A class act: Unironic 'posh chic' is here

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Since when did the headscarf-and-horses set have any claim to be style leaders?

Social reconditioning is the order of the day: we've had to recalibrate our expectations in so many walks of life recently, from the pensions we may now never receive to the houses we can no longer afford. Why shouldn't we have to completely re-wire our notion of what's cool, too?

It's worth doing, this brain reboot, because otherwise you might think you'd gone to bed in the Noughties and woken up in the Seventies – the 1870s, even. A cabinet full of Old Etonians; a Royal Wedding that people seemed to care about; a TV series about the noble bond between Edwardian servants and their masters; Barbours everywhere, aristo models, elbow patches, cords. Margaret Thatcher as style icon, Kate Middleton as role model, Samantha Cameron wearing Christopher Kane; in short, Tories that people actually want to be like.

"It speaks volumes about our profoundly unequal society," says Owen Jones, author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class, "and of the worshipping of wealth that has developed over the past 30 years. The lifestyles of the rich and privileged are celebrated by the media, and there's no pressure to downplay your roots. People aren't embarrassed about wealth any more, they're openly proud of it."

So much is obvious in the conspicuous consumption inherent in latterday label culture and the status of the It bag. But what is surprising is the rise in popularity of a very specific sort of aesthetic: not the Eurotrash bling of the late Nineties, which unashamedly proclaimed the wearer's affluence in a rather more democratic way, nor the hyper-luxurious but consciously minimal 'stealth wealth' that we saw in the seasons immediately following the credit crunch. No, it's unalloyed, wellies and waistcoat, jolly hockey sticks posh, stalking high streets and catwalks alike as if it were beating for grouse. Posh posh posh. There's simply no other word for it.

Not since Footlights College beat Scumbag College in The Young Ones has it been socially acceptable to out yourself as one of the upper classes, nor to speak or dress like one of them either. Of course, these people have always existed, but for the past decade, they have flattened their vowels and understood they'd never exactly be at the cutting edge of cool.

But these days we queue in our droves to pick up whatever Kate Middleton has last been seen in; we crash websites in our desperation to emulate her high-street take on patrician chic. We were once a nation of enfants terribles, with the Gallaghers at Downing Street and Alexander McQueen staging unsettling shows in dingy warehouses. Nowadays, Noel is telling the Daily Mail that we had it good under Thatcher, and McQueen's successor has designed the princess's wedding dress. And the Conservative PM's wife, an aristocrat in her own right, is an ambassador for the British Fashion Council.

"It's a fabulous time to be posh," admits Kate Reardon, editor of Tatler. "We've got an Old Etonian Prime Minister, Kate and William are dignified and discreet, in tune with the times, and the most successful companies are those that deal in luxury goods. Burberry's sales are up and their ads are full of posh people."

Indeed, Burberry's line-ups of the likes of Otis Ferry, Eddie Redmayne, Emma Watson and Cara Delevigne – public school totty each one – have had the desired effect of hyping the posh look overseas, too. The label announced a 21 per cent growth in final quarter sales last month, thanks to Asian tourists buying into this most traditional of heritage labels. Meanwhile, the scramble to track down and own pieces worn by the Duchess of Cambridge has generated an estimated £1 billion for the economy, in what is being called 'the Kate effect', and Downton Abbey has gone down a storm with American audiences, further propagating posh as our most resonant national characteristic. It recalls the original brand of posh cool, personified by the louche stylings of the Duke of Windsor and the debutante glamour of Princess Margaret.

"British elegance is effortless and traditional," says Emma Hill, creative director of Mulberry, whose autumn 2011 collection played out on a catwalk surrounded by foliage, and was inspired by some of the more socially rarefied pursuits of the Great British Outdoors.

"Le Style Anglais became popular during the 1970s; it was en vogue to imitate the 'hunting, shooting, fishing' vibe of classic English fashion. It was the uniform of the country brought to town. English women are defined by these heritage influences and classics, and nowadays mix them with amazing street style."

There's a certain tribe – one that includes the likes of Alexa Chung, as well as models Alice Dellal and Daisy Lowe – whose indie influences have exerted pressure on the posh trope and turned it into streetwear. Floral tea dresses and sailor shifts worn with brogues and loafers, Barbours and tweed worn with denim, and battered leather satchels and briefcases that look like they may have accompanied their owners to prep school: all have helped re-appropriate and re-circulate the sartorial ticks of the upper echelons, thereby rehabilitating them for the rest of us plebs.

And this has kicked off something of a wider trend – one need only look at the international catwalks. For autumn 2008, D&G dressed models in knitwear, tartan and headscarves tied under the chin in imitation of our own Queen Elizabeth II. This season, meanwhile, saddle bags come courtesy of Gucci, Jerome Dreyfuss and Proenza Schouler, while Pierre Hardy's riding-whip necklaces for Hermès have a waiting list, even though they cost upwards of £570,000. Labels such as Issa, Temperley and Jenny Packham have all boomed under the patronage of the Middleton sisters. The motifs of the upper-class lifestyle have become fashion staples in themselves, but not until recently have we seen such a wholesale – and, more importantly, entirely unironic – return to them.

"When times are tough, you turn to what you know," says Peter York, author of The Sloane Ranger Handbook, which is being re-released digitally this year, 30 years after its publication. "You look for things that are secure and unrisky. You rediscover the joy of a Barbour."

There's certainly something to be said for picking up design classics that are durable and timeless during a moment of financial misery, but you need only look at the many proliferating street-style blogs to see that it goes beyond this, that the uniform of the hipster nowadays was once that of the upper classes. Quilted jackets in country estate green; coloured cords worn with deck shoes; chambray shirts given a modern makeover with yoke patches and elbow pads.

Several revivals in recent years – the Eighties, minimalism, grunge – have been linked to the current socio-economic outlook ("We're so wealthy we've lost all sense of what is tasteful"; "Uh oh, we're now a bit embarrassed about our wealth"; "We'd better dress the way we did the last time things got rocky" respectively), and the posh trend is a continuation of this. We've moved from an era when the haves and have-nots had blended, thanks to credit cards and sub-prime mortgages. Nowadays, we have debt, unemployment and corduroy trousers to tell them apart.

"It's stupid to say that there's any comfort to be had in 'knowing your place'," adds Kate Reardon, "but there is a sense of reassuring escapism to something like Downton Abbey. There's a perceived romance and elegance that is wonderful to lose yourself in."

"Pop culture has conquered all before it," says Owen Jones, "and it has become more democratic. An aristocrat and someone on a council estate might both watch The X Factor, and you wouldn't have heard regional accents on the BBC 30 years ago. So while leisure interests have embraced all classes, there has been a comeback of the trappings of privilege, of being posh and proud."

But before you go round shouting about it, be warned: the look also rests on a certain modesty and sense of "Who, me?". It's the sort of self-effacingly confident humility that can only be learnt at the feet of Tiggy Legge-Bourke, or in the country's most exclusive schools. You can buy the Barbour and encourage the luxuriant growth of thick, shiny hair, but you can't imitate the breeding. And that is precisely the point.

"It's not about being posh," says Sophia Beddow, social editor at Hello!. "It's about having class. Before, what defined being 'posh' was pedigree – it was all about where you came from. But the boundaries have changed: you only have to look at Kate Middleton and the way her family carried themselves throughout the Royal Wedding to see that."

In this way, the toff trend can be seen as a reaction against the ubiquity of the perma-tanned, partially-clothed, bandage-dress sort of celeb – you might not like Kate Middleton's style (as indeed designer Vivienne Westwood does not, calling her "ordinary" in an interview last year) but at least she's always tastefully covered up.

"After a succession of trashy It girls who we derided for being posh, at the moment we have good posh role models," says Kate Reardon. "If Kate and William were morons, falling out of nightclubs, perhaps we'd feel differently. Flashy bankers are the most unpopular people on the planet right now; a bit of modest 'noblesse oblige' is more acceptable."

Perhaps we do have a grudging admiration for a lost race of people who dispense with their wealth in understated ways. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher paid for her own £19 ironing board at Downing Street, we are told, while latterday MPs learnt how to 'flip' their houses to wring as much from their expenses as possible. There's certainly a zeitgeist for that sort of austerity, but the spectre of Margaret Thatcher abides right now, not least because of public sector strikes and government cuts so deep that Whitehall will run with blood, but because The Iron Lady seems to have rebirthed her as a fashion icon. Anya Hindmarch, handbag-maker to most of west London, even arrayed her Bond Street store with effigies of the former leader when the film was released, in celebration of her boxy suits and redoubtable handbags.

"The cleverest thing about Thatcher's image was that her clothes never detracted from her character," Hindmarch explained when the display was unveiled. "That was quite a feat, I suspect, to look good and still not be talked about for your clothes."

What was perhaps more of a feat was that these Maggie mannequins remained undisturbed and Hindmarch's gleaming vitrines survived unegged, but that's the difference in attitudes towards 'posh' these days. It is no longer something to resent or be embarrassed by, so much as something we all aspire to and – thanks to a schismatic sense of social mobility – believe is within our grasp. Being posh has become a way of demonstrating our tenacity and mettle during these difficult times. And that is why we stomach upper-class spokespeople in positions of power claiming that we're 'all in it together', and why it is no longer red rag to a bull to suggest that Thatcher did some good.

There is a difference, too, in the attitudes of the next generation, who remain less inflamed than their forebears when it comes to political protest. There have been murmurings of classism during the recent student protests, but the summer riots were proof enough that aspiration is rife – and of the crushing scorn of the wealthy in their wake: credentials nowadays are not so much about acquisition as they are about etiquette.

"There are plenty of girls out there who are well-bred, but do they have class," asks Sophia Beddow. "You only have to watch an episode of Made in Chelsea to know the answer to that. Victoria Beckham is another case in point – 'Posh' may have been her moniker in her early days as a Spice Girl, but today no one can dispute the fact she is one classy lady."

"There's a difference between being posh and being rich," agrees Tatler's Kate Reardon. "Posh is a way of living that can often be quite miserly and not about money. It was excruciating being posh under Tony Blair; posh people were fantastically unpopular. But these things are a reaction against what has come before. And, as with all trends, it's always darkest before the dawn."

Status update: How we wore

THEN

Posh Spice

Bursting into the 'spice-o-sphere' in 1997 with their single "Wannabe", the Spice Girls were as brassy as they were brash... and everyone loved them for it.

Kate Moss

The uber-model of the Nineties was Croydon born and bred, but that didn't stop her penetrating Paris's most exclusive ateliers.

Cherie Booth

The First Lady of New Labour was raised in Lancashire by her mother after her father, the actor Tony Booth, left his family. She became a QC in 1995 and once stood for election as a Labour MP.

Denim jackets

Worn by all self-respecting followers of fashion, whether a faded punk version, a citified indigo number or sheepskin-lined à la Liam Gallagher.

D:Ream

One-hit wonders D:Ream found their career invigorated once more when Tony Blair's campaign managers chose "Things Can Only Get Better" as the soundtrack to the landslide election win in 1997.

Labour

The only party to see and be seen voting for: New Labour commandeered the affections of rock stars and pensioners alike – this was 'Cool Britannia'.

NOW

Victoria Beckham

Shaking off the 'posh' nickname, ditching the hair extensions, fake tans and breast implants, the ex-Spice Girl has recreated herself as a fashion designer.

Kate Middleton

Middleton is the middle-class girl made good, snaring Prince William after chasing him up to university in St Andrews.

Samantha Cameron

Daughter of Sir Reginald Adrian Berkeley Sheffield, 8th Baronet, 'Sam Cam' grew up in a stately home in Yorkshire. The PM's wife is also creative director of luxury stationers Smythson and an ambassador of the British Fashion Council.

Shooting jackets

Quilted for warmth and patched for pressure on elbows for grouse season, the archetypal country-set style is being worn beyond the Glorious 12th.

Brian Cox

D:Ream's keyboard player Brian Cox became the cool face of particle physics, with a series on the BBC explaining natural phenomena.

Conservative

We now have a Tory government that is doing quite well in the polls. Cameron's aristo background – and those of most of his cabinet – are seemingly no turn-off.

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