After more than 200 years, a uniquely British taste is on the way out. Shabby chic has been vacuumed, whitewashed and dry-cleaned out of existence. Frayed shirt collars, egg yolk on the tie, soup stain on the crotch, roses rambling out of control over the crumbling terrace flagstones, walls cluttered with pictures, tables covered with teetering piles of books. The quintessentially British air of decayed gentility has been destroyed by a combination of minimalism, modernism and nihilism. For the first time in history we live in a civilisation where, the richer you are, the fewer things you have, and the newer, cleaner and more stripped-down those things must be.
Shabby chic meant the opposite. The idea was that the richer you were, not only did you have more things, but also the things were older and more run-down. ‘I’ve got so much stuff, and it’s so old that of course it’s going to get dusty and battered,’ went the mantra, ‘but it’s so stylish that it’ll never go out of fashion.’ Compare the Duchess of Cornwall, when she was plain Mrs Parker Bowles, with Diana, Princess of Wales. One is the embodiment of shabby chic — before she was forced to act like a prince’s consort, did Mrs PB ever use a moisturiser, visit a smart hairdresser or bother with the mud from the borders trapped under her fingernails? The other was far too soignée to be truly representative of old Britain. But modern British clothing is now much more Diana than Camilla — a mixture of leisure-wear and branded clothes, always spanking new, always spotless, always approaching its sell-by date.
Shabby chic lasted into the closing years of the 20th century. In 1988, the journalist Nicholas Coleridge composed a list of things that rich, heroically shabby British women would rather spend money on than a dress — from a new horse trailer to the children’s school fees. A dress is an indulgence and, if you go to a party in the same purple chiffon number you’ve worn for seven years, no one will notice; if they do notice and think worse of you, then they’re not worth knowing anyway. Little did Coleridge know that he was chronicling the last days of a disappearing group of moth-eaten anti-fashionistas.
The death of shabby chic brings to an end a style that began over two centuries ago as a reaction to continental smartness. ‘The worship of British style sprang from an admiration for British democracy and parliament in the late 18th century,’ says Robert O’Byrne, the Irish author of Style City: How London Became a Fashion Capital. ‘It spread to the more relaxed and egalitarian clothing of British men, in contrast to the formality of hidebound France where court uniform remained the norm; it was largely abandoned by the British during the reign of George III, except by those obliged to attend his very dull court.’
By the early 19th century, the fates were in place for Beau Brummel, crystallisation of British men’s style, as embodied by the clothiers of Jermyn Street and the tailors who settled in Savile Row in 1803. Brummel was the epitome of elegance on the Continent, too. In 1845, Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, a popular French novelist and dandy, wrote Du Dandysme et de Georges Brummel. Soon after, the rich in France began to ape the British in other ways — establishing men’s clubs and taking up hunting. Copying may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s hard to distinguish the original from the imitation. So, to distinguish themselves from the continentals who took so much trouble over their clothes, the British chose to look as rundown as possible.
The idea was born that it should always take a few seconds to notice if someone is well-dressed. Nobody who was really smart wanted to appear so — that would be ostentatious. Enter those frayed shirt collars, jumpers with the elbows gone, battered chintz rather than fresh new seat covers. That wilfully parsimonious aspect of shabby chic can go too far, straying into the mad posh territory of implying there’s something suspect about comfort: the consciously scatter-brained, consciously unvain, purple-faced dowager in the threadbare tweed coat who thinks loo paper is too poncy and insists on handfuls of heather instead, air-freighted to Kensington from the grouse moor, who only turns on the heating when she can bounce a golf ball on the ice in the downstairs lav.
But at the heart of shabby chic lies the admirable, classless truth that some things are beautiful or useful, and should be put on show or kept near at hand, however old and time-worn they are. To do without these things, or to conceal them, to keep them permanently scrubbed clean, and put them out of reach — and to pay extra to do all this, as the nihilist rich now do — is utterly perverse. If you visit a rich and fashionable British household these days, you’ll see something that has never existed before in the civilised world — an active dislike of old objects, or signs of human existence previous to their own. Nature may abhor a vacuum but, oh, how the modern rich adore one.
The stripping of the altars in the Reformation had nothing on this. Whether it’s a sprawling Victorian hotel in Bournemouth, converted into loft-style apartments for Grand Designs, a tumbledown Georgian rectory in the Cotswolds turned into a boutique spa, or a byre-cum-bijou-bolthole in the Black Mountains, the answer’s the same — strip anything old and shabby, and slosh white paint all over the place. Richard Rogers, arch nihilist of the age, has done it in Chelsea, taking two lovely Georgian houses and knocking them together into one big echoing void.
These sterile cubes are designed to look like no one lives there. And quite often no one does. Their owners are off visiting their other empty white boxes in the country, in New York, in Tuscany. Nihilism is now the style of the international rich.
Kitchens become pristine laboratories; flat expanses of steel, glass and slate, with no food on show, or any sign that anything’s ever been cooked or eaten there. There’s great attention to cleanliness, with a bathroom per bedroom, each one a practical exposition of modern plumbing techniques, with free-standing baths and multiple sinks, all connected to gleaming copper pipes. Back gardens have none of that horridly asymmetrical, unfashionably green grass or those ragged-edged, shambolic borders. Instead, there’s more slate, interrupted by the odd square patch of flowers planted in symmetrical matrices growing to uniform height. British borders haven’t been so geometrical since the Elizabethan knot garden.
The nihilist’s desire for control, order and blankness, and his dislike of beauty and the past, mean there’s nowhere calming or beautiful for the eye to rest; no magazine or book by the sofa; no way of putting your feet up on that sofa without compromising its snowy virginity. The house is on permanent standby for the estate agent’s surprise visit. It is forever Year Zero. Old, pretty things have given way to new, ugly nothings.
Harry Mount’s A Lust for Window Sills — a Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble-Dash is published by Little, Brown (£12.99).
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 9, 2010