In Britain, the high streets have been on unstable ground for a long time, as local councils have seen city centres as cash cows, upping parking charges and using armies of attendants to pounce on unsuspecting out-of-towners who stayed ten minutes too long in a space. The decline in the number of shops in our high streets has been inevitable.
Large, suburban retail parks with free parking and easy access have really given our city and town centres a drubbing. And now a year-long series of lockdowns and restrictions on trading have meant that many of us have turned to online shopping; Britain has become a nation of people waiting in for deliveries of lounge wear and perhaps the odd fancy top for a weekend Zoom party. As a Generation X new wave punk, I find this utterly depressing.
In fact, it’s really made me nostalgic for the old days. When I was 15, I had a part-time job as an Avon representative – I would go up and down my street, which was my patch, selling bottles of Timeless perfume and scented body lotion. At Christmas, my order books would be full of costume jewellery and bath salts, and favourite perfumes in novelty Christmas bottles; this was as sophisticated and as remote as early 1980s shopping got. My mum used to get the Freemans catalogue, so every six months we would have a house full of women getting excited over Lulu’s newest collection of skin-tight snow-washed jeans that they could pay 90p-a-week for over 25 weeks.
This was the only way that most women in my community had access to high fashion and make-up. For everything else we had the market stalls; very rarely did we buy clothes, bedding or household goods from a shop. Because shopping in a shop required your best clothes, it was a day out… a proper special outing.
I’m waxing lyrical about these times, because I really lament what is happening to our high streets. The recent news that ASOS has bought Topshop, Top Man and Miss Selfridge while Boohoo has acquired the Debenhams brand, having already secured Karen Millen and Oasis, makes me long for those days of real money and your chance as a young woman to find a style that was your own.
These enormous online fast fashion companies are buying up brands to put straight on to their websites. None of these collections will have a physical shop and stylish staff for you to aspire to. Apparently, it’s not the Gen Z way.
My teenage Gen X self pities Gen Z and their lack of vision and lack of opportunity to create looks that are their own style. Dare I say it, youth subculture is over and consigned to the history books, along with Chelsea Girl, Dial-a-Disc and hanging around in shops waiting to hear your favourite record come on.
Having just spent a year online in lockdown, why the hell would anyone want this to be their life? Gen Z, I’m disappointed; I thought you were going to be the rebellious younger siblings to the worthy millennial snowflakes.
But, alas, it seems your style, your clothes, your youth identity will be curated for you in a warehouse by someone in their fifties looking at sales figures and number-crunching how many navy pairs of leggings were sold in the last three months.
Fashion and music have always been strong industries in the UK. But our unique British youth identity of eccentric but highly stylish hedonism, is, I fear, in danger of being destroyed by the massive online retail industry, just as music, too, is becoming sanitized by streaming.
This online life means you can’t touch the fabric, you can’t match it, you can’t clash it, which is the British way of working-class street style. You can’t try it on in a changing room with 30 other girls, soaking in the excitement and hormones spilling out with the anticipation of going out in town in a few hours in your new frock bought from Miss Selfridge, your new boots bought from the Punk Stall on the market and the fishnet tights you slipped into your bag in Miss Selfridges when no one was watching…
Covid-19 and the lockdowns it has caused seem to have accelerated the inevitable. Of course, there have been warnings for a long time that the physical act of shopping was on its way out. The markets I used to visit as a teenager, for example, were a wonderful mix of stalls of factory seconds, old catalogue stock and fashion entrepreneurs making and selling their own styles in between fruit and veg and baby clothes, but they have long since disappeared – fantastic working-class spaces gone forever.
However, as a young woman working in a factory earning fairly decent pay, I could once a month take a trip into Nottingham with my mates on the double decker buzzing with excitement at the shops we would go in, the clothes and make-up we would try on and buy, and the big city lads that we could eye up. WhatsApp, Instagram, Spotify and ASOS are sad replacements for the utter joy of the smells, the noise, the music, the side eyes from other girls stalking the denim aisle and the touch of trailing your hands over a hundred fake fur jackets.
My only hope is that, post-lockdown, those old enough to remember these things remember how and why they were so important, and those that have never known those joys get some sort of chance to experience them and create a style that their parents hate.
It would be a travesty if the rebellious and independent youth culture that the UK has always been known for has been lost along with the factories that used to make that fast fashion in our towns and cities.
I hope that, after lockdown and post-Covid, our youth come out of their homes, get off their screens, interact with a world that is dangerous, messy and exciting and, most importantly, revolt against ‘Instafashion’ they neither chose nor styled themselves. And if they don’t, they can rest assured there will be some extremely interesting and stylish Gen X raves going on in care homes in the coming years…
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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