London is renowned for its happy-go-lucky approach to fashion. Individuality and experimentation are definitely encouraged, and there is no set ‘uniform.’ So, if there’s a look you’ve wanted to test out, but haven’t felt certain of, try it in the UK! If you prefer to be a little more “by the book,” then a basic grasp of London geography will help; key parts of town have slightly different vibes. Unfortunately, London is also known for its unpredictable weather making dressing decisions difficult. Layering is key -- a difficult skill to master and considered an art form by many. In theory, there are four distinct seasons in the UK which should give some clue as to how many and what type of layers are needed. However, even seasoned Londoners get caught out by the unexpected shower, heat-wave, or snow storm.
A few general points will help guide you in Great Britain. As much as they will fiercely deny it, there are still remains of a ‘class system’ in the UK. In relation to fashion, this has manifested itself in strange ways. For example, “bling” or any kind of put-together look is often seen as trying too hard. Anything trashy or overtly luxurious could draw the odd sneer from snobby natives. Do not head out dripping in jewels (unless you are a Grande Dame over 60 – in which case, you can do whatever you want!). Never wear labels in an obvious way. A burgeoning market in cheap fakes resulted in every ‘chav’ (closest US translation: white trash girl) walking around dressed head to toe in ‘Burberry’ print. This was not cool.
So what's a girl to do? There are two options. If you dress to un-impress, you will probably have legions of London-based fans. The modest Brits are heavily into understated chic. On the flip side of this, the eccentric streak lurking in even the most conservative Brit will appreciate any effort on your part to brighten up their day with your choice of funky accessory, vintage dress, or coordinating Juicy Couture tracksuit. A word on vintage: England invented vintage (what with it being so old), and there are some absolutely fabulous vintage markets. These markets alone make a trip to London worthwhile. Be sure to check these out! Apart from the obvious delight of shopping, it’s also fun to people-watch.
For anyone visiting London, correct footwear is essential. You will be doing a lot of walking in London. Yes, there is an excellent underground (subway) system , but you’ll spend a lot of time on cobbled streets and uneven pavements. Avoid stilettos at all costs; they have a habit of getting stuck in the corrugated steel escalators that take you down to the underground, and you’ll skid on the cobbles. Just don’t pack them. One final piece of advice, before getting down to London-by-postcode, always carry an umbrella!
Soho and the West-End: Soho is the home of bohemian artist-types, actors etc., and there are really good members’ clubs and excellent restaurants for those in the know. This is definitely an area to go ‘understated’ – tottering around in heels and a cute dress is not a good idea (this is the red light district, after all). Ripped jeans, vintage t-shirts, faded leather jackets, dark, muted tones etc. is the look to go for. Converse All-Stars are popular. There are some good boutique clothes shops tucked in Soho back streets, but great High Street shopping is the pull. Be sure to visit Top Shop on Oxford Street to find an amazing turnover of great clothes at very reasonable prices, and visit Selfridges, also on Oxford Street, for all your favorite labels. All the high-end fashion favorites can be found on New Bond Street. And, be sure to check out Regent Street, too.
As for the West End, this is the tourist district where you'll find lots of nightclubs, which can get pretty rowdy (English people drink – a lot), so don’t wear your best shoes as the streets are littered by the early hours. If you’re doing a night at the theatre, then it is still considered appropriate to ‘dress’ for the occasion. A pretty wrap dress and jacket or a smart trouser suit will work well.
Marylebone: Marylebone High Street is thoroughly fashionable. Here it is OK to look slightly put-together. A cluster of good clothes shops, organic food stores, and luxury linen shops define the area. There is a small, sweet ‘Cabbages and Couture’ market on Saturday mornings and a definite café culture. Here is the famous ‘Harley Street,’ a row of top-end medical practitioners. Go here for Botox, teeth-whitening, or a good psychiatrist. Wear anything from Temperly to Channel, and you’ll fit in just fine. Happy times!
Kensington and Chelsea: If you are looking for any English residual snobbery, this is where you might find it. The great and the good parade on the King’s Road is a long Mecca of great shops and restaurants. For a while, every woman under thirty was wearing a denim mini-skirt, black tights, and Ugg boots. Atop of their shirt was a pashmina and mummy’s pearls. This, thankfully, has ceased somewhat. Think preppy if you want to look like a local – Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie are good for starters. You may also want to veer toward slightly sporty – as if you’ve just stepped off a yacht, straight into Central London! So think deck shoes, striped shirt with the collar turned up, a lot of linen, and fresh/pastel colors. Princes William and Harry work this look. A more grown-up feel could be achieved with a tailored suit or a smart blouse and skirt - and mummy’s pearls.
Knightsbridge: If you are into bling, you could perhaps indulge a little in Knightsbridge. It is home to two of London’s greatest department stores: Harrods and Harvey Nichols. They absolutely must be visited. Another great shopping street, just around the corner from both, is Sloane Street. There you will find famous jewelers, lingerie shops, and luggage stores. Carry a great bag, something substantial and impressive, and they’ll treat you well in the restaurants and shops.
Hampstead and Highgate: The ‘village’ feel to Hampstead means many people dress like they’ve just come back from a weekend in the country (and many of them probably have). This falls into the understated category. Definitely don’t look like you’re trying too hard. Comfortable slacks and a cozy knit sweater would be nice – just right for snuggling up in one of Hampstead’s great pubs and sampling some English comfort food. Don’t wear heels, as both Hampstead and Highgate are situated on steep hills.
Shoreditch and the East End: Only venture here if you are very, very trendy. This is for the fashion-adventurer. A bit edgy and cool, the East End has all the best markets (check out Spittalfields for the ultimate experience). Dress grungy, and you’ll have a blast.
Notting Hill: Home of the fashion elite. It was Sienna Miller that first brought back ‘boho chic’ to the streets of Notting Hill. The look was soon exported state-side by the likes of the Olsen twins. Notting Hill is still bohemian, even though the rest of the world is slightly over it now – think cowboy boots (vintage, of course), gypsy dresses, bangles, and chunky knit sweaters. Closely observe the ladies of Notting Hill for a lesson in layering because they are world masters. If you can only visit one market in London, make it the Portabello Road Market. It is absolute heaven for a fashion junkie.