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By Ophelia Stimpson
Olympic fever, it seems, is making everyone turn and look at their environment through a lens of justified patriotism – naturally, this has branched out well beyond the realm of sport. The wackiness of the Olympic Opening Ceremony brought home comments from the fashion pack regarding the ‘pride of British eclecticism’ as they saw the costumes, and rightly so; you’d expect the land which has produced colourful treasures like Helena Bonham-Carter, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Lewis Carroll to pull off a show which at times made us look mad as hatters. And from the division of opinion over Stella McCartney’s Team GB tracksuits to camera shots of some of the more sartorially creative spectators when there’s a lull in whichever competition is being televised, as Brits we can’t really avoid admitting that questions of style are generally always floating in the tides of our consciousness.
But the typically-British-attitude-as-a-reflection-of-eclecticism-of-style parallels have been drawn a lot recently, and as the Closing Ceremony looms this weekend it would do no good to reiterate the idiosyncrasies in our manner of dressing without adding any more. From where comes our brilliant vestiary variety? I’m convinced it has something to do with our rich history of textiles and clothing production. Aside from London being an international fashion capital, many people forget that industry in the midlands and the north heavily contributed to the ensembles of the stylish both on domestic turf and abroad.
Before foreign competition made it too difficult for big industry to survive in this country, our fashion-related production was bountiful. From textiles to leather, to embellishments and expert tailoring, it was all there: Leicester was famous for luxury hosiery, Walsall for the soft leather used to make handbags, Atherston for felt hats, Northampton for shoes and belts, Manchester for cotton, Leeds for men’s tailoring, Bradford for wool… the list goes on. Macclesfield, renowned for its silk, produced the fabric for all manner of uses both fashionable and practical; thrown silk could be woven into medical thread for stitching wounds but also extravagant ribbons which would seriously compete with Parisian couture houses. The silk was even used as a light weight, durable way of printing maps for soldiers in World War II– the finished article would then be sewn into military jackets. And like the ‘Gamesmakers’ who’ve volunteered for this Olympics, production of these products took a bit of added grit from a lot of extra people; in the war effort, many women and children would take products home to ensure they were completed.
I’m not writing this as a nostalgic remembrance of things past, though; while our textiles landscape has changed dramatically, it’s not something we should dwell on. Plus our industrial production is not completely dead, either – it doesn’t exist in the same way, but smaller, almost boutique factories survive in many of the aforementioned cities.
What we can celebrate is our fabulous labels which keep Britain at the central beating heart of high fashion. From said McCartney to the expertly crafted clothes of McQueen, we boast the crème de la crème of design, and many like these are turning back to using domestically produced fabrics in their ready-to-wear garments. Dax, Aquascutum, Burberry, Mulberry and Barbour are some of many brands cherishing industry of old and having textiles produced on British soil. Not forgetting Queen Viv (-ienne Westwood), who doesn’t neglect to leave out the Scottish contribution by using bespoke tartan. Even Victoria Beckham’s doing it with her namesake’s fashion label. This trend isn’t just isolated to the catwalk, either; we’re led to believe that Mary Portas is resurrecting Nottingham’s lace production to produce a line of good quality but affordable lingerie.
Industry in this country will never be as it was, but this recent resurgence by labels in priding the ‘home grown’ contributes to the loving and conscientious spirit of British fashion. And that’s one way of putting the ‘blessed’ quality back into this plot of land which we sometimes manage to overlook.