Ed Thompson London Documentary Photographer | Lecturer | Artist

Anarcho Dandies. 2009.

Retro Socialising in London.

Text by Ed Thompson

The state of a countries economy filters through into every aspect of day-to-day life, in the price of bus fares or the cost of heating bills, but none so telling of a downturn than the quality of television advertising. At present the advertisers in the U.K are inundating us with rehashed eighties adverts and vintage John Cleese Accurist commercials. Obviously it's cheaper for them to rehash things, but more importantly they're resorting to hard times with one of advertising's most powerful psychological tools; nostalgia. With the highest unemployment in twenty years, the U.K brought to its knees by bankers of mass destruction and the country still at war, they have found an interesting way of trying to get us to spend, encouraging us to escape emotionally, back into a more safe and comfortable yesteryear. Recently contemporary culture in Britain has chosen to get its hooks into the 1980's. With arctic roll, union strikes and bank bonus yuppies all back on the menu. Being a child of the 1980's I'm not keen on the idea of another winter of discontent. For my nostalgic escape I needed to go deeper, further back, a last ditch effort to embrace an England that doesn't exist anymore. An England that is more David Niven than David Beckham, more Fred Astaire than Ginger Spice, more Lady than Gaga and more Chap than Chav.

In Central London there is a vibrant vintage social scene, with large numbers of people taking part in swing dances, vintage nights and burlesque clubs. Most of these Retro-Socialising events owe a lot to the Chap Magazine. The Chap was born, kicking and preening out of the late nineties, a tongue-in-cheek magazine, and all round last bastion of Britishness that arrived as the onslaught of "lads' mags" were at their peak. Recently assisted by its readers' bailouts the magazine has managed to survive into its tenth year of publication. They hold an annual event in Central London dubbed The Chap Olympiad. Located just behind Tottenham Court Road, the hyper-consumerism and back-packer chic slowly disappears as you approach the event at Bedford Square. The ornate fences keep the modern world at bay as attendees inside the square are dressed in various vintage clothing amusing themselves with anarcho-dandiest sports, ale and G & T's. The style is predominantly 1940's with morning suits and tea dresses being the most popular, although the whole event is more like a post-modern melting pot, some Victorian looks, others more Colonial in their style.

Having spent a number of years photographing various re-enactment societies I started to notice how certain people naturally fit into the era they choose to depict, not just in the authentic choice of their clothing, that is purely superficial, but how the very core of their character seems like it's breaking the laws of the space/time continuum. At the Chap Olympiad I was drawn, like a curious anthropologist/time-traveller to Fleur de Guerre. Fleur has the kind of natural grace that has left our television sets and the type of skin that never needs photoshopping. She stands tall and speaks with eloquence; 'I was originally inspired by photographs of the 1940s, not just the Hollywood movie stars, but photographs of everyday women, they always looked so unfailingly glamorous.' Fleur's grandmother was a hairdresser and beauty Queen in the 1940's, so perhaps it's in her genes, she goes on to say how she got her look; 'I rarely, if ever shop in vintage stores, at least in the UK. I buy most of my vintage clothing from American eBay, where genuine 40s clothing is more plentiful and in better condition.' Admittedly having authentic vintage is a good start to get into the retro-social scene, but Fleur thinks it's not all about money, 'it's possible to make a very authentic-looking outfit from high-street clothing if you know what you're looking for. Just look at old pictures, study shapes, silhouettes and details.' As I'm speaking to Fleur I realise I've interrupted her scoring of one of the events at the Olympiad, her role as a vintage pin-up has brought her notoriety in the scene, mainly thanks to her blog, Diary of a Vintage Girl. 'I started the blog almost on a whim and was amazed at how quickly people started to read and comment on it. At first it was just somewhere for me to talk about vintage, my latest buys and wish-list items, but later it turned into more of a personal style blog as people requested that I post pictures of myself in my outfits'. Her blog now averages between 800-1000 visitors a day and opened doors to opportunities from sponsorship, modelling and invitations to various vintage events.

There aren't many subcultures you could place in a small London square, encourage them to drink alcohol all day and then not have some kind of skirmish, but unlike Jeremy Kyle's participants, the guests of the event not only adopt the attire of better times past, but also the attitude, the best thing to go with a good pair of braces being a stiff upper lip. For retro-socialising to work, to really help you to psychologically escape, there are two key elements; the first being attention to detail, whether it be the organisers or the participants, creating a seamless paradox- free environment, the second is being in character and acting accordingly to the space before you. Each person at the Olympiad's delusion supports the overall illusion, as long as everyone plays their part it creates a surreal and charming day.

The only problem with all the frivolity is that the party must end. When you've become a member of a subculture you want to be able to meet more than once a year. For a while there was the Sheridan Club, a monthly gathering organised by the Chaps, and based in Central London. However the club closed its doors and the retro-socialisers faded back into the present. From its ashes some of its members and others who had met on its online web forums created the New Sheridan Club. The New Sheridan Club meets once a month in the function room of the Wheatsheaf Pub. The first visit is free and like other retro-social events, the attitude is light hearted, tongue-in-cheek. They are very accepting of everyone, as long as you are suitably attired, if not they will provide a gentleman with a tie to wear, of a very questionable style, as punishment. The small upstairs room is hung with banners depicting the distinctive hat, pipe and bowler hat club logo. The Chairman stands in a group of Anarcho-Dandies they are all perfectly dressed, he converses with a pint of Spitfire Ale in hand; in the background a projection of Basil Fawlty presides over the room, like some ancient British pagan deity. 'I have always been attracted to and amused by the punk-style alter egos – Poly Styrene, Captain Sensible, Sid Vicious and such like, and when asked how I wished to be addressed, I opted for the name The Chairman.' He went on to tell me that he got the title 15 years ago when he was the Chairman of a fictional rowing club, the W.R.C (Witham Rowing Club). Many of the Anarcho-Dandies I spoke to at the New Sheridan Club had previous punk sensibilities. Clayton Hartley, the master of ceremonies on a number of nights I attended told me 'many Chaps have had former lives as punks and there's a strong overlap with the Goth world.' Clayton, like Fleur, seems to suit the retro-social scene perfectly, he greets members and visitors alike with English seldom heard, English without a hint of a regional accent. But for all his manners and regal tone he assured me that the New Sheridan Club is far from elitist; 'there is a myth that the Club is populated by aristocrats: while there are a few people who are moneyed, most are actually very down at heel. I once sat next to a real Viscount at a dinner and he said, of The Chap Magazine, "Yes, I'm never really sure if it's for people like me or if it's taking the piss out of people like me." The answer, of course, is both. But he would never understand that.' Clayton understands the very essence of retro-socialising, he knows why he and other people become attracted to the subculture; 'when you reach a certain age you consider your stylistic options: you can't dress like a teenager for the rest of your life but you are still interested in clothes. For them the path of dapperness and retro-dandyism seems to offer a way to be smart (and perhaps to stand out, if that's what you want) that will never be inappropriate for your age.'

You can sometimes spot New Sheridan Club members when they're out for the evening, not only for the vintage clothing they wear, but for the N.S.C logo embossed onto a badge or cuff link. During the club nights members drink and socialise whilst a projector is set up for lectures on varying subjects; many of the members are well read, and/or writers, like a modern day salon, a meeting of likeminded intellectuals with a leaning to the dramatic/eccentric. The club is quite clandestine, I first heard about it through word of mouth at the Chap Olympiad and was then handed a business card with nothing but the logo and a website address on it, many of the retro-social events I went to had NSC members attending, so it's a good place to start if you want to get into the London scene.

For a very long time being English was synonymous with good manners, good sportsmanship and bad teeth. Last year the British were banned from taking hen/stag holidays in Slovakia, the Slovakians simply didn't want to deal with our mess anymore. Our European exports should currently be helping business in the UK. Unfortunately Thatcher killed off manufacturing in the eighties, so it seems the UK's most prolific export is drunk and aggressive young people. At home the BNP have made us ashamed of St George's flag and paranoid about having a sense of national pride, just writing national pride feels dirty, and I know it really shouldn't. It seems our teeth have improved at the cost of everything else. There is an answer to this subversion of our own culture, we take it back.

Retro-Socialising is the new punk; not literally of course, the authentic dandy would never curse or spit on the Queen's Highway, instead their anarchism is more like the daughter of two aging hippies wanting to be an accountant. The Anarcho-Dandies have manners in a society that has none, treat people with respect where there generally is none and ultimately don't seem to follow any mainstream cultural trends, bucking the ever growing obsession with celebrity and 'keeping up with the Beckhams'. Admittedly in the beginning of the Chap movement their Dada-ist tendencies led them to direct action, with members not only protesting against the conceptual art of Rachel Whiteread at the V&A Museum, but also to show their true Anti-Capitalist Situationist colours by taking the fight against "bland corporations" such as GAP, Starbucks and NIKE. That was over five years ago, and it seems that the Chaps have mellowed somewhat since; they continue the fight with a more refined laid-back approach that reflects the very core of the Chap ideology: they get tipsy and party like its 1939; their retro-social lives lead by example. As they walk down the street in vintage garb they become the anachronism, for it's the very way they live that is the anarchy. In an age where the mass media have so much control over peoples wants and desiresthe retro-socialisers very existence supports freedom of expression and individuality. With new stars on the rise such as retro-starlet singer Paloma Faith, the TV series Mad Men gaining success and popularity, and even Londonstreet fashion currently sharing a distinctively Chappish feel, it seems that the retro-social lifestyle is set to be adopted into the mainstream culture, I only hope their good manners are absorbed in the process.

Project Details

Publication: A Magazine Curated by, Foto8, Margate Photo Festival, Slideluck Potshow

Date : 2009