Just How Much Has Our Changeable Weather Shaped British Fashion?

by Donna Middleton

British fashion — like it’s somewhat bipolar weather — is a space where extremes sit cheek by jowl in a way which is both surprising and natural.

As a national stereotype, we are doggedly obsessed with the weather and it’s no wonder that this sometimes cruel and unpredictable mistress has shaped the fashion of our sceptred isle. UK style might be influenced by our changeable weather, but the drama of our climate is also reflected by the dynamism of the way we dress.


Image credit: Flickr.com/Steve77


In our unique fashion ecosystem, it is imperative to dress practically to avoid such British perils as the never-popular ‘drowned rat’ or melting like a sweaty overheated Brie on the Central line. Far from making us a nation of staunchly sensible dressers or outdoor gear devotees, we are determined to be stylish in spite of this extreme fluctuation. 


In an excellent article exploring our collective infatuation with the weather, Vogue writer and award-winning author, Lucy Hughes-Hallet deftly observed:


“We British can endure our weather only because we are so expert at denying how often it disappoints us.”


This stubborn denial, which I would file in a yellow folder labelled ‘optimism’, shines through in British dressing. 

When the British council asked international students about their first impressions of UK style, two of the first things to simultaneously surface were the weather and layering. Kristin Javier from Mexico explained:


“The thing that impressed me the most was: layering. Because of the crazy weather, people wear so many layers here and actually, I think it looks good.”


Image credit: The Shirt Company. Willow’s ruffles make this shirt a bold candidate for some stunning layering. 


The Shirt Company’s Director, Donna Middleton, also feels that the backbone which British styling is draped around is “lots of layering for the changeable weather”, along with a taste for timeless pieces such as the ever-versatile shirt and traditional woven wool cloths. 


Stripped back to their most bare and dryly practical bones, clothes are there to help us cover up and live comfortably in the climate, so it’s no wonder that the rapid-fire fluctuation of British weather has a huge influence over how we choose to dress as a nation. 


Items which help us stylishly coexist with the weather have long loomed large in British style. In the ‘50s patterned head scarves were ever present to allow perms to retain their bounce in the relentless damp and the contemporary ‘hoodie’ is perhaps more elevated in the UK style stakes because it keeps hair on fleek while being easy to dress up or down. As a nation, we still have an unusual penchant for a hat, which while perhaps a bit eccentric, still serves a purpose and elevate a look in a quintessentially British way. 


Image credit: Flickr/NeilMoralee 


The nation's fondness for woolen natural fabrics — think herringbone and tweed — is not only a sustainable use of fleece from the UK’s sizable sheep population, but also a smart way to face the fickle British weather head on. In the words of Edward Sexton, partner of Glencroft Countryware:


"Wool naturally helps to regulate body temperature...in changeable conditions, they regulate heat far better than man made fibres. In cold weather it keeps you warmer, and in warmer weather a wool jumper really can breathe."


Image credit: YoungBritishDesigners (Beaumont Organic) and The Shirt Company. The Shirt Company’s Sophie blouse is a pretty piece to juxtapose with more masculine, boxy tailoring


Our national search history once more underlines just how much the way we dress in the UK is influenced by rolling organically with whatever the weather decides to throw at us. Research by the search analytics platform Pi Datametrics (quoted by Econsultancy) showed that British consumers were more likely to shop with the weather they could see outside their windows than the traditional seasonal calendar. 


For example, in 2017 a warmer than average February caused a huge surge in searches for traditional summer items compared to previous years. 


Image credit: Pi Diametrics via Econsultancy 


Similar trends were shown with a downfall in searches for winter jackets after a particularly mild November, indicating that the changeable British weather really does influence how we dress. We are more likely to search in terms of real-life weather context, a hypothesis which has been supported by a move away from the rigid seasonal calendar in the fashion industry. 


Wildly unpredictable weather is our normal and our refusal to be cowed by this shines through in our clothing. The fact that it’s only really warm enough to wear a skirt with bare legs a handful of days a year does nothing to deter us. Instead we style it out and bend the styles we want to wear to work with the weather. While in many European countries tights are eyed with a certain suspicion, through the British fashion lens, they enable us to march on and stretch our favourite items through multiple seasons. 


Image credit: The Shirt Company

Le Marais might be summery, but tights and a cropped jumper make this Shirt Company dress adaptable for whatever the weather throws at us! 


A spaghetti-strap dress might be a seemingly strange item to pop up time and time again in the British fashion lexicon, but shoving a crisp white shirt underneath it not only makes the item more flattering, but also adds a rebellious British twist by refusing to be subdued or diluted by the weather. 


Image credit: Getty images/The Shirt Company 

Yara Shahidi shows off how fun layering can be, and The Shirt Company’s Madelena shirt makes a dramatic candidate to layer thanks to the structured cuff details.


As Lucy Hughs-Hallett so elegantly puts it:


“That's more our way. Making fun of the weather. Making fun of our ridiculous attempts to ignore it, and of the stoicism with which we endure it. It's a very British kind of joke.” 

Cover image by: Flickr.com/Maureen_Barlin


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