since happened so frequently that it has come to be known as “the Kate Middleton effect” (or “the princess effect”), which is said to be worth around £1 billion to the British fashion industry. This has led to her being listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in both 2012 and 2013.
Middleton’s simple and elegant style of dress is befitting of a royal, and despite her relatively conservative fashion choices, she is still a huge influence on the fashion world, with her outfit choices making headlines around the world. Noted for wearing outfits multiple times and not being afraid to dress in clothes from the high street, the Duchess’s style is also seen as relatively achievable for the woman on the street — especially in comparison to other royals.
Middleton has always had links to the world of fashion, having taken a part-time position as an accessory buyer at Jigsaw for a year after graduating in 2006. Since then, she’s risen to one of the most influential roles in British and international fashion.
The British fashion philosophy
So, how can you look like a British style icon? Here are the rules that the most fashionable women in Britain stick to.
Rule 1: Layer, layer, layer
Because the weather can change at any moment, British women have to dress for four seasons. This has made them masters at layering, which adds tonnes of potential for creating your own unique style. Good-quality knitwear is perfect for this, and a collection of cardigans and jumpers is a wardrobe essential for anyone looking to dress in a London style.
Rule 2: Learn to love your coat
While Britain is renowned for its great fashion, it isn’t known for its great weather, so you’re going to have to learn to love your overcoat. Barbour is a quintessential British brand that will add classic style to any winter outfit, while a trench coat or a tweed blazer will help you achieve classic London style in autumn and spring.
Rule 3: Be daring
British designers are famous for pushing the boundaries of fashion and pioneering new styles. This ethos trickles down onto the streets, where the British people are a lot more likely to be found dressed in something daring than our cousins across the channel.
With this in mind, don’t be afraid to add something a bit quirky to your outfits through an attention-grabbing statement piece. This can be especially called for during the often dull winter, when adding a splash of colour to your wardrobe can help keep your spirits up. A great way to do this while sticking firmly to classic British style is with a tartan scarf or skirt, which can shine through your layers and put a smile on your face.
Keep in mind when you’re trying something a bit unusual to stick to one statement piece per outfit. Disobey this rule of thumb, and you can quickly end up looking more silly than stylish.
Rule 4: Keep it casual — but not too casual
British fashion loves an unkempt look — think Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse. The punk ethos lives on for many British women today, and while you’re unlikely to see many on the streets of London in bondage gear and safety pins, the individual and informal spirit is still represented.
So don’t stress about everything being pressed and perfect, and while an elegant dress can look great in the right context, you can just as easily reach for jeans and a top and you won’t get raised eyebrows on the streets of London.
The past few years, British fashion has become even more casual with the rise ‘athleisure’ wear, which has seen yoga pants become widespread outside of the gym. Sportswear is said to currently be worth £6 billion to the British fashion industry, with the British public embracing the trend wholeheartedly. If you want to hit one of British fashion’s biggest current trends, then take a look at our range of sportswear.
Rule 5: Invest in the essentials
While a wardrobe featuring a few daring accessories or statement pieces is characteristically British, it’s crucial that you invest in some top-quality staples to underpin them. Here’s our breakdown of the most quintessential British pieces to help you get the look.
Named after the London borough that gave birth to the mod movement in the sixties, the Chelsea boot remains an uber-cool footwear choice to this day. Wear with a pair of skinny jeans for a super-stylish casual look that will serve as a basis for outfits all year-round.
Originally invented in Ireland, the brogue was adopted by the English aristocracy and is now a staple of both men’s and women’s wardrobes across the country. Go classic with plain tan pair, which will look great with a pair of straight-legged navy trousers, or bring the style bang up to date with a pair in an unusual colour like white.
When the sun does get out, British women love to make the most of it, as it’s never clear how long it’s going to last. When summer hits, go for a flowing summery dress or skirt for a classic look. Pair with plimsolls, trainers, or ballet pumps to add that casual British edge to the outfit.
Make a nod to a British institution since the mod era buy wrapping up in a parka over the winter. Pair with skinny jeans and Chelsea boots for a classic look, and swap those boots for a trendy pair of trainers for a modern spin on the look.