Style Tribes: Why Do Londoners Always 'Dress Down'?
The Debrief: 'Casual' defines the average Londoners uniform, but why are we so opposed to dressing up?
I'm not a born and bred Londoner. Sure I have the crappy flat, dark eye circles and tube rage – the holy trinity of what it is to be a Londoner – but they're new additions. I came to London via Bristol and Nottingham and apart from the usual (hoardes of people, all the burgers and the insane social life) the one thing I noticed was how people dress. Specifically, how much they dress down.
Never ever would I wear the high heels and body-con dresses that dominated much of my university years. Instead, jeans, trainers and a bomber jacket is my daily uniform, along with basically the rest of London. Because London may be one of the fashion capitals of the world, but it’s also the dress down capital of the UK.
'Dressing down' to 'dress up'
I blame it on the culture of a London night out although 'blame' makes it sounds negative – I love the casual attire. Going out straight after work is the done-thing: no one has the time to schlep home to get ready for drinks and because a lot of people work surrounded by bars and restaurants, a spontaneous night is nearly always a possibility. This means it's necessary to look night-time ready even at 9am so rather than everyone rocking up to the office in an LBD, jeans and trainers are OK-things to wear out. Needs must, afterall. There’s a mutual understanding that you’ve just come from an eight-hour work day and if Mr Club Owner started turning the trainer-wearers away for not looking flash enough, they’d have zero customers.
This straight-from-work routine changes the entire path of a night-out: you're probably going to bar hop and who knows what the weather is going to be doing. People mock the 'no-coat’ stereotype of the North, but considering the actual differences in when and where people go out, it makes sense. When I was at university in Nottingham high heels were oblig but the nature of my night out lent itself to this: I’d get in a taxi at my house, be dropped off outside the club, and walk in. A clear A to B meant rarely any wandering around so the fear of having to walk far in a pair of platforms didn’t exist. By the same token, a coat was never necessary: why waste precious pounds, and time, on a cloakroom when you could just forgo the coat? In London, your night takes on a more nomadic style so practicality is a consideration. i.e. a coat and resonable shoes. Enter, the trainer.
Stomping the pavements, getting on/off tubes and buses means that practical footwear is key - no one wants to spend their day hobbling down an escalator in stilettos. Current trends are allowing for this adaptation of casual wear too in the growth of athleisure: in 2014 we spent £4.5 billion on active wear and JD Sports reported a record 80% profit increase.
Night outs in less densely populated areas lack the ad-hoc nature of London, so they tend to be more calculated, planned events so the dress code is bound to be different. Alice McColm, a stylist at River Island, has worked in Glasgow and London and has noticed a difference in the way nights out are approached. ‘In London the people who come to me usually want clothes for holiday or a wardrobe rework but in Glasgow, girls would make an appointment to find an outfit for a night out. What I really noticed is that people have more expendable income for going out – they can afford to go out more regularly. They’ve got more money. There’s a lot of members clubs and champagne bars and glitzy looking places,’ she went on. Dedicating a new dress to one night out seem crazy in London where a big chunk of most people's income goes on rent – instead, casual, everyday wear reigns supreme.
But it’s not just the trends on a night-out that are different. Billie Gianfrancesco, 26, is from Norwich but lives in London and notices the differences in fashion. ‘When you go into the city centre in Norwich the women walk around shopping malls in high heels - and you will be refused entry from most clubs if you aren't wearing heels. Living in London I can safely say I haven't worn a heel in about three years,’ she tells me. ‘I think it's because in Norwich every outing is seen as an “occasion”, it's likely that you'll bump into people you know and there's not much going on so going shopping is seen as an outing to dress up for.’
Evolution has a lot to answer for
It’s no surprise that people in certain areas dress a certain way – we’re all influenced by external factors and what’s around us will determine what we wear. ‘The brain is naturally attracted to things that we’re more exposed to in certain environments,’ Kate Nightingale, psychologist and founder of Style Psychology, explained. ‘Differences in the nature, architecture, the type of art and culture, differences in the lifestyle and the things people do for leisure and entertainment, and so on – things that they’re exposed to everyday will be slightly different in every region.’ To fit into our environment is a natural, basic instinct that we can thank evolution for because fitting in equals survival, so there will always be differences in how people dress.
Standing out from the crowd, not being one of ‘the pack’ would have spelled disaster for our ancestors and this is something we still haven’t shaken off. ‘The more you fit into the environment the less you are visible to a predator and the more you fit in with the people around you, the more protection you have,’ Kate told me. There’s a social side to this as well. ‘Of course we don’t really need that physically to survive anymore but that transfers to psychological well-being so surviving an attack from someone that isn’t friendly or our own thoughts that we’re not liked or we are rejected.’ Which explains the concept of 'style tribes' – people will naturally start to dress the same or similar in order to promote acceptance.
A new study supports this, but has identified a slight catch: that our need want to ‘fit in’ depends on exactly the kind of crowd is around us. Investigating thousands of shoe purchases made by women who move to different cities, they found that women adopt the local trends when moving to wealthier cities but ignore them when moving to lower socioeconomic cities, showing that there’s even more factors at play here. They put this down to ‘the deep human urge for status’ meaning that buying the shoes with the same heel height as those they perceive to have a higher status than them, is going to put them on equal footing (if you'll excuse the pun).
Another study also demonstrated our need to blend in, finding that people who are more aware of what others think of them are more likely to avoid big labels and brands, even if it’s from a prestigious brand and would pick a less prestigious brand if the logo was smaller. Suggesting that social acceptance is more important than social status and that opting for clothing that is less conspicuous has a lower risk of social alienation.
Differences don’t even need to be as vast as from city to city – there’s marked differences in the areas of London and retailers are aware of this and tailor their stock accordingly. ‘A H&M in Knightsbridge and a H&M in Oxford Circus would have a hugely different range and you even have a slightly different visual merchandising strategy,’ Kate explained. ‘They want to earn more money so they’re going to provide what that area actually requires so more people buy, it’s very simple.’
London is hugely multicultural and diverse, and the sheer size allows for bigger differences in dressing. Taking it back to the evolutionary theory: it’s harder to stand out in London because there are so many different trends already, so there’s less risk. ‘Londoners are more daring with their outfits and experimenting with new trends and there's much more diversity. I'd feel way more comfortable wearing trend-inspired outfits there than I would in Northern Ireland for example!’ Sara, 20, who's from Northern Ireland but goes to university in Newcastle, tells me.
There will always be regional dress codes: the areas people live in differ, the people are different and we’ll always be influenced by numerous factors. There will of course always be wider trends that take hold and trickle into every area, but they’ll manifest themselves in different ways. Lucky for me, I have a casual-bordering-on-scruffy look, but that’s because I’m a product of London – drop me in Newcastle and I’m sure I’ll be dressing up with the rest of them. But there's something quite fun and exciting about visiting another city and dipping into those styles. It would be boring if everyone looked the same, don’t you think?
Street Style photos: Jason Lloyd-Evans
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