How London learned to dress

The Horniman museum traces style in the capital.

London is a leading fashion capital with arguably the most diverse and eclectic sense of style of any city in the world. The Horniman museum’s new major exhibition, The Body Adorned, explores how this sense of freedom and individuality was born.

The display includes a vast array of striking objects from the Horniman’s archives. It opens with a Papua New Guinean “Ancestor” figure from the 19th century draped in jewellery and flowing grass skirts. The grinning statue sits alongside the figure of Guanyin, a deity of compassion whose lengthened ear lobes and top knot would not look out of place on a Brick Lane art student.  In this, the first section of the exhibition, a wide range of African, Chinese and European folk costumes are featured exploring the relationship between the wearer and the messages they convey through their dress. These costumes often reflecting social status, gender, warfare, religion, marriage and death, many ideas that are important driving forces behind the way we choose to dress today.

As the exhibition progresses, we get a sense of how, through the mass movement of people caused by Britain’s colonial expansion and scientific exploration, new objects and ideas and cultural adornments have become integrated into urban trends.  Indeed, today, saris, nail bars, tattoo parlours, distended ears and a range of "body mods" have become an everyday part of the London metropolis.

Turning to the present day, interviews with Londoner’s about their relationship with their clothing and the city play out. “Everything is accepted in London,” one woman muses. Another agrees, “I like London, it makes you feel free”. There is an inescapable sense of pride in the way people talk about their dress, “we don’t have money but we still want to look nice,” says a teenager, a thick gold chain round his neck. However, these interviews also betray the way in which the city creates a certain sense of anxiety within its habitants, “I’m not part of what’s going on in the buildings,” says an old woman, “but I can’t go round the city looking scruffy”. There is an illuminating quote from a homeless man wherein he describes “wearing what he can get his hands on”. Tellingly, one man says of another, “he looks like a lay-about”, reflecting the inescapable judgments made on the basis of appearance.

By the end of the exhibition, the viewer has been offered an overview of a range of cultural ideas and practices of dress that have formed the way in which Londoners dress their bodies. Yet, there are some striking omissions. The Body Adorned entirely ignores the influence of the British fashion industry, popular culture and English heritage. There is no mention of the British high-street or the influence of celebrities, who have an undeniably far-reaching effect on the clothing choices of young Londoners. Moreover, the more interesting aspects of the exhibition are skimmed over; the relationship between contemporary fashion and religion, the power of advertising, the lure of brand names.

Given that the exhibition opened not long after the London riots, which saw hundreds of young people looting trainers from sports shops, it would, perhaps, have been interesting to reflect on the economic gap between London’s richest and poorest inhabitants. The riots told us much about those who aspire to a certain social status, which often centres on clothes appearance but which will, for the majority, remain out of their reach.

The Body Adorned is on display until 6 January 2013.

Photo: Urban Portraits Horniman Museum
DON HOOPER/ALAMY
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage