London arrived fashionably late to the world of couture as a place that inspires fresh ideas for designers’ seasonal collections. The capital city has operated mainly as a resource conduit, exporting primary or unfinished products like wool and metal, and procuring luxury items like fur and embroidery for use elsewhere.
Where it has built a great reputation is in the traditional handcrafts of clothiers: tailoring, shirt making, hat making and shoemaking, trades essential to the trappings of proper English gentlemen.
But there are exceptions. The UK is legendary for its eccentric characters and some have used fashion as a means of expression. To mention a few of the most famous: Beau Brummell invented the “Dandy”, Mary Quant invented the miniskirt, Katherine Hammett gave us the political T-Shirt, and Vivienne Westwood, the mother of punk fashion, defined an era of rock and roll. And let’s not forget Thomas Burberry, who, in 1850, experimented with waterproofing a raincoat. It was probably an effort that was more engineering than fashion, but it was bound to happen, considering London’s perpetual mists and rains. It was a true London inspiration.
To dig a bit deeper into London’s relationship with fashion we arranged to meet Amber Butchart, a born-and-raised Londoner, and herself fabulously fashionable. Amber is a rising star on BBC’s presenter roster, a fashion historian, and a wealth of knowledge on textiles and all things related to the art of fashion. She currently shares her insights on BBC4’s, “A Stitch in Time”, a six-part series exploring the lives of historic characters through fashion.
With Amber’s unique take on fashion and history, we were curious to know what her London haunts are and where she gets her fashion inspiration locally. Her insider suggestions sent us on a totally new route around London.
Dennis Severs House
The Dennis Severs House, is located on Folgate Street in London’s East End. It was created by Mr Severs who uses his visitors’ imaginations as his canvas to paint an intimate portrait of the lives of a Huguenot silk weaver’s family.
Severs lived in the house in much the same way as its original occupants might have done in the early 18th Century, without electricity or running water. This he did for his own personal enjoyment as well as to construct an atmosphere that would create a seamless passageway into the past.
A visit is a fascinating look into London of another age.
This vintage clothing retailer with shops in the UK and Sweden is Amber’s original stomping ground and where she long ago trained buyers in all things vintage. One can find items of every era of the 20th century.
All the clothing and accessories found at Beyond Retro started out as donations to charities. The sale of these donations generates revenue for charities all over the world. Beyond Retro buys directly from charities or through recycling companies.
Designer Alexa Chung and singer-songwriters Paloma Faith and Kate Nash are just a few of the many regulars that can be found combing the racks at Beyond Retro. Join them to assemble your own look curated from the backs of Briton’s closets and its attics.
Over to Greenwich, we visit a beautiful Grade II listed building dating back to 1721. It’s now a small museum dedicated to the fading art of fans and the process of making them.
Aside from their obvious artistic merits, in their time fans played a critical role as a means of subtle communication when social norms discouraged banter between the unacquainted.
The master craftsman of the fan age was Felix Alexandre. In the late 1800s, having one of his creations was the ultimate luxury. The Queen of the Netherlands, Empress Eugenie, and later Queen Victoria were both customers of his Parisian studio.
If you plan your visit for Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday you can also enjoy afternoon tea in the old town house’s lovely Orangery.
Davenports Magic Shop
Davenports is not just any magic shop, it is the oldest family run magic shop in the world! The business started five generations ago when Queen Victoria was the one living in nearby Buckingham Palace.
Its collection spans back to the enterprise’s beginning and each object tells a story. The business started in the East End in 1898, with later locations on New Oxford Street and across from the British Museum. Now Davenports is tucked away in the tunnels of the Charing Cross tube station near Trafalgar Square.
Offering workshops for aspiring magicians as well as consulting with professional magicians, Davenports is magic’s link to its Victorian heyday.
Come home from your London trip with a new trick up your sleeve.
The Armory Room at the Wallace Collection
The Wallace Collection is a wonderful art museum covering all manner of art and crafts. The collection was amassed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. In 1897, Lady Wallace, Sir Richard’s widow, bequeathed it to the British nation.
The collection is immense. One visit is just not enough to cover it. So, Amber’s idea of singling out just the armory collection is brilliant.
The European and Oriental Armory Collections alone contain nearly two-and-a-half thousand objects. The spectacular array of Oriental arms, armor and related works of art, chosen specifically for their fine craftsmanship, Eastern opulence, and exotic beauty, were acquired mainly in Paris in the late 1800s. Collecting objects like these was all the rage for the well-heeled aristocrat of the day.
For artisan and fashion enthusiasts, to marvel at the fine craftsmanship and richness in design in this collection is a rare treat.
Cordings of Piccadilly
To my great shame, I’ve walked by Cordings of Piccadilly countless times and never knew that what lay behind these beautiful old wooden doors was a treasure trove of British outfitter history. So,thanks to Amber for encouraging us to look deeper!
Waterproofing was the business of the original Cordings, and John Charles Cording opened his first shop as a waterproofer and gentleman’s outfitter in 1839. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for three years before she paid her first official visit to the City of London in 1839 and on that day her grand procession passed right by Cordings’ first shop.
Over the years the Cordings name became synonymous with outdoor living. In 1871 the explorer, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, made it his first stop to gear up for his Central African quest to find the long-lost Dr. Livingstone. On finding him and proclaiming, “Dr. Livingstone I presume”, he was likely wearing Cordings boots.
Since 1839, Cordings has seen many ups and downs. In 2003, during a particularly low period, a long-time customer took an interest, financial and otherwise. It was none other than Eric Clapton, who couldn’t bear to see the brand disappear, cutting off his source of much-loved country attire. Soon after, his wife also got involved and brought a full collection of women’s clothing to the brand. It had only taken some 165 years. Better late … I’d say
Innovation has been the driving force behind all of Cordings’ product introductions. Its waterproofing business led to the Macintosh. It invented the classic Covert coat, and with the Prince of Wales’ influence, made the Tattersall a pattern that in Britain came to symbolize rural life. The practicality and quality of each invention turned them into British classics.
No need to visit a museum to see the history of British country attire. At Cordings you can still gear up for your own outdoor expedition just like a modern-day Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Wilton’s Music Hall
Located off Cable Street in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Wilton’s is the world’s oldest surviving Music Hall and one of those hidden gems that make London such a culturally rich city.
Over a span of 300 years this building evolved from Victorian Sailors’ pub to music hall to Methodist mission to rag warehouse. Eventually falling derelict, it was restored and reopened in 2004 in its pub and music hall incarnation. Restored might not be the correct word though. More accurately, the additions since its music hall and pub days have been peeled back to reveal its exact earlier state. You get to tap the very same floorboards and belly up to the mahogany bar as earlier generations did.
The music hall program covers a wide spectrum, including opera, puppetry, classical music, cabaret, dance, and magic. Monday nights at Wilton’s Mahogany bar you can even enjoy a free concert and hang with locals.
There you have it! Amber Butchart’s London destination suggestions all put fashion and history to the fore. Give it a try and you will see London in a whole different light. Many thanks to Amber for sharing her unique perspective and great advice.
By the way, since we were talking to a London fashion expert we couldn’t resist asking Amber’s advice on what to wear in London. “A raincoat and a pair of colored tights” was her answer. With that as your foundation, add to it what suits! Gentlemen, you may substitute socks for tights … if you like. With that, you are sure to blend in nicely with the locals.
Dennis Severs House: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
Beyond Retro: www.beyondretro.com
The Fan Museum: www.thefanmuseum.org.uk
Davenports Magic Shop: www.davenportsmagic.co.uk
The Wallace Collection: www.wallacecollection.org
Cordings of Piccadilly: www.cordings.co.uk
Wiltons Music Hall: www.wiltons.org.uk
Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger
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