This old thing: On fashion lost in translation

White Noise, 2018.

The most unexpected things can be reinvented and with that, they take on new meanings. Young men are smoking pipes, young women are dyeing their hair grey, everyone is wearing Adidas Originals and eating tuck shop sweets. A trend can act as a powerful signal of belonging, or, for someone who’s been around long enough to have seen it come and go once before, a chuckle – kids, right. 

But sometimes a trend can be so subtle that it doesn’t register to people outside the group. Cropped flares may be cool among younger people, but for older people it looks like you’re preparing for a flood. Sometimes, an item of clothing can be reinvented to mean something very specific on one side of town, but when you move across to the other side, that new meaning fails to translate. When this happens, you may find yourself flying a flag you never intended. 

When I bought my Barbour coat I was living in East London, where it had become popular in that ironic sense that brings back unassuming staples and makes them inexplicably cool. We may never know exactly why the Barbour has become the darling of a certain kind of urban creative – hipster if you’re nasty – although it probably started with someone picking up a battered coat from a relative’s closet thinking, “This old thing, yes, it’s perfect.” 

I’ve worn my waxed Barbour a lot, as it’s brilliant: hard-wearing and weatherproof without being too heavy. It’s a bit retro, still being made in Britain (South Shields since 1894) as a nod to something wholesome. It’s unassuming and fades into the background – it goes with everything and no one looks at it twice.  

But then I moved to West London and here, my Barbour represents something very different. I knew that Barbour was a heritage brand that had a life of its own outside of East London, but I hadn’t quite realised how jarring it would to stand on a street in West London and find that suddenly, I was the only young person wearing one. Now, the people around me wearing my coat weren’t others like myself, dragging a MacBook around Shoreditch, but older people sporting a distinctly more established vibe. For them, the jacket is not an ironic nod to something old school, but just a classic look. Here, supporting British manufacturing isn’t primarily a feel-good factor about ensuring workers’ rights and minimal air miles, but very much an act of patriotism. In West London, there’s nothing nostalgic about the Barbour – because it’s never gone out of style. 

East London is dirty, gritty, arty and up-and-coming, a YouGov survey found when asking Londoners to describe the different parts of town. West London is posh, pretentious, cultured and family-friendly, concluded the survey. But of course, these areas are never just one thing: just as many people said West London was dull as who said it was pretty. 

My slice of West London is certainly very pretty, and also, very dull indeed. I moved to West London just over a year ago, after almost a decade in East London and a sworn promise to myself that I wouldn’t leave again for love nor money. In end end, I did it for both. It’s taken me a long time to get to know this area, in part because I miss my part of town – it’s surprisingly possible to be homesick for your city while you still live in it. 

In West London, my Barbour coat is a sign of consistency, resilience and security, which is presumably what its wearers feel when they hang that coat in a hallway they own. I’m generalising here, but most people I know in East London rent in an increasingly precarious housing market – maybe that’s why people there were so drawn to this old coat? We may never have a mortgage, but we can have this sturdy jacket that’s going to last a lifetime.

Clothing tends to turn conservative in uncertain times – fashion history confirms that we return to the tried and tested when we don’t know what’s happening in the world. But the strength with which the millennial generation has embraced nostalgia is unprecedented, swooning over the things they loved in the 80s and 90s. Nostalgia can be a double-edged sword, as it can be a resignation – our best days are behind us. But it can also be a positive emotion: it’s a reminder that things were good once, and that means they can be good again. 

But if you like to pick up a packet of Frazzles or Monster Munch because it reminds you of car rides with your grandpa, others may associate retro crisps with anxiously waiting around for their parents to come home from work. Whatever our associations are, we bring those with us when we look at others. When Style Compare quizzed 2,000 Britons, one fifth were found guilty of making assumptions about people’s politics based on what they’re wearing – even more so in the cities. Jeans, checked shirts and trainers suggested you might be a Labour supporter, while tweed, deck shoes and coloured chinos pegged you as a Tory. 

“Tribalism increases during times of political strife, and people use clothes to strengthen their allegiances,” says Sir Cary Cooper, a leading expert on organisational psychology who contributed to the study. Cooper points out how the alt-right movement in the US created a brand new association for the polo shirt, which previously was a pretty neutral garment. “Context is important here. A red baseball cap on an American college campus means something different to a red baseball cap at a baseball game or on a farm.”

In East London, the Barbour is a liberal symbol. But in the study, as in West London and presumably Britain as a whole, Barbour coats were read as a signal of conservatism. I thought about this the other day when I sat in a West London café reading The Guardian next to an older gentleman reading The Daily Telegraph. He was wearing a tweed flat cap and I was in jeans and trainers, but our coats were identical. He nodded at me as he left. Who knows what he made of it – I’m sure I’ve thought a lot about this a lot more than he ever will, as I’m the one who’s new here and trying to find a way to make West London my own. It’s getting better: I’ve started running into the same people in the pubs here too, and the parks are exceptional. Like every other corner of London, this part has its own unique charm too. And while the motivations may differ, East and West London do have in common a shared love for a really great jacket. 

Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.