by Diana White


According to the Pundits, aka the government spokespeople, we English lack a sense of identity, a sense of Englishness that puts us at a disadvantage, causing all manner of social problems. I should have thought that lacking a sense of identity would mean we can morph into whoever we like! or, even more usefully, having no sense of ourselves as being English, we have no particular sense of anyone else being different from us. However, what they are really saying, apparently, is that we have an identity crisis, which isn’t the same and certainly not useful.


Of course, being English is something of a misnomer. The only truly indigenous people of the UK are the Picts and they were driven north into the farthest reaches of this island hundreds of years ago. Clearly resenting their banishment they’ve made regular forays back to make a nuisance of themselves, led by their chief nuisance Gordon Brown, and now seem intent on taking us over. Still, one must be brave and hope for the best; porridge and haggis aren’t all that bad!  Since those pre-historic and heady days of freedom, when our shores were, presumably, peaceful and fairly empty, we’ve been invaded, taken over and colonized by people from almost every corner of the globe, though I’m not sure about Tonga. On top of this we’ve been the refuge and general melting pot of all kinds of émigrés seeking a better, safer, richer or more interesting way of life for almost as long. Which begs the question: as we are a mixture of Romans, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Franks, Danes, Norman French, (who were also Danes,) Attacotti (tribes from the Western Isles), Jews, Poles, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Jamaicans….you name them, they’ve settled here, what does being English mean in practical terms? 

This identity crisis is, they say, heightened by the fact we don’t even have a national costume. Everyone else has one; the Welsh have their tall hats and shawls, the Scots their plaids and sporrans, the Irish their check trews and sparkly dancing costumes, and all the English can come up with are the bizarre white suits of the Morris Dancers. Most of Europe can fetch up looking exotic in an outfit proclaiming their country of origin but not the English. Maybe the government is right and we really do have an identity crisis.

The quest for a national costume is an issue that has been raised many times in the past and has on occasion produced some interesting suggestions, most notably that we should adopt the glamorous scarlet Beefeater uniform of the guards at the Tower of London. I have nothing against this idea as it’s a splendid example of British tailoring and originality, plus the fact it’s historic, however, the Beefeaters were there to stop you escaping, and as being in the Tower was jolly bad news for most prisoners, trying to escape was rather essential, making the uniform something to be feared. A prison warden’s uniform as a national costume, therefore, might be seen as giving off the wrong message about the UK, though, actually, it wouldn’t. We have more prisoners than any other European country and the government’s intention to build bigger and better prisons indicates their intention for the prison population to increase still more, making the Beefeater uniform as our national costume rather appropriate.

However, I believe the reason we Brits don’t have national dress is because we are still a country dominated by class. Despite the fact that money plays more of a part in determining where we are placed on the social ladder than it used to do, being English is not as relevant as being from a particular social strata or a particular ‘set.’ Our sense of identity lies in the culture in which we were brought up or to which we have gravitated, and this is advertised by our clothing. There are still young men who sport the grey flannel trousers their father’s wore and girls who wear pearls. Even allowing for the fact that the young will always veer to the latest fashion statement, the poor to something practical that doesn’t cost much, and those with more money than taste to whatever their particular celebrity idol is wearing, our dress continues to be determined by who we are, the traditions we adhere to and the ethos of which we feel part. Even our bank balance doesn’t necessarily impinge on this. You can walk down any high street in any town in the UK and the discerning eye will be able to spot who everyone is, who they would like to be or what their current beliefs are.

The old adage Clothes maketh the Man still holds good. Muslims proclaim themselves with their clothing, so do orthodox Jews, so it seems odd that nobody recognizes, openly at any rate, that everybody else is doing the same. No teenage boy from the housing estate seeking street cred, for example, will be seen in jeans that don’t reveal most of his underpants (God knows how they manage to stop them falling off completely), and the trend for their sisters to layer their clothes so they resemble asylum seekers forced to wear their entire wardrobe for fear of it being stolen will, hopefully, pass into history. I cannot imagine Mr. and Mrs. Young and Respectable with their two point four children ever swopping their sensible jeans and fleeces for anything less practical, neither can I envisage the wellies and waterproofs brigade changing into something less identifiable. The Greens will be spotted in their recycled, vaguely ethnic outfits and the artisans by their knitted coats and hats. And that person with the sharp suit and briefcase, beware! They’re an estate agent out hunting.

 Identity crisis? I don’t think so, but it’s one way for the government to blame us for their mistakes.

in:  kulturissimo 66, March 2008