LONDON–Eat My Handbag, Bitch! is the name of a vintage clothing shop in London’s newly trendified East End. English cheekiness of this genre would normally convulse me with mirth, but I find I am strangely unamused. I have only been here for three days, but I have already OD’d on the relentlessly slaggy hipness that has infected the culture of my homeland.
The Spice-skag look–i.e., nipple-defining halters, pierced extremities, boob-tubes, bare midriffs and crotch-mangling, stretchy, boot-cut pants worn over tarty, strappy spikes or platforms–is as ubiquitous in London as it is in New York. And it’s tired.
Now the good news: I am totally convinced that we are on the brink of a much-needed sartorial conservative backlash. English lads and lasses, regardless of their class, have been dressing like strippers and faking regional, proletariat accents for long enough. My prediction: a whole new craze for dressing and acting like a “toff” (a toffee-nosed git, i.e., upper-class person), and a renewed interest in the often-derided world of frumpy English sportswear.
Dowdy aristocrats and Sloane Rangers are looking fresh again. The Queen and Camilla Parker-Bowles, with their tweeds and manure-spattered rubbers, are in serious danger of becoming fashion outlaws and leaders.
The all-pervading tartiness of recent years has not only worn thin but no longer achieves its primary goal, i.e., to look sexy. At this point, a beautifully proportioned, chunky Arran sweater and a featureless, well-cut Donegal tweed skirt (think Julie Christie in Darling ) has far more erotic potential. Conservative dressing never precluded hanky-panky, as anyone who has read the transcription of the Charles-Camilla tampon repartee can attest.
Prince Charles seemed to find Camilla Parker-Bowles’ frumpiness far more arousing than Diana’s Euroglamour. The generous folds of Camilla’s anoraks, head scarves and twinsets, so reminiscent of those worn by QE2, clearly provided him with salacious solace. Camilla’s knitted stockings and wingtips, to this day, are the crotchless panties of Charles’ sexual imagination. Any fool can see that.
Sordid hanky-panky aside, English clothes are about the only thing unique to London–otherwise the shops sell the same old crap that you can buy in New York.
Where to buy that classic drag:
Start by trying on a Cromwell trench at the original Burberry (18-22 Haymarket). It’s a slimmed-down version of the classic raincoat, higher belt loops, very late 60’s (very Julie Christie again, but this time it’s Don’t Look Now ). Wear it with a bias tweed skirt and fitted chocolate high-heeled knee boots. Dab on the new Burberry Touch fragrance (the men’s is better than the women’s).
Walk up to Trumper (20 Jermyn Street), leading purveyor of gentleman’s accoutrements. Here I observed a distinguished geezer very matter-of-factly dropping off some nasty old toothbrushes to get them “rebristled.”
Skip west to Turnbull & Asser (71-72 Jermyn Street): custom shirts in fabulously farty stripes and checks of your own selection (about $180).
Cross Piccadilly (watch out for the bus lane), walk through the Burlington Arcade to Savile Row, head straight for Hardy Amies at number 14, fall to your knees in a worshipful posture and start licking the front step in an adulatory fashion. For half a century, Sir Hardy, now in his 90’s, devoted himself to the creation of the Queen’s iconic look. La Maison Amies will knock together a classic tweed suit–they recommend tweeds that reflect the color and texture of the countryside–for about $4,500.
Anderson & Sheppard, across the street, will make you a custom suit for half that price, but my personal recommendation involves a half-hour cab ride to Timothy Everest (32 Elder Street, 171-377-5770) in Spitalfields. Savile Row alumni Timothy has a highly developed sense of the essential grooviness of conservative clothing, and he therefore makes the best suits in London. Timothy recommends a suit in a large black-and-white herringbone (think Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter ). He also reminds us that brushing a tweed suit, as opposed to relentlessly dry-cleaning it, will make it softer. Call for an appointment.
When shopping Portobello Road, drop into the Paul Smith townhouse (122 Kensington Park Road) and ascend immediately to the bespoke atelier–which just happens to look directly into pop star Robbie Williams’ apartment–and ask for Christopher Tarling. Christopher and the team can make you a classic navy mohair worsted suit with a really fancy silk lining in hunting pink for a mere $1,800, approximately.
Girls on a budget: Scotch House (2 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge) will sell you tartan kilted skirts for $150, and just around the corner you can pick up well-priced pleated skirts and V-neck Shetland sweaters at the Harrods school uniform shop (on the fourth floor of Harrods).
English clothes can be sensational, but you do run the risk of looking like C.P. Bowles unless you’ve got du chien .
No, I’m not suggesting you buy yourself a corgy. Du chien is an elusive feminine quality, hard to define, but Judith Krantz, in her sensational novel Scruples , takes a good shot at it.
“When a woman has du chien she has something that is not chic nor elegance nor even glamour,” she writes. “Chien is spicy, tart, amusing, pungent, tempting.” But not tarty. “Catherine Deneuve has glamour, but Cher has chien”–or she did in 1978 when this must-read blockbuster exploded off the bookshelves.
Think of yourself as a 1960’s French au pair who lost her suitcase on the way over to Angleterre: You cannot help but bring your innate chien to the selection of a classic, sensible new wardrobe. You wear slightly more Charlotte Ramplingesque liquid eyeliner than the other girls in your pony club. Try Anna Sui liquid eyeliner ($16 at Sephora).
London boasts buttloads of new hotels, all with hideously high room rates: Ian Schrager’s the Sanderson (011-44-207-300-1400), the Saint Martins Lane (011-44-207-300-5000) and my hotel Bloomsbury (011 441 71 667 6000).
I stayed at the entertainingly over-designed Great Eastern (011-44-20-76-185-000) on Liverpool Street. This Conran-fest is within walking distance of Eat My Handbag, Bitch!, Timothy Everest and the home of Gilbert and George.
If you want something more farty-anglais, The Dukes Hotel on Saint James Place (011-44-171-491-4840) always delivers.
Time was you could vacation in England and even if the weather sucked you could still have a ball. All you had to do was barricade yourself in your hotel room and watch the telly, such was the magnificence and creativity of the programming.
Now there are only two shows worth watching: Da Ali G Show , a sketch show with a bit of Tom Green and a lot of Stuttering John thrown in, and Father Ted , a hilariously grotesque parody of priesthood. The rest is a load of cobblers. The intelligently frumpy element of British TV has been eroded by stupid shows with unspontaneous, ribald unhumor. The last vestiges of that nifty BBC sensibility are only to be found on the radio.
Therefore, take a car trip to Brighton for the day and listen to Radio 4 all the way. The back-to-back riveting discussion programs, radio plays and witty repartee render conversation unnecessary and make you loath to disembark on reaching your destination.
Take a quick twirl round the fabulous 18th- century Brighton Royal Pavilion–the decadent chinoise folly of the former Prince Regent. Eat lunch at Wheelers fish restaurant (16-17 Market Street), then take a quick bracing hike to the end of the pier–don’t bother with the roller coaster, the trampolines are much more fun. Bounce until nauseated, then drive back to London with Radio 4 blaring all the way.
The best thing about being back in England was hearing the C-word thrown around with jolly Joycean abandon. “C–-” is so commonly used in the U.K. as to make it comparable to such innocuous American expressions as “dipshit” or “dickwad.”
When I emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970’s, my expletives were often met with astonished faces. It took me several years of living here to moderate the C-word out of my vocabulary, and I must confess to missing it terribly. Like every other normal English person, I most often used it to refer to myself, usually when I had done something silly or forgetful: e.g., “What a silly c–- I am, I left my umbrella in a taxi!”
I wasn’t trying to be vile. Like many happy well-adjusted U.K. youngsters, I grew up on “c–-.” Walking to school as a child one often heard truck drivers and construction workers happily calling each other “fucking c–-s.” Male-to-male working-class use of the C-word is the most common, and was brilliantly parodied on a record called Derek and Clive by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in a skit called “This Bloke Came Up to Me” (though unofficially known as “You Calling Me a Fucking C–-, You Fucking C–-?”).
But it’s important to understand that use of the C-word was not class-specific. Mrs. Crowther, my middle-class high school English teacher, missed no opportunity to highlight the c–-s and the shits and the farts which make Chaucer such a pleasure.
On this trip, I popped into a pub to use the bathroom and overheard a stand-up comedian saying, “Oh, the owner of this pub is a wonderful man–he’s an Irish count, you know. Or at least I think that’s what they called him.”