Book Review: Luella’s Guide to English Style

It has been nearly six years since I moved to London from New York City, and despite close involvement the realms of fashion here in the UK, I still am bemused by many aspects of British style. I find myself wondering how layering of disparate garments became an English style trope, or why so many conservative-looking businessmen wear pink shirts and ties? Luella’s Guide to English Style helps to shed some light on these and other British style phenomena.

Luella Bartley with models at a runway presentation

Luella Bartley MBE, is a British fashion designer known for quirky and playfully youthful designs which have been favored by celebrities such as Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Zooey Deschanel. Luella was a pioneer of designer diffusion lines for Target, as mentioned by Monica in an article from back in 2008. Despite her line’s popularity and periods of commercial success, her eponymous label Luella, went out of business in 2009, presumably giving her the time and impetus to write this style guide.

Lily Allen in Luella, photo: The Indpendent, UK

The book itself is alluring; a small clothbound volume with gold type that is styled to look worn, like a much-loved vintage hardback novel. Attached to the tobacco brown shabby chic cover is a neon pink elastic bookstrap.
The contrast between the two materials is a clever design that alludes to the sort of British aesthetic irreverence that the book celebrates.  Despite the enticing design and exquisite printing and typography, I was slightly hesitant to buy this book. Would it be style over substance or an insightful and useful reference book on British style?

The book is organised a bit like an encyclopaedia, but its tone is a bit like a blog.  Chapters vary greatly in seriousness and length, from the rather imposing Seven Stages of Woman, to brief and witty essays on topics such as The British Bosom and the significance of pink in the British style lexicon.  Its most informative chapters are Tribes of Britannia, which profiles British style archetypes and subcultural fashions, and Typical English Garb, which helped me to better understand the heritage of the tea dress, bowler hat, and Wellington boots.  Luella also nominates a pantheon of British style icons, some predictable,(Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss) some lesser known off-shore (Vita Sackville West, Paula Yates). Luella adopts a reverent and diaristic tone in her tributes to her style heroes, and recounts some amusing personal anecdotes about the ones that are of her generation and circle.

The book is illustrated by Zoe Taylor and Daniel Laidler, both of whom adopt a decidedly naïve rendering technique that makes for drawings that look a lot like the portraits of celebrities copied from photographs you might have drawn in high school art class. In the later chapters, photographs depicting various style tribes and key garments accompany the drawings. The photos appear as the more authentic images in these sections, which takes away the lustre of the illustrations slightly, although they have a haunting sort of charm which makes you want to tear them out and pin them up in your locker.

Zoe Taylor's illustration of Mary Quant

Not surprisingly, the book concludes with a shopping guide. Luella’s has a particularly good sampling of the unusual and delightful places to be found in and around London – and not just for clothes! The guide includes listings for Arthur Beale’s nautical supply shop and more than a few charity thrift shops for great finds in home furnishings and books.

Generally I was surprised to find myself in possession of a rather nifty little book about British fashion.  In some ways a welcome respite from the more academic books that are clogging up my Amazon wish list.  However, Luella’s Guide to English Style, still leaves me with some proverbial bones to pick.  Throughout the book, Luella writes alternately of or as Miss E(ngland), an archtype of British style.  This is cute at first, and understandable as a way to personify British style.  However, the perennial reference to Miss E in the third person stopped being innocent, and started sounding unironically like an ethnographic study. Although Luella champions Miss E as an eclectic, irreverent and unique “everywoman” and presumes readers will see themselves in her, the very name Miss England alienates. Despite Luella’s appreciation for music and fashions from other cultures and nations, (mainly the USA) she doesn’t seem to recognise that Miss England is in fact a multicultural bird these days. I wondered whether “British birds” from mixed cultural and ethnic backgrounds, would feel represented by Luella’s clearly very personal and socio-economically specific vision of Miss E.  To her credit, Luella does address the British class system and moral attitudes, and laments the watering down of British style eccentricity by the systems of fast fashion.  But I was still left with the feeling of cultural exclusion rather than enlightenment.

If you are planning a trip to the UK this book would make a fun sort of checklist for British style spotting, and you might mark some names and places for further research.  If you identify as a British bird, I wonder if you share Luella’s national sartorial pride, and whether you feel empowered or enslaved by this subjective portrait of the woman you are thought to be.

To further explore British style and fashion see:

Surfers Soulies Skinheads and Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties by Amy de la Haye and Cathie Dingwall

British Asian Style: Fashion & Textiles/Past & Present by Christopher Breward, Philip Crang and Rosemary Crill

See Heather’s review of British Asian Style here

The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads by Robert Elms

The Englishness of English Dress by Christopher Breward, Becky E. Conekin and Caroline Cox

Street Style by Ted Polhemus

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Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at : Amazon.com, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.