The English Country House Look
I like the way my tattered old baseball cap makes an overcoat look, not just look less formal, but more human. I like the varied hues of my old Oundles not just because they’re beautiful, but because they speak of use, of life. They counter any impression that the clothes are striving – unlike, perhaps, an oversized watch or a conspicuously branded sweater.
There is a term for this attitude which I’ve heard before, and draws parallels with interior decoration: The English Country House Look. It’s not an area I know much about, however, so I asked someone that does, Bruce Boyer, to write something on it for us.
I hope you enjoy it, and find some reflection in your own style.
By G. Bruce Boyer
The English Country House Look is a form of what we might call ‘invented history’, i.e. an attempt to step back from fashion trends – which as we all know move faster every day – and adopt items of décor which carry the cachet of history, a patina of validity that cannot easily be copied.
The patched Lobb brogues and threadbare Barbour jacket worn by Prince Charles, the elbow patches or leather reinforced cuffs on an old tweed jacket, the turned collar on an ancient Burberry all speak to a personal heritage beyond the abilities of ready cash.
It's The Old Money Look – called Vieille France and Eastern Establishment Elite in its international influence. An outlook on clothing and decoration in general that is unabashedly copied in things like purposefully distressed jeans, which cost the world but blatantly signal they come from a land far from Authenticity.
Recent appreciation of the style also explains the sharp rise in vintage shops selling old military gear, sports uniforms, denim ranch jackets, work clothes and the rest of it. Is this a sign that we feel fashion cycles are now completely out of control? I leave that to the sociologists.
The other day I was reading an advanced copy of W. David Marx’s new book Status and Culture, which I can tell you is a brilliant exploration of how social ranking creates our taste and identity, not to mention our art and fashion. In it I came across this pregnant observation:
“Similar to how status value derives from its symbolic associations with high status individuals and groups, historical value is derived from positive symbolic associations with the past… Old Money’s preference for patina can provide cachet [in which] historical value is a hedge against social risk.”
Interesting, no? And it hits the nail of the English Country House Look right on the head. Fashions in architecture and art, cooking and clothing, interior design and everything else we see around us come and go, but the ECHL has proved to be one of the better hedges against the slings and arrows of outrageous fashion. Not to mention that it seems to have a built-in ideology of sustainability, which accords with one of our more pressing dilemmas.
The English country house of myth, National Trust, and private possession arose slowly between 1500 and 1650, and historically served as the connecting link between the medieval fortified castle and the stately homes of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is this history that made the style originally and uniquely English. The concept of a large family dwelling – the rise of domestic architecture – grew slowly over the years as the architectural structure, landscape, and interior design were passed along from one generation to the next.
As a result the style lacked a particular period focus, and simply accrued a motley conglomeration of furniture mixed together in an eclectic array, where the governing principle seemed to be based on comfort and individual eccentricity, rather than any overlying orchestrated aesthetic.
This slow accretion produced what decorator Mark Hampton liked to call the “undecorated decorated look”. The elegantly understated, slightly tattered aesthetic we’ve seen so often these past few years under the banner of Heritage or Vintage Chic.
It’s a look designed to send the message that taste only changes in its self-refinement. Unlike fashion, which changes seasonally and gives little rest and only momentary pleasure to those who follow it.
The 20th Century history of the ECHL is wedded to a handful of eminent designers: Syrie Maugham, Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler, and Nancy Lancaster in the early years; Ralph Lauren, Charlotte Moss; and a host of others a bit later with a thirst for antiques, pale pink silk drapery, pickled beechwood Regency chairs, Chinese wallpaper, seaweed- and tea-stained chintz, hand-painted lampshades, faded lilac-colored toile, mossy green Brussels or Wilton carpets and fine white muslin, not to mention hunt prints, blue-and-white export ginger jars, Stratfordshire plaster dogs, pale biscuit-colored paneling, and the cracked leather Chesterfield sofas which comprise the essential equipment in the style manual.
Formal arrangement is abandoned in favour of what Cecil Beaton called a “healthy disregard for the sanctity of important pieces”. The ECHL designers can be characterised as mixing ordinary and fine design to create an effect of unpretentiousness, which quickly registered as the hallmark of supreme self-confidence. In the words of British interior designer Chester Jones, these designers “liked the ease and comfort that comes from a degree of informality. Rooms should look as if they have been used and enjoyed and therefore carry the patina of life”.
This is the key. For much as the look has been repackaged and downgraded over the years, it only feels genuine when it has been lived in and worn down, the thread-bare carpet revealing exactly where the master of the house sits to have his coffee every morning.
All of this applies equally to personal adornment. Fashion itself is usually the boldest of statements, subtlety not its goal or interest. But the ECHL should be subtlety itself: at its best when the elbow patches on the genuine Harris Tweed are genuine, when the highest quality clothing also has that patina of life.
Nancy Mitford’s famous dictum that “all nice rooms are a bit shabby” explains the goal of appearing without the suspicion of calculation. The flaunting of newness – new designer labels, new colours, snappy new patterns, new anything really – gives the opposite impression, of insecurity and a desperation of racing with the pack.
The haphazard nature of the ECHL is then reflected in the way clothes are put together. Eccentricity within reason – i.e., tempered by wit and a sense of irony – strikes us as refreshingly individualistic. Purple socks worn with an ancient green tweed suit sends a nice message of too cool to care. Mixing town and country – a smart flannel city suit with a dilapidated hunting jacket, or the old olive-drab canvas bag which serves as a briefcase – gives the impression of not being overly hidebound and conformist.
These little ploys, these gestures are meant to suggest a certain strength carelessly held back, a confidence that while Fashion can be bought by anyone with the money to afford it – after all, Fashion is the art of making clothes that are meant to be worn as though they are objects in themselves – style must be earned with hard-won experience.
This is not, by the way, an aspect of retro fashion, an approach which raises its head regularly, perhaps cyclically when a generation revives the past more as costume and for amusement than for any sense of authenticity.
As David Marx points out, retro fashion is a conscious fascination with period stylisation, and almost always devolves into camp and parody.
Finally, it’s not individual items of the wardrobe that make the statement. The key to style is not to be found in technical aspects and items, but in the mannerisms that invoke the personality. It’s attitude that proclaims the triumph of elegance over rule and order.
This isn’t a moral position so much as an awareness that we need courage to face the vagaries of life with a bit of panache and individual dignity, that sentimentality can be a great humanising force in our mundane lives, and that modest charm and wit, far from being frivolous, can be the weapons to insure psychic health in difficult times. After all, happiness isn’t a destination, is it, it’s the way you travel.
Interesting read, I didn’t know ECHL was a thing.
Like with “sprezzatura”, this desire to portray “authenticity”, “nonchalence” feels more like “I care a lot about what people will think of me, and I’d like them to think I do not care at all”. Just my 2 cents
It’s a good point PA. I think the two are similar in what they are trying to get across, but with two key differences:
One the ECHL does it through old clothes, wear and love, where sprezzatura is more about buckle straps and flipped collars. The latter always feels more gimmicky to me as a result.
And two, ECHL and similar looks are celebrated because they are genuine and unthinking. Whereas sprezz is more about the ingenuity of hiding the effort. There is always some crossover, but the former is more genuine, personal and humanising to me.
There is a good deal to learn from the penultimate paragraph.
The ECHL “look” is not in any way put together. It’s not something you “work at” to achieve.
That sums it up for me. Such style is something so natural (inherited or instinctive, usually) that it is only truly available to those who’ve never even thought about it.
The term ‘sprezz’ i always feel has completely lost all meaning. I think originally the term could describe something not entirely dissimilar to the ECHL but nowadays it just refers to gimmicking style inflections. The whole sprezz thing is now massively contrived where as the ECHL is less so and is built up over many years or even generations. In its most genuine form it does not have an end aesthetic in mind or does not contrive to try and appear at ease it simply is almost by accident.
It would be interesting to hear some discussion on the impact of both WW1 and WW11 on this. I know from my experience with my own family that rationing and the frugalness/ mend and dont waste mentality that prevailed following the wars went along way to informing the ECHL of my family’s home.
On a side note, i always feel rather undersold as an englishman when endless photos of Price Charles are rolled out when discussing english culture. We have many other more intersting people who could be used to illustrate similar points and i would like to see more of them.
Thanks Jim. Is there anyone you’d suggest on this particular point, showing for example clothes worn or patched and so on?
Thats a very specific image so no, i dont off the top of my head. I appreciate that image makes a point but he features very hevaily in this articles images. I am also not certain that the jacket has be worn in to the point it is in the image by Charles himself but maybe im wrong. I know my potting shed contains an array of ancient gardening jackets that are ciruclated amongst everyone undertaking work in the garden and i imagine this may be the case here. Not that that matters really as the ECHL is often about things being passed down, shared, reused and repurposed.
OK no worries, let me know if you ever do, I’d be interested.
Part of the problem I think is that this kind of person is not that highly photographed, so there don’t tend to be too many images of them. One of the exceptions is the photographs of Alan Warren, two of which I’ve included here – of David Somerset, 11th Duke of Beaufort, at his desk, and of Ian Campbell, 12th Duke of Argyll, sitting at a table.
Good point on the gardening jacket.
A good example interior wise would be that of Uncle Monty’s in Withnail. Although the character or uncle Monty is obviously fictitious the interior was real. Many do the items were actually auctioned off earlier this year.
These discussions make me think of Monty Don’s approach to dressing for gardening. It is certainly distinct from the ECHL perspective, but there is maybe a little bit of overlap, as well. It also indicates how ECHL articulates with work wear, which is designed to stand up to the rigors of labor and can therefore develop interesting patinas and wear patterns.
I would also like to take the opportunity to express how much I have enjoyed reading Permanent Style, Simon. I have been reading for many years now, but I don’t tend to contribute to the discussion even though I always read them and find them endlessly fascinating.
That’s lovely to hear Brett, thank you.
Nice example of Monty Don and workwear too. There is quite a direct connection there I think, given the waxed jackets and so on are similar rugged clothing, worn in, as are many tweeds.
Art conceals art and art is hard work. So I respectfully disagree.
Art is new every time though, you could say. And this is not – it is at its best when it becomes mere habit
This makes me think of the daoists, and perhaps the chan/Zen Buddhism that drew from them. Their concept of art can be framed as something that occurs effortlessly once a sufficient foundation has been laid. In their most admirable forms I think sprezzatura and the English country style are manifestations of this idea. A genuine effortlessness that achieves results as admirable as the best brush painting.
Of course, there are far more examples of failure than success. Imitation of the form only results in the sort of ‘costume’ that Bruce noted above. This is what I think you’re pointing towards in your description of ‘sprezz’ above. A contrived imitation that entirely misses whats hood about its source.
What a beautiful reference, thank you
Sprezzatura means buckle straps and flipped collars to those who have embraced the popular meaning of the word and do not understand the deeper philosophical themes that lay in the background. Paolo D’Angelo wrote a fine book on the subject.
Thanks Dirk, yes Ive and written about the subject too on PS, trying to take it away from the Pitti association of peacock suits.
Still, to my mind, there does seem to a difference there of more accidental vs more calculated nonchalance?
Last try to save the term sprezzatura from the peackocks: I would like to think it can just be about being comfortable and the ability of letting go. Like you, Simon, described with the example of Mr. Capozzoli. A small humble example from myself: Until 2-3 years ago I invested a lot more time in my hairstyle with products etc to keep everything in place. Now I spend about 30 seconds on my hair every morning and it looks it. I think it looks more relaxed and comfortable in combination with a suit and tie, when my hair is just clean but then going its own way all day long (plus: a five days-stubble). It is a small contrast to the sharp lines of tailoring, but I think it helps a lot making it my own. I like and cultivate this look now, but it genuinly started because I simply did care less about my appearance being precise and flawless.
To my mind there’s an overlooked aspect of EHCL, which is the implication of inter-generational money. Having bespoke suits which belonged to a forebear recut or altered, or more generally well-used and old expensive items, says something not just about the wearer but their lineage.
I’ve also always liked the US East Coast aphorism “buy the best, wear it out, make it do then do without” as an extension of EHCL.
Absolutely. Thanks Simon.
I guess also worth saying that you don’t have to be super-rich to value things that are handed down
Great point Simon. Fascinating topic too. Can I characterise ECHL as a form of ‘Slow fashion’?
Good point, yes I guess so
I’ve never heard that particular East Coast aphorism, but it’s similar to the WWII American advertising line, “Use it up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without.” Go online to find a period ad with that headline and an amusing illustration, with the same peculiar capitalization I just typed
Isn’t this all “ make do & mend”. All part of thrift culture& now sustainability.
This is a rose-tinted perspective on something that seems very much rooted in socioeconomic class (at least in Britain). I’d argue that the look and the attitude is not really an option for many people, and is very often used as a way of divide and categorising.
For example: Imagine two students turn up for their first week at the same university, both wearing identical battered old overcoats that were passed down from their grandfathers. But one student is from a wealthy background, public school educated etc, and the other grew up on a council estate. Regardless of the item or how they wore it, would they really be perceived in the same way? I seriously doubt it.
I’m not suggesting that valuing well-worn things is bad – far from it. But the value described in this article is mostly derived from actual wealth and power rather than anything else.
It’s a good point, thank you. I think that’s certainly an aspect of the approach to style, but I don’t think that has to rule out it being used well by others.
University is probably a slightly extreme example, because people have little of their own style at that stage. But if I were to see that among contemporaries (who are from a range of backgrounds) I do think they’d be treated the same, yes. They would also be putting their own individual spin on the clothes – necessarily, in fact, if they had taken the words in that penultimate paragraph to heart. It’s not about copying a particular piece of clothing.
University may be a bit extreme, but I think it extends to many other situations too, including professional settings. For instance, the old briefcase carried by one colleague might be assumed to be a family heirloom. But for someone from a different social background working in the same office, carrying the same briefcase could be taken a sign they need to smarten up.
I don’t disagree with the points you make in your introduction, Simon, and I love the idea of accumulating and wearing things in this way.
That’s why I find the the references in the piece (hunting jackets, ancient green tweed suits, Prince Charles and so on) unhelpful.
In these contexts, I think the overarching idea risks becoming tied to social class, rather than being about valuing what you own, personal style or the enjoyment derived from how things age. These are all positive things that should be open to all.
(These aren’t intended to be extreme comments – I think it’s a fascinating debate!)
Thank you JH, I agree, it is isn’t it?
I know what you mean about how a briefcase like that could be viewed. But perhaps the factor of quality is important there – it’s not just any old battered thing, but something that looks better for being old, because it was always a quality piece. I think that would come across even if the background were different.
I also think, and this goes to your point on the references, that all this is very culturally dependent. In different cultures and times, I doubt people would make the connection between the old tweed suits or the family heirloom, and class. It would just be seen as a style – and that’s what we’re celebrating here.
I’d say the point missed by the above comments (with all respect) is the attitude/conveyed confidence of the wearer as a product of that more privileged background and the exposure to privilege which provides the nonchalance / accidental ability to put clothing together.
Very true CJ. As with many things we do by habit, they come from what we’ve grown up around. I think it’s interesting that privileged people are assumed to be more confident though. There can certainly be a sense of entitlement when younger, in my experience, but that’s rarely more than skin deep unless the confidence is based on firmer things later on, such as professional success, relationships and so on
Interesting that ECHL being translated into dress style & a sense of effortless elegance, and yet I wonder what the view is of what I’d call the Oxbridge Don look of tweed or blazer with bright corduroy ( red pink or lime ) or other trouser, is this stylish, eccentric or now frowned upon by some ( I cite the gent in photo in cords ). Or is this having double standards & conferring taste on the ECHL set?
I think it’s an example of a style being done well or poorly Steve. Like many looks, many do it poorly and have just taken the obvious things like bright colours or materials, without wearing it with the same individuality, or quality.
Yes maybe but I wonder if sometimes it is class deference in that the ECHL set don’t always get it right either. POW wearing a patched up suit & badly cared for black shoes at engagements is just shabby, he’s not lounging around on his estate; either he or his valet must go, I’d vote the former☺️
Absolutely. I don’t think anyone is saying that type of person always dresses well, or that all homes in that aesthetic are always stylish. The point is always that there is something here that appeals when it is done well, and it’s that which is worth exploring in order to be inspired by
Absolutely Simon, subtle tones & occasional clashes makes the home & clothing styling aesthetic interesting & appealing.
I have to agree with you. I don’t think they’d be perceived in the same light, and I think the reason for that would be the comfort level of each wearing a battered old overcoat.
Reminds me of my cottage in England…. perfect in my book.
Speaking of sociologists, it sounds like W. David Marx has done a close read of Pierre Bourdieu’s ”Distinction”.
Good morning..anything written by Mr. Boyer is worth reading….very informative article…..Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers …Simon and all readers of Permanent Style enjoy your weekend …..peace 😀 😊 😉 😎
Sorry but ECHL is exactly nothing to do with ‘authenticity’ and precisely everything to do with being a class marker for those ‘in the know’. The article is illustrated with four photographs of Prince Charles, for heaven’s sake.
As seems to usually happen, the dissenting voices are needlessly extreme. It’s a shame.
Aspects of the look may certainly be used as class markers by some, but that doesn’t mean they all are, by everyone, or that there isn’t something worthwhile exploring, I don’t think.
In terms of the examples, if you’re objecting to this largely being a class thing, that’s a little odd as the whole point is that it’s where the look originates. It doesn’t mean it can’t be employed usefully by others. Although it would be nice to hear any suggestions in that regard, if people have some.
Sorry if that’s how my comments came across. Wasn’t expressing my thoughts in any ‘politics of envy’ kind of way but was just trying to say that I felt the article had a limited perspective and was weaker for that fact. If this topic had been explored by Derek Guy he’d have taken the socio-economic origins of the look head on and still made you feel that it might be an excellent idea to purchase a pair of semi-patent bespoke Adelaides, if that’s what you fancied. To take an example of a look that’s travelled the other way, it was you who put me on to western yoke shirts but Dieworkwear who explained the history and evolution of western wear… and also made me feel ok about wearing my shirt down to the supermarket!
No worries – this kind of thoughtfulness is better and really interesting, thank you for it.
You’re right, I’m sure Derek would do an excellent job burying into all the history of this. I’d love to read something like that.
I find the style interesting and worth emulating without so much of that history, but I can also see how that examination could give it more substance.
Very interesting read. A few years back there was a great post on Dieworkwear called something like “that old english dude look” that had some of the same photos and some even greater eccentrics. I think Derek has written soneplace about how he can admire aesthetics without having to adopt any accompanying political perspective. I too love this look but find it challenging in my context (london) to divorce it from this fraught weight of class markers etc. I think it’s easier to do these things elsewhere – so dress like an english aristocrat in the US or like an east coast preppy in london without the same baggage.
Very true. I think that might be why I find the East Coast versions of this look more appealing, but many Americans I know are the reverse.
Do put up a link to that piece if you find it.
Seems like it’s not on the DWW site any more but seems to be here:
Great, thank you. An article that seems to have spurred by the same images I referred to above, portraits taken by Alan Warren
Thanks for the link. An interesting read. The reference to Cordings is useful for anyone visiting London to go an experience the atmosphere of the look. A really lovely shop.
Taking us away from the class debate, which can get a bit emotive (as I have found out !). This is a great piece, again from Die Workwear, on another look called ‘bookcore’ . Which personally I really like and doesn’t tend to carry so much, if any baggage, as it’s pretty much open to all. Also easy to pepper with examples.
I inherited my grandfather’s wool jackets and assorted overalls in the 80s and,as far as I remember, good quality clothing was always passed down -it certainly was in Manchester. My grandfather was a shop steward in an engineering works in Gorton and dad is a printer. We were in that educated ,technical, working class, not particularly wealthy but certainly not on the breadline. It was just unthinkable that anything could be wasted. I think it was the norm across all levels of society.
I would recommend the work of the photographer Ian Berry who documented the English in the 70s. There are several examples of the upper classes,both at home and wearing more formal clothes.
Thank you Peter, great to have that perspective that isn’t tied to the upper class
Is this look now associated with the upper class because they were more likely to buy clothes and furniture of high quality and durability in the last few decades? A great uncle of mine wore his Pyrenean shepherd’s sweater for 60 years until it fell apart but younger generations mostly bought cheap and short-lived clothing. In passing, I believe Bruce Boyer got slightly lost in translation as he should be referring to the look “called Vieille France” rather than “called Le Vieux Francaise”.
Thanks Paul, I’ll make that correction if that’s right.
There probably is that trend yes, though I suspect a lot of it comes through habit and generational attitudes. What people are brought up around
It should be, I heard the expression often enough in Versailles, of all places.
Thankfully, websites such as PS are sharing the best habits more broadly now!
Ha, likewise Peter, the reason I don’t buy a PS donegal coat is the (maybe) 100 yr old similar coat inherited from my grandfather….. I also have his marriage 3-piece dinner suit remade to fit me…. not lightweight sadly and warm to wear but tip top on the style front
Indeed, but your grandfather DID buy the PS donegal coat of his time. Were you to buy one now, your grandson might be appreciating it in 100 years.
Grandson??????? Lordy if I have one I hope he never finds me hehehe
Hello Peter, Our backgrounds are similar, you comment made me feel a bit nostalgic as I enjoy my 7th decade. We too had a ‘make do and mend’ approach to our possessions.
Thanks for the link. Very interesting.
You may enjoy this one from Die Workwear.
Thank you Stephen. I suspect there is a strong correlation between PS readers and bookstore squinters.
I agree it’s still worth exploring, but (and obviously I say this not knowing your background or of anyone else particularly in this thread) I do distinctly remember in school anyone with patched up items, hand-me-downs etc of a poorer background being bullied for it, admittedly more from people in middle-class rather than upper-class (not that there was anyone upper-class in my school). I think it is understandable that some people may have more visceral reaction. I think in some ways it is similar to how many working class Americans have quite a negative reaction to preppy fashion, even if not shared by all.
Good point Aaron, though I’d suggest school boys are a good judge of very little when it comes to style!
From what I remember they were the ideal of nouveau riche – always wanting the newest trainers, and the showing them off.
There’s also a canonical part of the ECHL, which is amiss. This is the twenty-year-old but well-maintained, high-spec estate car (e.g. E55 AMG, RS6, 550i) — preferably in the beige colour (or as the manufacturers like to market as “Champagne Gold”).
At my school, Eton, prefects were allowed to wear waistcoats of any colour/design. A particularly evocative expression of the ECHL was the guy who had the heavily patinated waistcoat his grandfather had worn as a prefect, in the fading racing silks of the Derby winning horse the grandfather’s father had owned!
Just to add to this – Whilst it’s probably useful to be the duke of Devonshire, I agree with Simon that the sensibility of the ECHL is certainly not inextricably bound up with money/class. I recall Gauthier Borsarello talking persuasively about the French equivalent, which he described as stemming from an active desire to distance oneself from the ostentation of wealth.
Good point James, he did yes, on the HandCut Radio podcast I believe
James you are right to make the distinction between money and class. “Class”, let’s be frank, is something you either have or you don’t. If you do, it is unconsciously inherited, probably over generations. That inheritance drives attitudes and behaviours. You may, or may not, have money. If you don’t, it matters not. If you do, it is likely that your inherited class will influence what you do with it.
Money will never buy you class, in the same way that buying expensive clothes will never make you stylish. Eating in expensive restaurants, driving expensive cars, living in fancy homes will never buy you class.
Class is what you are born into. Winning the lottery will not change that.
A good distinction worth making Andy, though it’s certainly possible to move between classes to some extent, even in old England
That’s interesting Simon. How do you move between classes?
Not sure if you’re being facetious there Andy. It’s called social mobility
Not facetious, no, but just unsure about what you meant. Understand now when you talk about social mobility, but my thought is that it would tend more toward nouveau riche than “class”(assuming the mobility is upward!)
Anyway, still a good article to read!
Ah I see, thanks Andy, that makes sense! I guess it depends on how you define classes, but certainly a lot of people I know have moved from a working class to middle class through going to university etc
Hi Simon and Bruce. A superbly written and interesting article, however I wouldn’t expect anything less from Bruce.
I’d never before heard the term ECHL used in this context. I have heard various interiors and clothing described as a bit ‘country’ (in the UK) or sometimes a bit ‘Agatha Christieish’ the latter probably mainly influenced by the television adaptations.
I don’t think (like trying to be cool!) it is something one strives for conscientiously. It kind of just is. As Bruce lovingly described with the threadbare carpet example it comes about from the way a life is lived. To lift and paraphrase from a UK commercial, we don’t die wishing we had more stuff, rather we had done more things.
Sorry for my ramble above, just wanted to say thanks to Bruce for this article and Simon for the idea and the joyous way to end the week.
Just a quick question- something I have heard mentioned is when an item looks a bit ‘foxed’, meaning for example frayed cuffs on a shirt at which point it (in my case) get used for gardening – do you know where this term originated? I’d guess something county.
All the best to you both and all PS readers.
In his dictionary of folk etymology (1882), Abram Smythe Palmer writes of the word ‘foxed’: ‘A print or book is said to be “foxed”, when the paper has become spotted or discoloured by damp. In Warwickshire the same term is applied to timber when discoloured by incipient decay. It is, no doubt, the same words as the West country “foust”, soiled, mouldy, and “fust”, to become mouldy, Scot. “foze”, the same. Compare “fouse”, a Craven form of “fox”. “Fust” is from O. Fr. “fusté”, “fusty,” originally smelling of the cask (“fust”, from Lat. “fustis”). “They stanke like fustie barrells.”—Nash, “Pierce Penilesse” , p. 33’ (https://books.google.com/books?id=fXrlvr_kPXwC&pg=PA128). The sound of the word ‘fusty’ brought to mind Simon’s fun ‘Flash vs fuddy’ article… I hope none of us need ever use – or hear – the word ‘fousty’ with regard to our clothes!
Palmer’s entry more than conveys a sense of deterioration, but it’s worth turning to the OED for some other connections between this word and clothes… (Incidentally, this dictionary’s earliest quotations for ‘foxed’ in the senses relating to paper, timber and beer date from 1848, 1847 and 1743 respectively.) Perhaps interestingly (for PS readers), the earliest quotation that the OED gives of this adjective is for the sense ‘trimmed with fox-fur’ (used ‘punningly’): ‘His gowne is throughly foxt, yet he is sober’ (W. M.’s ‘The Man in the Moone’, 1609). This pun obviously works because a common early sense indeed seems to be ‘intoxicated, drunk, stupefied’ (1611 onward).
While the adjective ‘foxed’ may sometimes mean being somewhat the worse for wear, the verb ‘fox’ can mean to improve the condition of footwear or to ornament it. The OED gives quotations for the following sense from 1796 onward: ‘To repair (boots or shoes) by renewing the upper leather; also to ornament (the upper of a shoe) with a strip of leather.’ The following quotations for the noun ‘foxing’ date from 1865 and 1874 respectively: ‘Say wore cloth boots with patent foxings’; ‘1. An outer covering or upper leather over the usual upper. 2. Ornamental strips of a different material on the uppers of shoes.’ Finally, to return to the adjective ‘foxed’, the following quotation dates from 1880: ‘Women’s cloth boots are foxed when they have a binding of leather on the cloth all round next the sole.’
Probably more than you ever wished to know… but isn’t that part of why we’re here? 🙂
‘Foxing’ used to mean being sneaky to trick a person in an area close to my home town…. my sister in law used it a lot and not for boots.. words eh.. interesting
Hi Will, Thanks. What’s fantastic bit of research. In answer to your question, yes that is why we are here. Knowledge always has valuable. Thanks again.
Yes, the Old Money look…
A few observations.
First, there is hypocrisy in this stance as hides bourgeois overabundance as modesty. Only really expensive things bear patina well..So the Old Money look triesvto convey the idea that one has been rich long a long time ago. This is aimed at mocking and degrading the New Rich by pinpointing the newness of their money. The Old Money stance is that of snobbery and contempt.
Second, the Old Money look is socially conservative and reactionary. It solidifies class hierarchies, its upper class pretense defending the (upper) class-ness as such.
Third, the Old Money look preserves the anglo-saxon hegemony, by prioritising the aesthetics of English gentry / New England particians. As such it serves the reactionary imperialist cause, degrading all other nations of the world.
Surely little of that actually has to be a feature of the style? It just happens to have been historically.
You can appreciate and make use of the look and its principles without being snobby or reactionary.
I totally agree Simon. Imperialist cause! I have travelled to many countries and have seen variations of this look the world over Italian, French (Shabby Chic), Indian and the like. I don’t think any degradation is meant or perceived except by the tragically sensitive looking for a reason to be offended.
Thanks Stephen, though the end of that was needlessly insulting. Let’s keep it civil please
It wasn’t intended to be insulting. I was making the observation that it appears there are people looking to be offended when no offence is meant or even inferred. To that end I don’t think the remark was discourteous, in particular not into comparison to the original comment, rather mine was no more than simply an opinion.
That said it’s your blog and apologies to you if you thought I was out of order. Best Stephen
Cheers Stephen. It was mostly that you don’t know that the person is looking to be offended – it’s an assumption and a simplification. No worries though
Simon , whilst I don’t want to prolong this and I’m sure you don’t and I apologised if you thought my remarks were out of order. Specifically to your recent response. In my view however, it’s not an assumption on my part, because I wasn’t referring to the to the comment itself , rather an observation that there are some who look to be offended by things (e.g as innocuous as a ‘look’ ) that so often pass the rest of us by. I don’t think that’s an over simplification. Simply a free speech observation.
Thanks Stephen, you’re right the general point is fine. Given you quote the other reader’s terms, though, I think it would easily be assumed that you were saying he was ‘tragically sensitive’. I would make it clearer that was not what you were saying. Also, the use of ‘tragically’ is kind of needlessly emotional.
By the way, there is no issue of free speech here. It’s my website and I can put on it what I like! In terms of the comments, my aim is to only include ones that others will find useful or interesting.
Your quiet correct it’s your website. Within moral and legal boundaries I am entitled to free speech in the UK our fine country. As is anyone commenting. You in turn have the freedom to moderate and to publish or not.
Thank you too Simon. I’d like to believe we have concluded this discourse on a friendly basis. Great post today btw.
Agree, thanks Stephen
Phew, you both left me on the edge of my seat … but relieved it all ended gentlemanly.
*(You can tell the comments are a whole vibe!)
I think the look evolved out of necessity. To own a country house means that someone in the family once had enough money to buy or build it. It’s my understanding that these homes can be ruinously expensive to repair and maintain. So the shabby furniture, worn carpets, scuffed floors, may come from a a lack of money. The original wealth which purchased (or built) the sparkling new country home has depleted over time. The family is “house rich but cash poor” as the saying goes.
There may be some snobbery involved but who knows? If the family had loads of cash maybe the house would be filled with trendy new furniture and decorated in the latest style?
I think, as with most things, there’s probably quite a lot of variation. Some snobbery and intentional exclusion, some genuinely lovely people who have found a style that is natural to them. But quotes like the one about Heseltine, gleefully reported by Alan Clarke, do rather skew the the pitch: In his Diaries, the military historian and Tory member of Parliament Alan Clark famously quoted what he claimed was Jopling’s “snobby but cutting” dismissal of the ambitious Conservative deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine: “The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture”
Yeah a lovely quote that one. Not sure it means it represents any more than just him though!
The trouble with Alan Clark though is that his dad had to buy his own castle…
Are allowed to chuckle? That last line …
Old money people don’t wear those things because they’re trying to get a rise out of new money. They simply like nice things that last.
It’s just a look!
If someone wants their clothes to evoke Monty Python’s dead parrot, why get hot and bothered? LOL I don’t think anybody really cares anywhere.
That said, I like the look myself. Anyone can get it shopping very carefully on eBay for less than a new pair of Nikes, It’s about as inclusive and egalitarian as clothing gets outside of Joseph A Bank.
Just a note from the German speaking world: Interestingly, EHCL has also been quite popular in Germany and Austria for a long time, somewhat less for clothing, but very much for interior design and architecture. I think an important reason could be that even our former everyday culture was put into question by the First World War triggered by Germany/Austria and of course the horrors of National Socialism, so that in the post-war period it was rejected by large parts of the younger generation and everything started from the scratch. Certainly, a lot has been borrowed from other European cultures at that time. The peaceful, lovely English country house style lent itself particularly well to this.
Huh, really interesting Markus, thank you.
Given how much of this is tied up with cultures, it’s interesting to hear from somewhere that did away with much of that baggage
Great article that creates lots of room for discussion, reflection, and style appreciation.
Looking at this from an American socioeconomic perspective, the East Coast elite equivalent to this was and definitely is a class signifier. Money, and the lived experience of families that have had it for generations, helps popularize a look that’s “authentic” and conveys status through selective wear of threadbare or sloppy clothes. That’s a reluctantly hostile characterization because I genuinely like a lot about the style and absolutely recommend elements of it, but it has a decidedly elitist basis. For example, the writer Tobias Wollf, who grew up in poverty on the US West Coast but BS’s his way into an elite East Coast prep school, has written about using a razor blade to wear in the collars of his OCBD shirts, which he adopted for everyday wear when he landed in his new environment. Wollf commented that this was camouflage; he wanted his freshly-purchased shirts would fit in with the shirts worn by his old money schoolmates. Similarly, when I attend a prep school (but on the West Coast of the US), I would use electrical tape to hold my Sperry boat shoes together when I wore them to death (my classmates had more money than my family did, and the best way to fit in was to buy expensive clothes and wear them as though they came from a dumpster!).
Personally, I like wearing clothes that age and show their value and character over time. And I also like some of the genuinely puckish thumb-nosing and plain, Steve McQueen cool of treating clothes like things that you wear, rather than the other way around (punk style has this right, and there was a clear intersection between preppy style, old money, and the surf/punk scene in the part of Southern California where I was raised). The latter may be part of the appeal of vintage wear and military surplus (which can look great when incorporated into an otherwise corporate or business-facing wardrobe). But I think the class associations and subtle elitism are generally things to be avoided.
One more different perspective. Cheers BC
Even real preps today don’t wear boat shoes anymore. Unless they’re on a boat. That look has changed to drivers.
Thanks for another very interesting article. In an age where we are encouraged to avoid excessive consumption and consumerism on ethical and environmental grounds (which is of course very hard to argue with), it’s nice to be reminded (as Simon often does) of the inherent satisfaction that comes with owning and cherishing something not despite but because it has developed its own character over time.
An excellent essay in which the writing and the thinking feel as nicely broken-in as the objects he is talking about.
I feel like I mentioned this book to you in the past, Simon, but The Englishman’s Room is one of my favorite design essay books out there. Best – Wes
You did, thank you Wes
Before reading the article I presumed ECHL was a look in which what I’m joked as a ‘Nutty Professor’, a specific one that we associate to countryside British people and geography teachers. A typical one would hence be a muddy gunclub sport coat and olive cord trousers (my winter fav).
After finishing the article I realised Bruce used it to refer to a (both sartorial and decor-wise) concept akin to a more seasoned version of the artist Luke Edward Hall. Worth a look for those who are younger and who are too cool to care.
Dear Mr. T.Z., I had only a vague awareness of Luke Edward Hall, but your note prompted me to take a look. My great thanks for introducing him to me, he has a wonderful eye full of color, wit, and charm. You really have done me a favor.
Thank you to the man himself, who took the time to looked into what I suggested in my humble opinion! I’m sure new generations of artists and readers learn a good number of things from you even from a cross-genre perspective. Oh, and your light-hearted tone of writing, with that bountiful transatlantic culture background that you embody into the writing, they’re just so mesmerising and outright charming.
Luke Edward Hall has recently worked with Gant on a collection inspired by English style
This is it. This is, both, my wife’s family and mine. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to read.
Perhaps to get away from this discussion going too much into purely social class commentary I wonder if Mr Boyer had considered the Arts and Crafts movement as a basis for choosing a style? The look is generally very “country house” but stemmed from a rejection of the mass industrially produced and promoting craftsmanship and the long lasting as well as the stylish/visually appealing which if I read PS and it’s followers correctly are attributes desirable in menswear.
Lovely read, great images.
There’s an important practical aspect to English Country House Look, both of those actual spaces and the associated style: the foundations and key building blocks are of top quality (solid houses with big windows and bespoke suits in timeless cuts, made-to-last but deliberately beautiful Chesterfield sofas and hard-wearing Northampton shoes and Barbour jackets, also deliberately made beautiful while also utilitarian), and then well lived-in and filled with fun stuff (those dog statues, array of trinkets, books, odd pieces, curiosities, etc.) or fun accessories (college ties, argyle or other colourful socks, bold shirts…). The parallels are there of combining top-quality sober stuff with fun and well-enjoyed accent pieces. My two pennies, to try and Britishize (not a word, I know) the idiom.
Similar to Bruce’s patina of life reference is I think comfort. The room I spend most of my time in is crowded, like my closet. But everything is at hand, mostly books and hobbies, within a few steps from the comfy sofa (reupholstered). It’s the most comfortable place I know and relaxing, even when working. There’s also a comfort to me of resoled shoes and altered suits.
Very nostalgic. Growing up in an English village with a middle class family and professional father, these pictures very much remind me of how the homes of my parents’ friends were decorated. Just looking at them I can sense the odours of musty bookcases and furniture polish! It makes me very happy and takes me back to my childhood but I am not sure I could emulate it myself, in 2022, with any authenticity. I would feel like I was trying to recreate my childhood. They again I am currently in the process of having walnut hardwoodflooring installed in my not-at-all-country terraced house so maybe this style is still a part of me after all.
Simon and Bruce,
An excellent article especially as it has generated such discussions. In America there are many similar cultural constructs – old Boston, old New England, old Shaker, and my favorite, the old South. The America South has such a studied history of decadence and decay. (Think Faulkner) These American “looks” do somewhat sidestep the class distinctions that many of your readers comment upon.
But I believe the real point here is that it is not the clothes or the interiors, but rather the person who becomes the artifact. Bruce Boyer is, I believe, 81, and he, through his life and writings, has become most interesting. His wisdom and insights are what we value. His clothes and lifestyle are just accessories. They may mirror his person, but they are nothing without his experience.
I am reminded of a quote from “The English Patient:” We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish all this to be marked on my body when I am dead.” Only living and experience can give us the patina that that so many are searching for in acquisitions.
I greatly enjoy reading PS as it has given me many suggestions for repurposing my old clothes and, yes, even my 40-year old Duluth canvass shell bag. I find ways now to recombine them with today’s more informal styles. As my granddaughters say, “Keep your old clothes, grandad, every 30 years you will be in style.” At 81 myself, I find less and less reason to buy new clothes. Rather I cherish the memories associated with the wearing of an old jacket, or scarf.
Amazing. Thank you Jack
As said, great article. In my opnion, this has to do, mainly, with value. To recognize and honour the noble things you have inherited from your elders, and, to discern and promote the contemporary objects and ideas that carry enough value to overcome the whims of fashion.
It’ has more to do with grace than with wealth.
You could argue that the sine qua non of this style derives from familiy tradition, and that some wealth, at some point, is required… That can be said and it would be somewhat accurate. But a good deal of it comes from what you build within you; acknowledging what you have learned from your parents, philosophically and esthetically, and, from there on, developing you own taste and manners. So, in a sense, this is universal and very much available to anyone willing to embrace it.
(I’m a spanish native speaker, so, not everything I write here is as precise as I would like. Bear that in mind, please.)
I think you put it very nicely Fede
You are very kind, Simon. Thank you.
I’d have to say I agree with many of the things said in the comments regarding social class and this particular style.
I think that something no-one is acknowledging is that for a large part of the past 100 years, these country house upper-class types have been “as poor as church mice”. As it was explained to me, Britains upper-class was hemorrhaging money from the world wars and successive increases to their tax obligations. However generations of stern lectures of “do not sell your land, land is more important than money” lead them to lives of near-poverty in massive houses that they couldn’t bring themselves to sell.
To my mind this explains some of the modern aspects of this style, particularly the worn-in look. In the Victorian era none of these people would have tolerated their possessions looking shabby. They would have bought new carpets. The lived-in look came after the wars when things couldn’t be replaced.
Thoughtful, interesting and stimulating read. Which also features some excellent turns of phrase “the patina of style”, in particular stands out. Taste culture style and power presented in a no frills concise manner. Also having read and enjoyed W David Marx Ametora I am looking forward with interest to Status & Culture.
Maybe rather than worrying too much about the background/ history of the style or rushing to emulate it by buying vintage clothes we might think about adopting the philosophy behind it and grow into the style over the years / decades to come? When that favourite shirt becomes threadbare at the cuffs, or that tweed jacket is beginning to thin at the elbows rather than rush to replace them we cherish their history and slip gently into this style of dressing. Surely that sits with the sustainability ethos so prevalent today?
Absolutely, as Bruce mentions near the start. Thanks Stewart, nicely put
Hello Simon, thanks for having Bruce on – always love reading and hearing what he has to say.
One of my favourite anecdotes in the vein of the ECHL and Bruce’s explanation of it is about my Grandfather, told to me by my mother.
My Grandfather was a farmer in rural South Australia in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, but he always possessed three suits, and always bespoke.
One he wore to Church and weddings and funerals, and his quarterly visit to the city; literally his ‘Sunday best’.
The second suit was a little older, and he wore that on his weekly trip into the nearby town to do his banking, visit the feed store, and perhaps meet his mates for a beer and lunch at the pub.
The third suit was older again and a little beaten up, and he would wear this on Saturdays to watch the local football club play.
When this third suit was a little too shabby to wear even to the footy (about every ten years), it got relegated to wear around the farm, and he would visit his tailor for a new suit and the other two would ratchet down the pecking order.
Unfortunately he died when I was quite young, so I don’t remember seeing this in action but there are photos of him cheering on the local team wearing “suit no. 3” with a tie, patches on the sleeves and body of the jacket (no doubt sewn on by my grandmother who was a talented dressmaker). The whole exercise was obviously one of making the clothes (and his money) last as long as possible, but it ended up becoming his style in the process.
Thanks Nick. I almost feel like this must have been part of a public information campaign, because relatives of mine have said the same thing. It’s always worth keeping in mind, when you see people traipsing along the high street with multiple shiny bags in their hands.
Simon, during the war there was in fact just that, a Ministry of Information campaign called “Make do and Mend” https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/make-do-and-mend-0 but of course this was really aimed at the middle classes, the working class saw the film as quite funny (or insulating depending on your point of view), according to my mother, for of course the working classes had always done it out of necessity.
Thanks, yes I remember learning about that. Funny how it could be seen so differently
I suspect in many ways it was similar to people’s reaction to the Environment Secretary’s recent suggestion that families struggling with the rising cost of food buy value brands rather than own-branded products so they can “contain and manage their household budget”. You either find that rather comical in a “Yes Minister” kind of way (i.e. a silly thing to say) or you are insulted and see it as being a very patronising statement as Martin Lewis and others in the media did.
As young women I think my mother and her friends were amused by the idea that one might have the choice between ‘make do..’ and buying something new. Others, such as my grandmother I seem to recall saw it as yet another example of the government of the day being out of touch with ‘real people’ I don’t think it went much deeper than that really. But others may have a different view.
I loved the article. The thread-bare section of carpet indicating where coffee was consumed in the morning was great. Oriental rugs are an absolute essential for the ECHL.
I think it is ironic that an author called Marx can write a “new” book about the connection between status and ideas, since it is one of the basic premises of marxism, that every single human idea is based on social realities and power structures.
I always enjoy these guest posts, especially from someone such as Bruce Boyer. It seems to me the ECHL is fine if you have an old country house, preferably inherited, and are the sort of person who does not buy clothes or furniture because you have those things. I was a bit surprised to see Bruce Boyer use the term “Vieux Française” to describe the Old Money Look. Gender agreement issues aside, I believe the term should be “Vieille France,” meaning traditional, conservative, old-school, etc., and it can be applied to a wide range of tastes, attitudes and behaviors.
I think it’s a little broader than that, perhaps, just because it reflects the attitude of buying better during your life as well, and enjoying how those things age? It’s something I do with my things at home, but I’m certainly not rich.
Yes the French term is wrong there, I will change that now
I need to get this article in front of my wife, my perfect defense for the clutter around my favorite recliner (chair).
I do find it awfully difficult to find original Stratfordshire plaster dogs these days. 😉
Interesting read, this article does make me think that ECHL is more of a lived-in approach; use what is there and don’t worry if you scratch or damage it a bit. It adds some character to the pieces and creates a setting of relaxation for you and any guests that come to the home.
There is a look of wealth or in this case “Old Money” to these sorts of things I guess. But that is no different from any other style, from the ultra-modern – Minimalist look to the high fashion – bold and colourful.
From all this, my takeaway is to buy the best you can afford, look after it, but do not baby it, we should use them. You don’t buy a pair of beautiful pair of shoes to keep them in a box. You should and need to wear them to fully enjoy them.
Nicely put Alex
It’s far too easy to get over-enthused by the ECHL. Much of it is, indeed, elegant as far as design and colour are concerned, but remember that the battered things you see now worn, or installed in these grand old houses were once high quality originals – often bought new when a family was wealthier in real terms than it now is, and often continued in use either because the current owner cannot afford to replace it or simply cannot be bothered to do so. I’ve seen far too many ECHL wearers or homes where the person concerned could do with investing in more shampoo and showers, or where his or her house has an over-abundance of dog hairs and less than pristine bathrooms: making you long for a modern apartment with stripped oak floors and a good weekly cleaning regime. And having met on several occasions certain of the esteemed people in these photos, sending ‘ones ties’ to ‘ones dry cleaners’ would also be well worth considering.
But then, I’m a cynic. I remember a well monied Eton-educated client of mine who, over dinner at Whites Club, neatly summed up the main proponents of this style. ‘The problem with the British gentry’ , he said ‘is that half of them are broke, and the other half are crooks’.
I think, as others have pointed out, that it’s impossible to really ignore the class element of this (a version of it exists in my country too, but I see something closer to the ECHL among anglophiles of a certain generation). But the overall idea is, I think, one that we can all agree with – not throwing away things after a short time, or taking time to develop one’s own taste and style, whether it’s in interiors or fashion. And on an aesthetic level, I enjoy the look of large houses with loads of textures and visual interest – I often find myself eyeing up the interiors in any period drama, particularly those set pre-1980s, they’re fascinating to me even if I know that the shabbiness of the ECHL may well be a result of being broke.
Your point about eccentricity is a good one, but I’d add that in a lot of cases that eccentricity is only possible because of an absolute rock-solid certainty that ‘standing out’ won’t result in any material losses, or that there’s nothing to lose anyway.
Great post. The style has been around for a long, long time…Continental army officers in the late 18th century used to be perplexed and horrified by how British army officers would take their newly made uniforms from their Savile Row tailors and deliberately beat them up (trampling on them in the ground, scissor cuts, etc) before meeting up with their chums at the pub (usually The Grenadier in Wilton Row).
I have just seen it, Prince Charles in the gray double brested, second picture of the article, is his jacket repaired (bottom right)!?