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.
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.”
The company was diverse. Connie, a transgendered person, was there sporting scarlet lipstick and a fascinator with a spotted net veil. She told me that she and her party all worked in museums and galleries, where the kind of textiles they were wearing were objects labeled and locked up. This was an opportunity to enter the world they usually kept behind glass.
“Besides,” she said, “you know in the morning it’s usually just powder and a bit of lipstick. You don’t take the trouble. It’s good to have an excuse to make the effort.” I heard this sentiment from many people. Entering the past seems to give people a sense of having more time, or measuring time differently. Women who usually dress in sweaters and jeans find hours to don stockings and petticoats. Men who usually zip their trousers and zap their remotes enjoy the gallantry of buttoned blazers and a slow dance.
Of course, the Blitz wasn’t really like this. It was a time of fear and exhaustion. Henry Moore’s sketches of Underground stations at the time show anonymous bodies, huddled together like the chrysalises of caterpillars, waiting to emerge into the light. But 70 years on, World War II has become a period of imagined glamor.
Every generation creates its own myth of yesteryear. The Victorians dressed up in medieval costume. The Teddy Boys of the 1950s were reviving Edwardian style. The past we visit is always a country of our own making, a holiday destination that reflects what it is about home we wish to escape. In London in the early 21st century, cloned chain stores, the hectic speed of modern life, the absence of community, leave people wanting yore. Luckily, with a wave of the mascara wand, a cloche, a dropped-waist gown, and a click of the heels on a pair of ruby slippers, you can easily transport yourself to a more congenial era.
The yen for then is very now.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.