A Brief Fashion History of London’s East End

Ever wondered where East London got its fashion credentials? From silk weaving in Spitalfields to Hoxton hipsters, we trace the fashion history of London’s East End with renowned fashion historian Caroline Cox.

Spitalfields Silk, 1700s

Spitalfields Silk Weavers

‘We are all Adam’s children, but silk makes the difference’ ran a popular English saying. Silk was fine fabric worn by the rich and tough wool the cloth of the poor. Spitalfields, East London, the centre of city’s silk production by the 18th century, housed an estimated 4,000 Huguenot weavers, refugees from religious persecution in France, who set up their looms to weave damasks, satins and rich brocades for the sack-back gowns of the West End elite.

Rag Trade, 1800s

Rag Trade

By the 19th century East London was firmly established as the home of the ‘Rag Trade’ or clothing industry. Seamstresses and tailors worked by day in its sweatshops and at night slept in its slums. In 1888, after Jack the Ripper emerged from the shadows to murder his prey, ‘slumming’ became a popular recreation in which the privileged elite armed with a Baedeker Guide dressed down and took tours to view Whitechapel’s miserable inhabitants

Pearly Kings & Queens, 1900s


In the heart of the East End lies Petticoat Lane, an ancient street market where costermongers or street traders began a tradition of decorating the seams of their clothes with the mother-of-pearl buttons accidentally detached from their secondhand goods.

Orphan turned philanthropist, Henry Croft wore a suit and cap entirely covered with pearl buttons to advertise his charity becoming the first Pearly King and an inspiration to fashion designers including John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier and most recently Edun in the Pre-Fall Collection of 2015.

Teddy Boys, 1950s


Down amidst the bombsites of East London, teenagers in the 1950s developed their own powerful style wearing drape suits with narrow-lapelled, knee length jackets, bootlace ties and skinny drainpipe trousers. Hair was a focal point, squared off at the back into a Boston neckline, the top styled with Brylcreme into a greasy pompadour.

For teenagers with no real control over their education, work or economics, power came through such sartorial excellence. Jeans became the teenage uniform and the label of choice was Lee Cooper, born in the East End in 1908 when Morris Cooper and Louis Maister took over the lease of a rundown factory at 94-96 Middlesex Street.

Artists-in-residence, 1990s

Artists in Residence

As recession deepened in the 1990s, the empty warehouses and industrial spaces of the East End became the studio-dwellings of the YBA, or young British artists, former students of Goldsmiths College, who were challenging the monopoly of Cork Street. Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde or ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ and Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ were the epitome of cool and transformed the image of East London into a go-to destination for those in-the-know.

Nathan Barley, 2005

Nathan BarleyIn 2005 the cult TV series Nathan Barley aired in the UK, a parody of the media types set in ‘Hosegate’, a thinly disguised Hoxton. Barley is a guerrilla filmmaker, dot.com entrepreneur and owner of website www.Trashbat.co.ck (deliberately registered in the Cook Islands for ‘comic’ effect).

He is, in his own words, ‘a self-facilitating media node’ and through Barley and Jonatton Yeah?, Editor of Sugar Ape magazine, writers Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris ridiculed the facile cool hunters and mindless trend-jumpers of East London. Barley meditates in a think-pod before speeding the streets on a micro-scooter, hair artfully tousled into a Geek Pie, spouting meaningless catchphrases (‘Keep It Futile!”) and hip-hop handshakes.

New Rave, 2005-2008

New Rave

Joe Daniel, founder of Angular Records is said to have featured the term ‘New Rave’ on a flyer advertising the first gig by The Klaxons who later described it as a “joke that’s got out of hand. The whole idea of new rave was to take the piss out of the media by making them talk about something that didn’t exist, just for our own amusement.”

That being said, an influential, if niche, movement was spawned in the !WOWWOW! squat parties and clubs Boombox, Kashpoint, AntiSocial and All You Can Eat (all based in East London) and its silver hi-tops, fake fur and cartoon hoodies were documented in the pages of Super Super magazine and www.dirtydirtydancing.com. Carrie Mundane aka Cassette Playa, Henry Holland and Gareth Pugh provided the catwalk version of the look.

The Shoreditch Hipster, 2010

The Hipster

The Bricklayers Arms, a Shoreditch pub became the melting pot of many of London fashion’s most exciting creatives in the 1990s. Propping up the bar were the first wave of hipsters; fashion designer Luella Bartley; fashion stylists Katie Grand and Fee Doran and artists Hirst and Emin.

Urban regeneration was followed by gentrification and brought the second wave; hordes of bearded mainstream rebels in skinny jeans and trucker caps in search of artisan coffee, up-cycled furniture and a plate of pulled pork.

 Fashion East, 2012

Fashion East

Fashion East, a non-profit initiative and one of the most creative hubs of contemporary fashion was established in 2000 by designer Lulu Kennedy, aka ‘the Queen of East London’ and Editor-At-Large of the bi-annual Love magazine and the Old Truman Brewery (located in East London).

Today it is a highly respected champion, mentor and showcase of young design talent helping launch the careers of Holly Fulton, Ryan Lo,Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Illincic and Richard Nicoll amongst many others at London Fashion Week.

Silicon Roundabout, 2014

Fashion Tech

Since the launch of the Government’s East London Tech City initiative in November 2011, the area has thrived, fuelled further by the Technology Strategy Board starting a £1m funding competition to find the top digital companies in the area. Fashion tech-wise, Lyst has been based in the former White Cube gallery space at 48 Hoxton Square since January 2014. Other fashion tech brands in Silicon Roundabout include Farfetch, Thread and Wool and the Gang.

This article originally appeared on The LongLyst 

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