British television has long held a mirror to society, reflecting the evolution of our culture, traditions, and – importantly for the style-conscious among us – fashion. Since the first flicker of black and white broadcast graced our living rooms, TV has been instrumental in shaping and influencing fashion trends. Let's dive into the iconic world of British television and its significant influence on vintage fashion.
Golden Age Beginnings
When the 1950s and 60s dawned, British television experienced a renaissance of sorts. The Avengers was not just a spy show but a fashion statement in itself. Emma Peel, with her iconic leather catsuits, mini dresses, and knee-high boots, became the embodiment of mod fashion, symbolising the power and autonomy of women in a decade of change.
Top of the Pops: Setting the Stage and the Style
The early years of Top of the Pops saw bands like The Beatles, clad in their modish, matching suits, introduce a wave of Beatlemania not just musically but stylistically. They were quickly followed by the flamboyant stylings of glam rockers like T. Rex and David Bowie, whose eye-catching ensembles – think shimmering jumpsuits, sequins, and dramatic makeup – brought theatricality to mainstream fashion.
As the 1970s rolled on, punk made its defiant mark. The Sex Pistols, with their torn shirts, leather jackets adorned with pins and patches, and daring hairdos, epitomised the rebellious spirit of a generation, and Top of the Pops was there to broadcast this revolution into homes across the UK.
The 1980s were a colourful explosion of diverse styles. The show gave a platform to bands like Culture Club, with Boy George's eclectic mix of reggae hats, braided hair, and androgynous makeup. Acts like Duran Duran and Wham! showcased the 'New Romantic' style – frilly shirts, tailored suits, and larger-than-life hairstyles.
Ending in 2006, Top of the Pops left behind a legacy of not just musical memories but also a visual diary of the ever-changing British fashion landscape. It was a show where sound met style, where artists could make as much of a statement with their outfits as they did with their voices, proving that fashion, like music, is an ever-evolving form of self-expression.
Decades of Drama: Soaps and Serials
Coronation Street, the world's longest-running TV soap, began its journey in the 1960s. Early episodes depicted characters like Elsie Tanner and Annie Walker in typical post-war attire, such as knee-length dresses and pearls. However, as the decades progressed, the cobbles of Weatherfield witnessed evolving styles. Bet Lynch, with her penchant for leopard print and large hoop earrings, epitomised the boldness of the 70s and 80s, making a statement both in character and fashion.
EastEnders brought the gritty realism of London's East End to our screens in the mid-80s. Its characters symbolised urban life, with attire ranging from market trader chic to pub landlord glamour. Pat Butcher became an unintentional style icon with her statement earrings — each pair louder and more colourful than the last — reflecting the audacious spirit of the 80s and 90s.
Down in the Liverpool-based Brookside, we saw a slightly different fashion narrative. Characters dressed in more casual, everyday attire, but still reflected the prevalent styles of the era. From shell suits in the late 80s to the minimalist, grunge-inspired looks of the 90s, Brookside was a barometer for Merseyside fashion.
Crime, Mystery, and Intrigue: Styling Detectives and Villains
British crime dramas have long been a staple of television, gripping viewers with tales of mystery, deceit, and raw human emotion. What’s often overlooked, however, is how these shows serve as reflections of the era's fashion, giving us detectives and criminals dressed in a way that tells a story beyond the script.
One of the most iconic figures in crime television has to be Inspector Morse. Set in the idyllic yet deceptive landscapes of Oxford, Morse was often seen in a sharp suit with his trademark Jaguar car, resonating with a professional, methodical approach to his detective work. His attire, though conservative, had an aura of intelligence and sophistication, making him instantly recognisable and setting the bar for TV detectives that followed.
The 1980s brought forth Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's shrewd detective. As portrayed by Joan Hickson, Marple was the epitome of an elderly English woman with her pastel cardigans, floral dresses, and delicate hats. But it was this unassuming appearance that often allowed her to solve crimes unnoticed, proving that style can be as much a weapon as it is a reflection of personality.
And we can't discuss crime drama fashion without nodding to the stylish villains. Shows like The Sweeney in the 70s painted London's underworld with leather jackets, turtlenecks, and sleek sunglasses, crafting an image of the cool criminal that was as enviable as it was intimidating.
In essence, British crime dramas haven't just given us compelling stories. They've showcased a rich tapestry of styles, from the understated to the extravagant, that reflects the complexities and nuances of the characters who wear them.
Vintage Britcoms: Laughing in Style
The long-standing series Only Fools and Horses brought the hustle and bustle of Peckham to our screens. Del Boy's mix of camel hair coats, turtleneck sweaters, and the occasional trilby showcased a man trying to fit into the Thatcher era's entrepreneurial spirit. Rodney's more casual attire, usually a jacket layered over a jumper, reflected the everyday young man of the time.
Absolutely Fabulous, although beginning in the early 1990s, was a satirical take on the fashion industry and featured fashions from many different eras. Edina and Patsy were over-the-top, champagne-drinking fashionistas, draped in designer outfits, oversized sunglasses, and often ludicrous accessories. Their exaggerated take on the fashion world highlighted the extremes of the industry, while also pointing out the absurdity of certain trends.
In contrast, Keeping Up Appearances presented a comical look at the British middle class's efforts to appear sophisticated. Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced 'Bouquet') was always dressed to the nines, often in pastel skirt suits and matching hats, attempting to ooze a sophistication that her surroundings often belied.
These sitcoms, while primarily centred on humour, unwittingly became fashion time capsules. Their characters, dressed in the styles of their respective eras, offer a nostalgic look back at British fashion trends, providing inspiration and a few laughs along the way.
Historical Romances and Period Dramas
There's no denying the impact of British historical dramas on fashion. These shows not only reignite our passion for bygone eras but also introduce new generations to the elegance and charm of past decades. Poldark, set against the raw beauty of Cornwall, showcased the rugged yet refined fashions of the 18th-century Georgian era. From tricorn hats to flowing gowns, the attention to detail in costume design captured viewers' imaginations.
Pride and Prejudice, with its various adaptations over the years, has had a lasting influence. The iconic 1995 BBC version saw Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy and Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet bring the Regency era to life. Empire waist gowns, bonnets, and tailored coats became emblematic of this era and remain sought after by vintage enthusiasts today.
And no discussion of period dramas would be complete without Downton Abbey. The show meticulously charted the progression of fashion from the late Edwardian era through the Roaring Twenties. Each character's evolution was reflected in their wardrobe, from Lady Mary's transition from post-Edwardian gowns to chic flapper dresses, to Lady Edith's bohemian flair. The series created a resurgence of interest in vintage styles, with fans seeking out intricate beaded headpieces, drop-waist dresses, and elegant accessories reminiscent of the era.
The cyclical nature of fashion means that styles from decades past always find their way back, and British TV, with its broad historical and cultural span, provides a wealth of inspiration. Whether you’re a lover of the posh 1920s dresses or the gritty punk style, there's a British show that's influenced that look.
In the dance between television and fashion, one thing is clear: vintage is not just a style. It's a story, a history, and an emotion. And as we tune into our favourite shows, we're not just watching; we're journeying through the annals of fashion, one episode at a time.
So next time you slip into that vintage piece, remember you're wearing a piece of history, possibly inspired by a scene, a character, or a moment from the rich world of British TV.
Until next time
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