Britain in the Nineties

(picture: Adrian Mole - The Capuccino Years)
Britain in the nineties

Hilary Clarke - February 15, 1998 (The Independent)

True, when the Government came to power Britain was in dire need of an image revamp. The stiff-upper-lip-cucumber-sandwiches image the country still has abroad is about as far from reality as Britain as a colonial power. The Government's mistake was that it embraced too hastily a culture and creativity that it was as far removed from as the last Tory government. Tony Blair and his consorts might be intellectually brilliant, but they are not, and never were streetwise. Blair might have played in a rock band but that was at Oxford University - not as a means of escaping the dreariness of unemployment in a cramped council flat. By consciously re- branding Britain, New Labour appeared to be indirectly taking the credit for something it had nothing to do with.

If any politicians can respectably claim some credit for Cool Britannia - and multi-cultural Britain does have a lot more going for it at the moment than the other industrialised countries - then it should be two of Blair's ideological adversaries: Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone. Thatcher, because the austerity her economic policies created provided a fountain of invention inspiring film makers like Mike Leigh and pop groups like UB40. She also created the economic conditions for the rise of the yuppie, now the patrons of trendy Conran restaurants and Islington cafes that have so changed the cultural landscape of London. Even more credit should probably go to Livingstone. As former leader of the Greater London Council he did much to break down the racism and homophobia that threatened to stifle any cultural upsurge. By investing in such activities as jazz and drama teaching in London schools and youth centres, he also had a small hand in the rise of a host of creative talent from saxophonist Courtney Pine to the younger stars of East Enders.

In any case, even if the Eighties had taken a different course, street culture and youth rebellion have been a natural resource of this country since the early Sixties.

Date: June 27, 2011 01:11AM
I think fashion and especially Calvin Klein were exploring androgenous issues and when unisex accessories were being cool. Also the waif type of figure as a backlash to the women amazonian looks from the eighties and the bodybuilders. The nineties also coincided with the arrival of male cosmetics, as Davidoff and Brut went a bit down the pan, and the ostentatious style as presented by Versace gave way to a simpler, decluttered but very expensive style. Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley looked dated. And neon colours and awful fabrics by and by gave way to black cotton, jeans , slogan T-shirts- Katherine Hamnet and these kind of people.

The high-street followed and by the end of the decade, people realised that some of the cheap clothing was being imported from countries that produce in sweatshops.

In that sense, Suede fitted very well into the new found minimalism in fashion Gucci, Prada - however at a later date - because in their early days, like many struggling musicians they had to buy cheap clothes or in charity shops. On the continent, the concept of clothes from charity shops is a bit alien, although they tend to have furniture swap schemes.

The nineties also coincided with shabby chic nowadays known as up-cycling. Where you basically pay a fortune for something that is made to look tatty, provided a designer made it. 'Vintage fashion' is the upmarket version of second hand clothing. etc etc.

The answer to your question, a band  can certainly be credited for influencing music tastes, but I am not so certain about a band's direct influence on clothing and social attitudes. Because designers look around them, and songwriters look around them, then there is a mutual influence.

I also remember in the nineties the craze about 'A Year in the Provence' and lots of caffs being replaced by capuccinos, (cf --> http://www.vgpolitics.f9.co.uk/1215.htm) margarine being enriched with olive oil for a taste of the mediterranean and British chefs going all gastronomical on us. England at least was changing rapidly in the nineties - had this to do with prosperity, easy credit, TV getting more channels - I can't be certain but in 1996, the English at least remembered that it was thirty years since the world cup, channelled the Jean Shrimpton look and anything sixties, so sixties revival bands did well out of it.

Parallel to this there was a culture that exaggerated general oafishness, with young men behaving like teenagers, and students behaving like eejits and slumming it, and in the name of equality you had the women boozing with the men but that has to do with the new opening hours in supermarkets and pubs. Lads and Ladettes went on the lash, and so did some BBC radio1 presenters and one presenter who is currently on radio2 in the mornings.

Dreaming of world cup successes from three decades ago, there were massive expectations on various football teams, and perhaps also some regional identification by people who felt a bit parochial.

Once you start looking at Britain in the nineties - you get the impression that whilst Britain was changing, it wasn't that very 'Cool Britannia' but at least, no recession, and no troops in Iraq, Afghanistan etc...

Date: June 27, 2011 02:06AM

Last but not least, the poetic and luvvie route. In rough areas, some young men and boys get beaten up at school for admitting to like poetry and the arts, because it's regarded as lah-di-dah. However, this kind of attitude is influenced by 1) anti-intellectualism because the swot at school is not the most popular pupil. And 2) by the fact that refinement of any kind means that you are getting ideas beyond your own station because the high arts are made by people up there.

In a society that is very class-based - and no doubt, the UK is still a very class-orientated society.

If you live with peers who regard a good salary as the way up, then fuddy duddys who can quote Shakespeare and Keats may seem outlandish. Hence the bookish type being mercilessly derided, or even worse, being suspected of being some kind of pervert. But if fuddy-duddy comes from the upper-class then, like Peter and his friends this person is marked to be a prodigy poet, an eloquent novelist or perhaps a classical violonist. If you are effeminate and live in a Alan Hollinghurst novel, then you are sensitive, cultured etc. If your universe is 'Life is Sweet', then you are seen as a weirdo. You get the impression that it was difficult to be upwardly mobile through education in Nineties Britain.

Yet we cannot help but think that this situation is likely to repeat itself because of the recent tuition reforms. Those and peer pressure will discourage many disadvantaged pupils to pursue a study in arts, and yet again, artists from disadvantaged classes will emerge from counter-culture, the self-teaching route - the latter is perhaps helped by the internet. Back in the nineties, it was in its infancy, only accessible via the internet cafes on a pay-per-minute basis.

Peter's Friends directed by Kenneth Brannagh

Life is Sweet directed by Mike Leigh