Puttin’ on the Blitz
The Bright Young Things dress up for the Good Old Days.
Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By SARA LODGE
The Chap has a political side. The magazine has organized various protests against aspects of the modern world. When a contemporary sculpture by Rachel Whiteread was exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum—normally reserved for older artworks—a group of chaps, dressed in vintage clothing, mounted the offending installation and sat calmly at the apex, smoking their pipes, until they were ejected by security guards. On another occasion, chaps in vintage dress walked down Oxford Street entering chain outlets like McDonald’s and Starbucks and demanding deviled kidneys and Darjeeling tea. Chaps, it seems, object to the monotony of modernity, its tendency to spawn global companies that supply identical products. A return to the past, then, is an assertion of individualism in the face of corporate sameness.
Elsewhere in London, retrochic is providing large-scale business opportunities. The Blitz Party is a ticketed event regularly attended by over 800 partygoers. Reliving the spirit of London during wartime bombing by the Germans, they dress in 1940s costume and gather in an enormous bomb shelter in the East End to dance to swing bands, drink Gin Fizz, and eat Scotch eggs and doorstep sandwiches.
I was determined, before attending the Blitz Party, to retrofit my appearance. So I visited one of several hairdressers now specializing in vintage styles. Miss Betty, whose salon, Hell’s a Poppin, is off Carnaby Street, came from France a couple of years ago to supply Londoners with everything from beehives to Betty Boop bobs. The salon is a splendid den of red velvet and leather; 1940s and ’50s rockers and film stars adorn the walls. On the mirrored dressing table before me was a bedside lamp in the form of two stockinged legs kicking suggestively upwards, on one of which balanced a leopard-skin lampshade.
While you are waiting, you can read the tattoos on the staff. Miss Betty told me, as she wielded her tongs and rollers, that although many women come here for a party look, others choose to live in 1940s fashion all the time. The air was full of sculptural levels of hairspray. Any houseflies on the premises must be permanently arrested in midair. My own hairstyle, when I finally ventured outdoors, consisted of tight curls fixed around my neck by a latticework of 46 hair grips. I felt like a cross between Princess Leia and a pin cushion. Indeed, I bore a certain resemblance to the mother of Britain’s current queen: “You’d look good on a stamp,” my partner said doubtfully.
That evening, we stepped into the bomb shelter in Shoreditch to find it heaving with faux bomber pilots, army officers and WRENS, Land Girls and gaiety girls. There was even a stray member of the Luftwaffe, who had presumably been taken prisoner en route by the lady on his arm. The bar was bolstered with sandbags and forties advertisements for Corn Flakes, Oxo, and Blackcurrant Pastilles. A ration book menu offered Spitfire ale at £3½ and cocktails such as a Ginger Daisy for £6½. A band at the end of the hall played “In the Mood” and “Angel Eyes,” but the hall was so packed that there was little room to dance. Most people seemed to be chatting and enjoying the spectacle. There was a mini Blitz of competing camera flashes.
I asked one gentleman, in naval attire and carrying his gas mask in a brown paper package slung over one shoulder, what had brought him here. He told me that his 96-year-old grandfather had been a quality controller who checked the altimeters in Hurricane and Spitfire aeroplanes where they were assembled in Birmingham. At night he worked as a volunteer firewatcher.
“We don’t have that community spirit now,” he explained. “We all work hard, but you can’t imagine what it was like to emerge from a night shift, find the front of your building blocked by bomb rubble, and clear it away immediately so that the day shift could begin work. People didn’t put themselves first.”
I hadn’t imagined that people would be using the Blitz Party as a vehicle for remembering (and even honoring) the personal past, but I was surprised by how many people had begun the event by speaking to, or about, relatives who were involved in World War II. A twentysomething Australian girl told me that her grandmother had been a London firefighter during the war. She had friends from India and Britain who also had grandparents who were involved in the civilian war effort.
“There’s nothing that defines our generation,” she told me. “No big event. I mean, there’s 9/11, but that was different. World War II was the last time we were united by a common cause.”