Ilford style: Any shape as long as it's short, darling

Once the butt of endless jokes, Essex may soon be Britain's most chic county. Harriet Walker on an unlikely fashion phenomenon

London, Milan, Paris... Ilford. That's in Essex, where last night in a marquee at Fairlop Waters Country Park a new pin was placed on the fashion map. At least, that's what the one million viewers of ITV's hit series The Only Way is Essex seem to think. The programme, which returned to our screens for a second series last Sunday, pulled in an audience of 1.1 million – 900,000 more than when it first aired last October.

The county known more for its white shoes and WAGs is also in the throes of its own Fashion Week – as well as enjoying something of a cultural renaissance. Essex hotspots Chelmsford and Clacton-on-Sea have seen visitor numbers shoot up, with Travelodge reporting booming demand for rooms.

In the past year, the county has given us The X-Factor winner Matt Cardle, queen of the jungle Stacey Solomon and Strictly Come Dancing winner Kara Tointon. Even fish and chips cook-turned-model Alexander Beck, who was on the Prada catwalk this season, hails from Essex.

Despite its detractors, the area does well when it come to populist sentiment – its sons and daughters have a mass appeal, to which television favourites such as Dermot O'Leary and Denise Van Outen are testament. They are humble but fun-loving, hailing from a county which unashamedly enjoys aspiration and the good life.

"I think Essex comes out of it quite well," says Grazia columnist Paul Flynn of the show. "It looks a whole lot less neurotic, competitive and elitist than neighbouring London."

The Only Way is Essex is a "modified reality" programme, which uses non-actors in improvised, semi-scripted scenarios, and has won not only notoriety but also genuine affection from viewers for its brash, overblown and rather stilted dramatis personae.

"Slightly obsessed with [The Only Way is Essex]," said a fan on Twitter on Sunday. "Second series better than ever. I've never seen so much make-up, fake tan, fake hair, fake nails..."

The show's stars have become tabloid darlings and it is they who are populating the prestigious front row seats at this week's event. Glamour model Amy Childs, self-proclaimed "Mr Essex" Mark Wright and his long-suffering on/off girlfriend Lauren Goodger have been thrust into the limelight. The earthy Nanny Pat, Wright's grandmother, has taken the role of fashion doyenne, forsaking her sausage plaits and spray tan for something more stylish.

When the series debuted on ITV2 last year, it kicked off a certain amount of fascination with the glamorous world of fake tans and "vajazzling" – a grooming process in which diamantes are glued to the pubic region – and spawned a whole new vernacular, in which the word "babes" is applied as a suffix of every utterance.

"It's particular, tribal, funny, and comes with its own recognisable sense of style, language and an instant hit cast-list," says Flynn. "That's the holy grail of TV. There's a mix of empathy, shame and simple heart-throb telegenics involved in reality TV, for which Essex scrubs up perfectly."

The format is loosely based around the US-derived formula for shows such as The Hills and Jersey Shore, both of which purport to follow the antics of "real" people, but which are heavily directed according to what is most entertaining. While the first season of TOWIE – as it is known to its fans on Twitter – was based around a group of glitzy Essex natives, the second has so far seen some more heavy-handed manipulation, including the introduction of a former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner.

Still, the show appears to have lost none of its allure. Dismissed as tasteless, naff and trashy, the show rather brings out the more humane side of a culture usually scorned. The usual amount of liberal Lutherans have come out to condemn the cash-splashing, heavy-drinking protagonists, but the programme speaks of a righteously light-hearted working-class sensibility.

That comes in harsh relief to some of the more middle class shows that tend to reflect the straitened circumstances in which we find ourselves.

"Lily Allen's shop opening on TV is a relentless cacophony of dread, because she and her sister give off the impression of wanting to appear sophisticated," says Flynn. "The opening of Minnie's in Essex on Sunday night looked like an absolute hoot by comparison, because they didn't."

The second series has come under fire for the micro-managing of its players' lives, constructing plot twists that take them more into the remit of acting. Purists have decried the series for focusing too heavily on the affluent areas Gants' Hill and Brentwood. But the legions of fans don't seem to care. "Even at its most over-produced, [TOWIE] gets those things right," says Flynn.

Born in Essex

Dick Turpin It is thought the notorious highwayman was born in Thackstead, Essex.

Joseph Lister The scientist was born in Upton, Essex and was the founder of antiseptic surgery.

Jilly Cooper The novelist was born in Hornchurch, Essex, though she grew up in Ilkley, West Yorkshire.

Alan Davies The star of Jonathan Creek and QI was born in Loughton and grew up in Chingford.

Dame Maggie Smith You'd never guess it from her cut-glass enunciation, but one of Britain's best actresses was born in Ilford, which was then (1934) part of Essex.

Denise Van Outen The actress, who began her career at 12 in Les Misérables, was born in Basildon.

Jamie Oliver The popular chef, who has taken it upon himself to reform the UK's schools and now the world's eating habits, was born and raised in Clavering, Essex.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Commercial Vehicle Sales Executive

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Working with a set process to achieve profitab...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

    Recruitment Genius: Facilities Coordinator

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Facilities Coordinator is required to join a...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Software House - PRINCE2, PMP

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A dynamic, customer oriented Pr...

    Day In a Page

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate