You only have to read Peter Ackroyd’s “London: The Biography”, 2014, to get an idea of the phenomenon, or even the words of Henry Vollam Morton in his “In Search of London”, 1951, describing the fog “which reduces visibility to a yard, which turns every lamp into a downward V of haze, and gives to every encounter a nightmare quality of almost terror”. Ackroyd underlines that what Morton wrote is an example of many, in which London fog is described as a flight of fear in the city centre. And immediately your mind goes back to the murky nights in Whitechapel when the uncatchable Jack the Ripper was on the rampage, hidden in the impenetrable mists. Frightening, London fog, and added to the smoke produced by the industries both within and outside the city, it became a characteristic of the English capital. London smog was almost like a brand name. A brand so strong that the unbreathability of the air was not deemed of prime importance and the idea became famous as a colour, the famous London Smoke grey, or as a style, but also as a life choice. It was the price you paid to be a “real Londoner”.
The Great Smog, December 1952 and fabrics of 1935 from a “Standard” sample.
In Morton’s times, formal wear proposed by the best London tailors seemed to be inspired by the same pervasive atmospheric conditions. Fabrics were not only heavier, but their finishing made them even thicker and more milled than usual, as if the cold they were trying to avoid was not only caused by the weather, but was also psychological, existential. The British Empire was no longer what it had used to be, the Victorian era was long gone, and London was about to lose its title as the capital of the world. The City, still stiff and elegant, was nonetheless a sad place. It was also feeling the consequences of the Great Crash in America of 1929 and the greys of the clothes matched perfectly with the gloomy banks of the River Thames, and even more the mood of the Londoners themselves.
The samples in the “Standard” collections of those years speak of “misty” hues, almost a kind of camouflage. Perhaps there were those who appreciated being able to hide themselves from view in a city with millions of inhabitants. During the prolonged eclipses of the sun, caused by the thick fogs, men in greys and blacks were swallowed up by the impenetrable smoke which made the urban surroundings seem strangely wild and sinister.
In the period of the 1930s – 1950s, including the Second World War, London’s men seemed to be dressed in fog. During that period the grey and grey-blue fabrics by Dormeuil, Hardy, Minnis and by Standen demonstrated a continuous mood in line with the grey tones in photographs by Leonard Misonne, Wolfgang Suschitzky, Arthur Tanner and, more recently, Edward Miller. The “Standard” samples manage to colour those images, but not to brighten them, without giving them any light, as if there were no sky behind the colourless background. Opaque flannels, dark worsteds, decorations in blue or white silks, nubby lambswool that looked like wrought iron drenched by rain. Just like the dark twill Arthur Neville Chamberlain seems to have been wearing in the portrait of him on 12th March 1940.
Arthur Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940.
London fog was already enveloping him: two months later, after three years in office, he left Downing Street and was followed by Winston Churchill. Chamberlain died on 9th November of the same year, leaving the world to the mercies of Hitler. A deluded defender of appeasement, he had believed in the Munich Agreement of 1938, but he had made a tragic mistake, which often happens in the fog.
The fabrics in these enormous volumes in their leather bindings seem not to have noticed that, after six long years, the war had finished. They were still faithful to their foggy origins and practically pre-announced the Great Smog of December 1952, when the city was lost in its own soot, asphyxiated by the smoky chimneys pouring out fumes from the coke burning merrily during that winter. The Great Smog literally took your breath away, took away your will to live, and all hope was smothered. Hundreds, thousands of people died. In the end, those foggy fabrics blended with the real fog in which the numerous funerals took place.
It is therefore no surprise that, from the ashes of that austere London, the Swinging London of the Sixties was born, dazzling and eccentric, glittering and daring, young and sexy. A gust of coloured transgression had blown away the fogs from the banks of the River Thames.