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Why industrial chic is back in fashion

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Richard Benson

The Observer, Saturday 19 January 2013 17.47 GMT

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Damon Albarn sports an Intercity logo on his T-shirt

Damon Albarn sports an Intercity logo on his T-shirt. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Last month, the political bloggers and columnists had a brief spasm of bemusement and horror when Burton menswear was reported to have launched a new capsule collection based on Arthur Scargill. “Class wardrobe!” quipped the Morning Star. “Perhaps the beginning of a new persona for him,” joshed the Huffington Post. “Words fail me,” said the libertarian blog Samizdata, “but I am not making this up.”

In fact they were making it up, because the designer, a Royal College of Art menswear student called Liam Hodges, said only that he had been partly inspired by 1984 TV footage of striking miners. Nevertheless, anyone wishing to be re-outraged by bizarre clothing/mining links has not had to wait long; last week, Black Dog Publishing announced Mining Couture: A Manifesto for Common Wear, a book by artists Steve Swindells and Claire Barber that “explores the relationship between coal mining history and fashion”.

To be fair, although this might sound like Nathan Barley’s idea of an April fool, they do have a point. Coal is used to make artificial fibres such as nylon. Miners’ work clothes have been adapted by designers including Britain’s Paul Smith and, in the last two years, two other British designers (and one German) have produced collections explicitly based on mining and the 1984-85 strike. And for the less adventurous, the T-shirt company Red Molotov now offers a line featuring the old British Coal logo (and for your home, young British designer David Irwin offers a £170 M-Lamp “inspired by the archetypal miners’ lamps of 19th century north-east England”).

There might be something jarring – or, for the ex-miners I asked, hilarious – about all this, but there is no denying that old industrial Britain has become a fashionable and popular subject, at least in the arts. Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony has been the most spectacular example, but there is also David Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem histories, and Jeremy Dellar’s films; English Heritage’s new initiatives to preserve industrial buildings; Tate Britain’s 2013 Lowry exhibition, the first London showing of his work since his death in 1976, and films and TV series such as Made In Dagenham, Call The Midwife and The Pitmen Painters.

Much of this work has featured working-class and lower-middle-class people, and a sort of hankering for an old, smokey Britain of close neighbours, angels with dirty faces, and communities that pulled together in adversity. This might be down to the sort of nostalgia that seems to increase in recessions, but last week it took on political overtones.

First there was One Nation Labour – Debating the Future, an ebook published by Labour List, edited by the Labour MP Jon Cruddas. Made up of essays by people on the left, it tries to work out how a modern version of that old world of co-operation and self-improvement could work.

Second, there were the bloggers and columnists interpreting a new survey showing that 60% of Britons now think of themselves as working class. Last year a different survey found the figure to be 24%; this suggests at least one of these surveys isn’t to be trusted, but you can see the logic behind an increase. Things that have been helping people acquire a more middle-class lifestyle – higher education, home ownership, ability to pay your electricity bill, little things like that – are now becoming less accessible, and the class system is being somewhat redrawn anyway. When Samantha and David “distant relative of the Queen” Cameron claim to be middle class, what does that make the rest of us?

I was born in the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire, seven miles from Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North constituency, and most of my extended family worked in the pits for decades before moving to factories or public services in the 1990s. In that area, there is without doubt a nostalgia for the old pit communities and not just because of rose-tinted memories of unlocked back doors and flowery-pinnied housewives lending each other the rent money. Pit work was dirty, hard and dangerous, but there was compensation in not only the camaraderie, but also a certain respect from managers and, some of the time at least, decent wages.

A friend called Bruce who worked at Silverwood colliery once told me that when he and some friends left in the 1990s, they got jobs filling shelves at a supermarket. The manager assigned them an aisle each. If one man was rushing to keep his shelves full, the others who were not busy went to help him. “And the manager came and said, ‘I told you, one aisle each. Don’t go in each other’s aisles, or you’ll be down t’road.’ But we’d always helped each other, it was how you got things done. But a lot of modern managers don’t like that, because it challenges them. They liked to control you, and that eats at your self-respect. No one ever talks about that.”

My cousin Gary, an ex-Grimethorpe colliery miner who became a social worker, and has helped many families who struggled to adjust when the pits closed, says that while life in old industrial towns and villages can be wildly idealised, the industrial working class identity came with a sense of history and gradual self-improvement. “I think that, at some level, that’s part of that nostalgia people feel looking back; those people seemed to know and believe in a way forward, somehow. They might be struggling, but they helped each other and they felt they were gradually improving their lives. I think that around here in the last few years some people have become more interested in the [1984-5] strike for that reason.”

A problem for the Labour party, in South Yorkshire anyway, is that in the 2000s it came to be seen as part of the establishment that you struggle against, while the fringe parties took up the values of grassroots defiance. The way my grandparents used to talk about the Labour party was quite similar to how some people there now talk about Ukip.

A postscript: last week, somewhere between the release of quirky art books and eye-catching surveys, the Crown Prosecution Service charged the manager and owners of the Gleision coal mine in South Wales with the gross negligence manslaughter and corporate manslaughter of the four miners who were killed in the mine in 2011. The men were among 17 British miners killed since 2005, and 175 people killed at work in 2011-12. Both numbers have increased significantly since the start of the recession, increases attributed by some experts to cost-cutting.

It will be interesting to see whether the apparent interest in the old industrial working class might inspire us, and the Labour party, to remember facts such as this, and the value of co-operation and standing up for each other. After all, many of the people in those books and films and pictures campaigned for rights and benefits that are now clearly under attack. As Carole Cameron, young widow of a miner killed at Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire in 2009 said after his death: “Either the health and safety regulations should protect the men, or the pit should be closed. It shouldn’t be happening. It’s not the 1920s.”

Richard Benson is a former editor of the Face and the author of The Farm

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