It is a truism that the United Kingdom does not have a national dress. The explanations for this lack are, however, vague and inconsistent. Popular accounts iterate the absence of a national dress, but few, if any, offer a definitive reason.
In attempting to seek an explanation, it is instructive to examine the geopolitical history of the United Kingdom itself and to establish terminology relating to the United Kingdom and its member states. Politically, United Kingdom is an abbreviation for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this geopolitical form, the United Kingdom is multinational and comprises four geographically delimited partners: Wales, Scotland, and England (which together form Great Britain) and, of course, Northern Ireland. This alliance of neighboring territories is a product of various constitutional reforms and parliamentary Acts of Union carried out and revised over several centuries from the 1500s on. During the late 1990s, for example, the United Kingdom went through a period of devolution resulting in the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and Northern Ireland Assembly.
These ongoing revisions to the form and function of the United Kingdom provide some clues as to its lack of national dress: If national dress is taken as a sartorial expression of a stable, collective, and, above all, national identity, the history and provenance of the United Kingdom itself have not always endorsed this. Crucially, it might be argued that the United Kingdom is not a nation per se but rather a collection of nations, each with its own identity and most having a recognized national dress of their own. In addition, historically, the Union is replete with controversy and has frequently been viewed as an oppressive force. The long-standing administrative center and seat of power for the United Kingdom has been based for the most part in Westminster, London. As such, the United Kingdom has been perceived as Anglocentric (or England-centered), with the populations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland voicing a sense of detachment from, even resentment toward, the United Kingdom as a result. Rather than unifying, then, the United Kingdom is sometimes cast as a potentially overbearing, even threatening, force to be railed against. In turn, this suggests that any attempt to consolidate the constituent nations of the United Kingdom via such a thing as a common mode of dress would be fraught with difficulties.
Historically, no recognized attempts have been made to instigate a national dress for the United Kingdom. There have, however, been several attempts to develop national dress for each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, with varying degrees of success. The popularly recognized form of Welsh national dress, comprising a red cloak and tall stovepipe-style hat, has its origins in countrywomen’s dress of the early nineteenth century and grew out of a campaign headed by national activist Augusta Hall (later Lady Llanover) to promote Welsh culture and the native woolen industry and to counter a perceived threat to Welsh identity from Anglo Britain.
It is often the case that designated and/or official national dress is selected for reasons of typicality and for being representative of a place and people. The four partners comprising the United Kingdom have, however, asserted their distinctiveness from each other over the centuries, and the national dress of each has been usefully employed to symbolize that difference, patriotism, and tribal identity. Along with traditional Welsh dress, the Scottish tartan kilt and traditional Irish dress provide further cases in point. During the uprisings of the mid-eighteenth century, the wearing of the kilt was outlawed and as such became an act of Scottish nationalist defiance against the unifying pretensions of the Anglo British (the English). Similarly, the traditional fringed cloak and saffron-colored garments of Irish dress were forbidden under the sumptuary laws of the sixteenth century, which were part of an attempt to suppress Irish identity and encourage British alliances. Given their politicized histories, it is unlikely that Scottish, Irish, or Welsh national dress would be usurped by a collective dress of the United Kingdom.
Aside from geopolitics, the question of U.K. national dress (or the lack thereof) also needs to be considered from popular and cultural perspectives. In popular accounts, definitions of the United Kingdom are subject to wide—and often territorially inaccurate—interpretation. The United Kingdom is commonly abbreviated to Great Britain, or, more bafflingly still, it is interchangeably referred to as and muddled with England. The frequent conflation of these entities and the lack of clarity over correct usage of terminology suggest an equal lack of clarity over the various forms of national dress existent within the United Kingdom. Indeed, the United Kingdom is sometimes imagined as actually possessing a national dress, which, in turn, suggests that there is frequently little concern in the popular consciousness for the subtle differences between an accepted form of national dress and a more general notion of national style.
The United Kingdom does have a strong affiliation with certain items of clothing, and a national “British” style—a kind of pseudonational dress—exists in the popular imagination. These perceptions tend to be based on touristic and stereotypical visions of the United Kingdom and Anglo Britain (England) in particular. This runs the gamut from folk costume used in English Morris and May dancing, to Union Jack boxer shorts (based on the flag of the United Kingdom), to ceremonial wear, military uniforms, traditional tailoring, and the clothing of heritage lifestyle brands such as Burberry, Aquascutum, and DAKS. The male tailored three-piece suit with necktie and bowler hat is an image regularly used by cartoonists as a caricature of Britishness. However, some argue that this mode of dress has become so widespread globally that it no longer symbolizes a specific national identity, be it British or otherwise. John Bull, a literary character created in the early 1700s, is deemed a national personification of the Kingdom of Great Britain and is identified through a specific form of dress: a stout man in tailcoat with breeches, a Union Jack waistcoat, and low top hat (sometimes called a John Bull topper). Yet again, however, some factions find Bull deeply problematic as an icon, and the character is rejected as a symbol by Irish nationalists. More broadly, this shows that any attempt to capture a national essence and represent it through the material world is a vexed activity, particularly in the case of the United Kingdom with its multiple characters and cultures; therein lies the reason for the lack of U.K. national dress.
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