Alexander Bailey, British style writer and founder of luxury e-boutique for men, MilanStyle.co.uk gives his advice on achieving British style.
British Style - What it is and how to achieve it.
If I'm after a waxed jacket to battle the storms, give me a Barbour or Belstaff any day of the week. Needing a new cashmere sweater? I won't settle for anything less than those made by the artisans of the remote Scottish highlands. Time for a new suit? I'm sorry but mine must be made by an Englishman.
It is these classic staples and hard-wearing essentials that have helped define British style over the years.
British style, if we must define it, has always contained an astonishing mix of traditions, both from humble and aristocratic origins. The play-off between both the blue bloods' and the working man's uniforms have resulted in a rich archive of now iconic men's wardrobe items that the British are renowned for producing: some such as the Burberry trench coat, or Barbour wax cotton jacket, borne of sheer practicality and others out of our love of dandyism and military pageantry.
Indeed, the British have always had a taste for mixing tailoring, tweed, tartan, waxed cotton and military uniforms all with a healthy dash of eccentricity when it comes to all things sartorial. It's a look which we have been admired for, and derided for, in seemingly equal measures by the rest of the world. We only have to look back to the fashion event of 2011, The Royal Wedding, which culminated in a groom wearing fully bespoke military dress uniform and his bride dressed by a British design house which had previously been written off as 'unwearable' and 'bizarre' by even the world of high-fashion's normally all-inclusive tastes, the house established by the late Alexander McQueen.
But. We are not here for a history lesson or a journey into the murky depths of the British national psyche. We're here to talk about how you can incorporate elements of British style into your wardrobe and make them work for you.
Firstly, do you know your ABCs?
I do, of course, refer to arguably the most important British brand set, brands that also serve as a testament to quality and durability. Aquascutum, Burberry and Clarks.
Aquascutum and Burberry - British trench coats
Both Aquascutum and Burberry have an involvement in the creation of the trench coat as we know it today, the garment's history dating right back to the 19th century. It was later worn by the heroes of the trenches in WW1 and WW2 and has been identified with masculine style ever since. All that this means to you as a gentleman of good taste today is that you need to invest in one of the two brands to complete your wardrobe. Interestingly, Aquascutum also produced their trench coats in Canada for the North American market for much of the 20th century - so this might just swing it for those patriots amongst you. We respect the trench coat, not only for its eminent practicality but because like the men it was originally designed for, it is indifferent to class, age or social standing and will suit any man today, no matter what his style. Wear it tailored with jeans and a crisp white shirt at the weekend or as the ultimate power-coat to match your powersuit for the office.
Today, Burberry Prorsum menswear is the runway brand so beloved of the fashion editors of GQ and Esquire.
This brand - so long seen as 'safe', and yes, some even said 'boring' (don't they always say that about anything dependable and trusty?) is having a well deserved renaissance in Britain today, in particular, its 'Desert Boot' so synonymous with the 60s and later the 'Mod' (reggae inspired) music movements in 1980s Britain. Wear yours today of a weekend for when you need a break from sneakers.
Now, let's go back to more waterproof jackets. Since it rains a lot here, waterproofing cotton is something we have perfected out of both necessity and sheer bloody-mindedness - no one wants to cancel a shoot after all for a little precipitation. (A 'shoot' is game hunting in the countryside for birds to eat)
The Art of Waxed Cotton - Belstaff and Barbour.
Both brands date back to late 19th and early 20th century England with Barbour specializing in producing waterproof garments for sailors and Belstaff jackets, coming later, creating specialist heavyweight waxed cotton garments specifically for motorcyclists. Today, you will struggle to find a gentleman in Britain who does not own a Barbour of some sort. Oh, and The Queen too. As for Belstaff, since an Italian company bought it out in the 1990s, the cuts have become leaner and more modern. This jacket is going to give you the instant cool that you always wanted (whether you can ride a motorbike or not - just pretend).
Shoes: Brogues, Oxfords and Monkstraps.
Northampton is a quiet and unassuming small town in the south of England. It is also the capital of the world's luxury shoe making industry. Every English shoe-name you may care to mention is based here: Tricker's, Grenson, John Lobb, Crockett & Jones, Alfred Sargent plus many, many more and all of them at least over 100 years old. Why are they all based in this small town? Quite simply because the town has centuries-old ties to cattle farming which in turn lead to local leather producers and this of course lead to shoe-making. The appreciation of this craftsmanship is resurgent in Britain today with young city dwellers bored of sports shoes wanting to sharpen up their look for an evening out now returning to these traditional brands, always worn with dark denim.
Savile Row and The Suit
There is too much to say about this famous institution of British style, based in the heart of London, save to say, it is unanimously accepted as the place that has perfected the art of the suit. This small street full of tailoring shops, tucked away in the quieter part of central London (and near the various Royal residences) represents tailoring - entirely bespoke, i.e. from scratch and designed to your specific body - at its absolute best. That's not to say handsome bespoke suits can only be made in this part of the world - not so. However, we respect Savile Row for its refusal to 'modernise' or bow to the whims of fashion. To take inspiration from this look is not as daunting as it may sound: speak to your local tailor and ask for the 'English cut': high on the armhole and slim on the waist of the jacket with a slight jacket flare below the waist. Trousers are also slightly higher on the waist than your typical Italian brands. Fabric choice? Ask them to import it from England (or Scotland if you are after a tweed), which still produces the best cloths in the world for suit-making all in the small towns of Yorkshire, northern England.
A final note on eccentricity.
It is often said that the British are fond of eccentricity. I won't deny it. This also spills over into the way we wear and appreciate clothes. We love a designer who plays with classics and admire those who shock us with their refusal to stick to 'the rules'. Name a British designer and you'll see it in their work: from Sir Paul Smith who puts naked ladies on the inside of his belts and shirt cuffs, to Dame Vivienne Westwood who turned up knicker-less to collect her Knighthood at Buckingham Palace, to the late Alexander McQueen who shocked even the open-minded fashion world with his outlandish and downright bizarre catwalk shows.
You don't need to go that far to spice up your wardrobe. And we hope that you have never worn knickers anyway. You can however easily incorporate a little of our famous eccentricity into your wardrobe to make yourself stand out - a pair of red socks with your navy business suit. A Paul Smith cufflink or belt. A Vivienne Westwood shirt.
If you're NOT British and your friends and family start to raise an eyebrow at your new dandy style, just explain your forefathers were eccentrics who came over from Britain.