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A Brief History of British Fashion – from Queen Victoria to Britpop

London is one of the major fashion capitals of the world, and its streets are packed with shops, from the upmarket Bond Street, to everyday fashion on Oxford Street, and the quirky boutiques of Portobello Road. London has always been famous for starting trends and bringing some of the world’s best designers into the limelight. How did this city breed such an eclectic mix of styles and designs?.

Keeping up with the Royals

As far back as Medieval times, people have tried to emulate the upper classes, and it’s no different today.



A statue dating from the 1890s, in front of the parliament buildings, showing the elderly Queen Victoria on her throne with the official regalia.

The British royal family have been a constant source of fashion inspiration, from women wearing corsets to try to copy the slim silhouette of Elizabeth I, to modern women taking inspiration from Kate Middleton’s simple, elegant outfits. Fashion and history are very much entwined in British culture, and trends that the royals set often become the norm for the rest of us. For example, Queen Victoria helped popularise the practice of wearing black when in mourning, and the tradition of wearing black to funerals is still widespread because of this. Most fashion trends before the 1900s can either be traced to the royal family, or came into prominence because of them. If you visit any stately homes or palaces, there are usually dozens of articles of clothing on display, showing the importance of fashion to British history.

The 20th Century

Looking at British fashion during the 20th century is fascinating, because the styles and trends change so drastically each decade, and often show parallels with what was going on in the country at the time. For example, the flapper girls of the 1920s wore daring outfits and reflected the new freedoms women were gaining, such as equal voting rights with men. The outbreak of World War II influenced clothing, as it was now acceptable for women to wear trousers due to the rationing of fabrics, and as they took on more masculine jobs. After the war had ended, women in the 1950s began to enjoy more stylish clothing as the country became more prosperous. The classic look of full-skirts for women and elegant tailoring for men slowly crept into fashion, and continues to influence many designers today.


Swinging 60s

When people think about London fashion, one of the most iconic images is that of the 1960s. Truly this was a time when London influenced the entire world. Mod fashion such as Mary Quant’s invention of the miniskirt became an inspiration around the world. Women became more adventurous with clothes, experimenting with brighter colours and unusual fabrics such as PVC. They moved away from the flouncy skirts of the 1950s to simple shapes, and the fashionable body type went from curvaceous to boyish, with models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton showing off skinny limbs and big, dark eyes. The movie Quadrophenia shows some of the interesting styles that men and women wore in this era. Whether they were mods or rockers, clothing was important to show your social status and who you were affiliated with.

It wasn’t just what people were wearing that changed dramatically, but also how they styled their homes. In the 1950s, homes were cosy and well-kept, featuring leather upholstery, flowery fabrics and wood-panelling. It was all rather conformist, and not terribly exciting by most people’s standards.

The 1960s brought along a huge trend for plastic items and bold prints. Home interiors became much more about individuality, with plastic furniture moulded into wacky shapes, lots of shiny metals, and mixing bold, sometimes clashing colours together to make a statement. This style very much fitted in with the attitude developing in Britain at the time.

There was a huge divide between older people who were raised in the stuffy war decades, and those who were enjoying the sexual liberation and colourful fashions of the 1960s. Later in the decade, young people started to embrace counter culture, and often rebelled against these bright, disposable fashions by embracing Eastern cultures and philosophy, which would lead to the later hippy movement.


A pretty blue eyed girl in a retro 1960s shoot.

Through the decades

The 1970s saw the rise of punk, and British designers such as Vivienne Westwood became household names. The punk look is still influential in Britain, and you will sometimes see an old punk or two on the famous Kings Road in Chelsea. The 1980s were an era of decadence, hair was big and the shoulder pads were bigger. Fashion was influenced by the electronic music trend, and included lots of bright colours and futuristic shapes. The early 1990s saw Britain very much influenced by American grunge, but they soon struck back with Britpop, which saw bands such as Blur and Oasis gain worldwide fame, and traditionally British fashion such as Doc Martens shoes, corduroy jackets and bucket hats came back into style.

London today

The most exciting event of the year for the modern fashionista is London Fashion Week. Held twice a year in February and September, its schedule is crammed with shows from some of the biggest fashion houses in the capital. Britain is also very keen to keep up their influence on the fashion world, and many of its colleges such as the London College of Fashion are world famous, highly competitive and attract applicants from all over the globe. There is also Graduate Fashion Week, which showcases the work of over 1,000 fashion graduates and offers them the chance to be scouted by the big labels. Whatever the next trend may be, London is sure to have the talent and the determination to be a part of it.