If the past is another country, then it’s a land where many British people choose to spend the weekend.
It may not have the best food, but the clothes and the hairstyles are more glamorous; the dances are livelier; and flirting is conducted in a more heroic manner. Escaping to the 1920s, or the 1940s, or the ’50s, has never been more popular. And perhaps surprisingly, it is not primarily the older generation who thrill to the call of the Charleston, the Jitterbug, and the Lindy Hop. Young people in London are flocking to elaborate, ticketed events that require them to dress up in boaters and cravats, trilbies and ties, or Hawaiian shirts and blue suede shoes.
The Chap Olympiad, a daylong summer extravaganza in Bedford Square, is the strangest of these voyages into vintage fashion. Bedford Square is a private park surrounded by 18th-century townhouses but adjoining Tottenham Court Road, a street of cheap electronic goods and gadgets. The Chap Olympiad sets out to defy the tawdriness of the modern world by encouraging its participants to wear tweed, wax their mustaches, and polish their brogues—supposing, of course, that they are unfortunate enough not to have butlers to perform the last task for them.
When I arrived, Bedford Square was pervaded by the old-fashioned aroma of pipe tobacco: Never have I encountered more Old Shag in one place. The sun-dappled lawns were scattered with couples so impeccably turned out in a variety of vintage styles—hats, parasols, smoking jackets, seamed stockings—that they might have strayed from a film set. My own attempts at vintage dress were perfunctory, and I fear that not only the exquisite dandies sitting under the plane trees but even the dogs, one of whom was wearing a public-school tie, were looking at me as if I had let the side down.
The Chap is a niche magazine, founded 12 years ago and ostensibly aimed at “gentlemen,” like Bertie Wooster in the P. G. Wodehouse novels, who sport plus-fours and Argyle socks, and care much more about the importance of raising their hat to members of the fair sex than they do about computers, cars, and chain stores. Such men may now exist only in the well-thumbed pages of the British imagination, but the Chap Olympiad allows the nostalgic of both sexes to celebrate the sartorial pleasures of a more gentlemanly era (1910-40), to drink jugs of Pimms No. 1 Cocktail, and to waltz in the twilight as if hip-hop was just a pet rabbit and Britain still called a quarter of the globe her own.
What is intriguing, however, about the gathering is the degree of irony that infuses its rose-tinted romance with history. People take their appearance seriously. Yet the spirit of the day is one of licensed silliness. Many of the mustaches are obviously, riotously fake. And the “Olympiad” itself consists of a series of competitive events, presided over by a ringmaster in a red tailcoat and black top hat, that include the Hop, Skip, and Gin and Tonic, Umbrella Jousting, the Cadathon, and the Mustache Tug of War.
In the Hop, Skip, and Gin and Tonic, male and female chaps perform a hop, skip, and jump while holding a pint glass brimful of gin and tonic. They must attempt, in the course of their exertions, to spill not a single drop of their apéritif. Different chaps took different approaches to this tricky task. Some manfully sprang across the raised platform, while their cocktail sprayed the rapt audience with juniper-flavored droplets. Others successfully cheated. One got his “butler” to hop, skip, and jump, while his master held the drink safely out of harm’s way, raised it, and then downed it to admiring applause. In the jousting competition, chaps riding old-fashioned bicycles and carrying shields made of reinforced copies of the Daily Telegraph attempted to knock one another off their perches with a furled umbrella. In the Cadathon, each male competitor, pretending to be a cad, had to insult a woman in archaic, inventive terms: The woman would respond by giving his cheek a slap.
In each of these odd games, style was the mettle being tested. It was not a matter of what you did, but how you did it. Winning was beside the point. Indeed, to care much about winning would be to be deficient in style. You sense that, for the British, a large part of the attraction of the imaginary past is that it softens the edges of cutthroat modern life. It is a place where play, not prowess, is rewarded. Oddly, people can be themselves more freely when they are openly pretending to be what they are not than when they face the real-world pressure to perform roles they don’t control or enjoy.