The Unofficial New Posh Handbook

The One-Hundred-and-First Guide To What Really Matters In Life
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The Independent Online

Don't look now, but elegance may be coming back. Just when you thought we were getting all democratised; just when it seemed you'd never again hear a Received Pronunciation accent on BBC1; just when all the chaps of your acquaintance were buying suits at Reiss, and all the girls shopping for cheap leather in Top Shop; just when you were resigned to the thought that Craig from Big Brother might actually represent Homo Britannicus; just when you couldn't bring yourself to buy coriander in Sainsbury's because it had Jamie Oliver's thumbs-up drivel all over it - suddenly, things are changing. Posh Spice is having to give way to Posh Authentic, or the New Posh.

Don't look now, but elegance may be coming back. Just when you thought we were getting all democratised; just when it seemed you'd never again hear a Received Pronunciation accent on BBC1; just when all the chaps of your acquaintance were buying suits at Reiss, and all the girls shopping for cheap leather in Top Shop; just when you were resigned to the thought that Craig from Big Brother might actually represent Homo Britannicus; just when you couldn't bring yourself to buy coriander in Sainsbury's because it had Jamie Oliver's thumbs-up drivel all over it - suddenly, things are changing. Posh Spice is having to give way to Posh Authentic, or the New Posh.

We were suckered for a while by the Posh'n'Becks phenomenon. We genuinely believed they had something more than money and looks. She did have a certain style, though it changed with bewildering speed; he seemed a modest-though-gifted cove your children might safely admire. Around the time of their wedding, I remember being told that the Most Avidly Anticipated Document for years was the Posh and Becks wedding list. Finding out what they considered the best consumer durables, people thought, will tell us something about the collective aspirations of smart British youth.

Sad to say, it didn't happen. They settled for Marks & Spencer's vouchers instead. Humph, we said, how annoying. So near to identifying the household gods of the New Democracy, and yet so far.

So we went back to looking at Gary Rhodes's hair, and Liam Gallagher's ignorant swagger, and attending launch parties in grubby basements, and trying to find pie-and-mash restaurants interesting. Later, we got all excited by gangster chic and Guy Ritchie's diamanté mates, and we tuned into Big Brother even though we knew we couldn't imagine holding a conversation with any of the contestants, except maybe Nasty Nick, without expiring from boredom...

And then Nigella Lawson appeared on television, her lustrous hair streaming around her perfect physiognomy, her vast eyes shining with you-can-do-it encouragement, her sweet smile suggesting that she was probably hamming the whole thing up. Gosh, we thought, what a relief - a genuinely classy dame after the vaudeville freak shows we've been used to.

It was the start. Next, Prince William appeared in the press in his Union Jack weskit and everyone forgot about diamond-geezer cool. The Royal Family had acquired its first 18-carat pin-up. Applications flew for a place at St Andrews, the prince's choice of university.

An aristocratic babe called Sophie Ellis-Bextor appeared with her band, Spiller, on Top of the Pops, instantly eclipsing Posh. Sheepishly, as if it weren't quite the thing to do, Nasty Nick Bateman revealed that he'd been educated at Gordonstoun. Passengers flying on Virgin Atlantic proudly announced they'd gone "Upper Class", as the more expensive cabin is boldly named. What was happening to us?

We'd just got sick of pretending to be democratic. It's not that we're all secret snobs and élitists (taking "we" to mean Independent readers), just that our inclination to deal in the best of everything - the aristos - seems to be surfacing again after a couple of years off.

It's a retail phenomenon as much as a style revolution. Earlier this year, business-watchers reported the most vertiginous falls in sales of high street clothing since the late- Forties. The standard-bearers of mass-market fashion, such as Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores, C&A, Burton and Top Shop, were all suffering the same customer freeze-out, and began dropping their prices to stay alive. It didn't work. Meanwhile, the opulent, expensive retail temples of Harrods and Selfridges reported that sales of luxury goods - especially clothing and accessories - were heading through the roof. The consuming public was starting to trade up.

That trend has hardened into a tendency. Last week, the Arcadia Group, owners of Dorothy Perkins, Burtons and Top Shop, announced a loss of £8.5m (giving it the enviable status of Europe's worst-performing retailer). Elsewhere in town, the luxury-goods people were breaking out the champagne. LVMH sales were up by 35 per cent, representing an awful lot of brandy, bubbly, perfume and matching leather luggage sold over the summer. Tiffany & Co, the legendary gem merchants with the famous breakfast associations, found themselves 15 per cent up on last year. The most sensational leap forward, though, was Burberry, which gleefully noted a sales hike of 38 per cent.

Burberry? Manufacturers of that modest, inoffensive scarf in a cappuccino-black-white'n'red check design beloved of Japanese businessmen because they think it's terribly British? When did that suddenly become fashionable? Over the last three years is the answer, ever since Rose Marie Bravo, the brilliant American retail guru from Saks Fifth Avenue, was drafted in as chief executive to rebrand the famous design. "And now, darling," says a fashion-writer friend, "they've completely reinvented themselves. Burberry's very hip. Without doubt the fashion label most commonly seen on the backs of fashion editors - or on umbrellas and shoes and bags and ponchos - is Burberry.

Today, Ms Bravo admits that, at the time she took over, "the brand wasn't damaged... but it had become a little boring". But this, amazingly, turns out to have been the point all along. What's been happening this year has been a wholesale return to "elegance", complete with inverted commas. It's not elegance as in the Palace of Versailles, but what used to be called "classy", as in "classy dame". It's the New Posh.

Something restrained and chic and studiedly uncontroversial and ever-so-slightly boring. Being well turned-out in a Burberry raincoat. Speaking properly. Going to point-to-points. Dressing like a sensible bourgeois housewife. Wearing a blouse, as opposed to a "top". Buying silk headscarves with horse's head motifs. Being able to bake...

Prada, the Italian fashion house, is at at the forefront of this odd revolution. Its owner, Miuccia Prada, is a fan of Anglo-Saxon stolidity (her company bought Church's Shoes, which are, of course, as English as fruitcake), and she labelled the new Prada look "Sincere Chic" - strangely hideous plain-Jane cardigans and skirts in Fifties floral designs.

Claudia Schiffer was photographed in figure-hugging tweeds. Over the wet summer, elegant Knightsbridge ladies could be seen hurrying through the squalls in beige raincoats and dark glasses, as though they were auditioning for the Catherine Deneuve part in Belle de Jour. The days of fashion anarchy, of Moschino rhinestones, ripped jeans and Che T-shirts seemed to be well and truly over. Bourgeois Chic had come in.

And now it's taken another jump forward. The newest Prada look is, frankly, Dress Like Your Grandma. Its most recent advertisement in Vogue shows a wholesome, toothy English rose in a plunging Fortuny-style sequined gown, complete with fun-fur collar and pussy-cat bow. Meanwhile, Kate Moss has been venturing out in suede and patent-leather Edwardian court shoes. Things are getting so backward-looking, we're in danger of straying into Flapper Chic.

Look beyond fashion, and you'll find examples of old elegance, or New Posh, streaming back. The grooviest homeware you can buy this autumn is probably the new stuff from Wedgwood, the ancient crockery firm started by old Josiah in 1759. The company has signed up two hot talents from outside the plate-making world - Paul Costelloe, the frock designer, and Nick Munro, a 36-year-old industrial designer - to rethink the firm's vases and teacups. Munro's classic-with-a-twist jasper teapot is a fat and elegant dream object, while his teacups - white cup, black saucer - yell "class" at you (so, in a different way, does his £75 dog bowl in sexy black with a bone bas-relief on the side). Would you have thought we could ever go back to buying Wedgwood wedding presents? Nah - or rather, not likely.

What all this represents, of course, is a self-conscious return to a dreamy quality of Englishness. The question of national identity, of what kind of people we are, has been the key subject of the year, the subject that's lurked behind Scottish and Welsh devolution, Millennium domes and bridges, "Cool Britannia", the Battle of Britain anniversary, Euroscepticism, Olympic medals, Simon Schama on TV, Roger Scruton's new rose-tinted history.

We are concerned about our image. And here at the last, exhausted fag-end of the 20th century, we are keen to give the image a final burnish. If we're looking back, we would rather look back to elegance, to quality, and bespoke-ness and genuine roots and the genuine best - the aristos - rather than to the anarchic, the fashionable, the contingent. We want to claim the best as ours, before the new century starts up its yowling demands for our attention.

No wonder we're dressing in New Posh Burberry macs, plotting to drive a Morgan and booking tickets for Brief Encounter. If we can't be cool, perhaps retro-elegance is the best alternative.

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