gothic 1Watching the English: how the English dress

Kate Fox, an anthropologist, spent twelve years researching various aspects of English culture in order to try to discover the ‘defining characteristics of Englishness’. The following is an extract from her book Watching the English.

The English have a difficult and, generally speaking, dysfunctional relationship with clothes. Their main problem is that they have a desperate need for rules, and are unable to cope without them. This helps to explain why they have an international reputation for dressing in general very badly, but with specific areas of excellence, such as high-class men’s suits, ceremonial costume, and innovative street fashion. In other words, we English dress best when we are ‘in uniform’.You may be surprised that I am including ‘innovative street fashion’ in the category of uniform.

Surely the parrot-haired punks or the Victorian vampire Goths are being original, not following rules? It’s true that they all look different and eccentric, but in fact they all look eccentric in exactly the same way.  They are wearing a uniform. The only truly eccentric dresser in this country is the Queen, who pays no attention to fashion and continues to wear what she likes, a kind of 1950s fashion, with no regard for anyone else’s opinion. However, it is true that the styles invented by young English people are much more outrageous than any other nation’s street fashion, and are often imitated by young people all over the world. We may not be individually eccentric, apart from the Queen, but we have a sort of collective eccentricity, and we appreciate originality in dress even if we do not individually have it.

In other areas of research another ‘rule’ of behaviour I had discovered was that it is very important for the English not to take themselves too seriously, to be able to laugh at themselves. However, it is well known that most teenagers tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. Would a ‘tribe’ of young people be able to laugh at the way they dress? I decided to find out, and went straight to a group whose identity is very closely linked to the way they dress, the Goths.

The Goths, in their macabre black costumes, certainly look as if they are taking themselves seriously. But when I got into conversation with them, I discovered to my surprise that they too had a sense of humour. I was chatting at a bus stop to a Goth who was in the full vampire costume – with a white face, deep purple lipstick, and spiky black hair. I saw that he was also wearing a T-shirt with ‘Goth’ printed on it in large letters. ‘Why are you wearing that?’ I asked. ‘It’s in case you don’t realize that I’m a Goth,’ he answered, pretending to be serious. We both looked at his highly conspicuous clothes, and burst out laughing.

Adopted from New English File Intermediate, Student’s Book


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