They changed it, now it sucks

Or, West End/East End, Part 3.

Does anyone actually go to Carnaby Street these days? I mean, apart from tourists. Does anyone who lives in London actually specifically go to Carnaby Street for to shop?

IMG_0716I rarely visit myself, and then usually by accident when I’m passing through. To be fair, though, I’m not really a clothesy person. But then, I don’t know anyone else who shops there, either. Kingly Court has some nice vintage places, and I understand there’s one or two on Ganton Street – but neither of these are technically Carnaby Street.

I think Carnaby Street is the quintessential example of the place that went downhill as soon as it became popular. Lest I be accused of snobbery, let me just reiterate right now that I’m not a clothesy person, so I wouldn’t know a decent boutique from a hole in the ground.

But it’s a historical fact that Carnaby Street became unfashionable almost as a direct result of becoming well-known. The locality was well-known for its clothes long before “swinging” was considered a good thing to be – Savile Row, synonymous with quality tailoring worldwide, is a short walk away in Mayfair. The first tentative move towards making this part of Soho fashionable was the gay-friendly shop Vince in Newburgh Street, the only place in Britain selling Levi’s, and which was described by George Melly as “the only place where they measured your inside leg each time you bought a tie.” 

In 1958, John Stephen opened His Clothes, the first of many clothing boutiques on the street itself (including the intriguingly-named I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet), which at the time was only attractive because it was cheap.

The place really hit worldwide consciousness in 1966, when Time magazine published an article entitled ‘Great Britain: You Can Walk Across It On The Grass’ (helpfully available online at http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19660415,00.html), which also introduced the world to the term “Swinging London”. Unfortunately, this made Carnaby an attractive pitch for the big boys, and by the end of the decade the place was developing a reputation as the sort of place where the wannabes hung out – the weekend hippies, the people who just didn’t get it.

The area had already been satirised by the Kinks in their excellent single, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ (although quite a few of those targeted didn’t get the irony of the lyrics) and would be attacked again by The Jam in 1977 with their B-side, ‘Carnaby Street’. Although by this time, the area had moved so far from the place promoted by Time that the satire frankly felt a little redundant. There was also a song called ‘Carnaby Street’ by the Volecanoes which covered much the same ground.

The indie cred of Carnaby Street is long gone, and nowadays it just feels like an extension of Oxford Street (about which I have made my feelings perfectly clear before now). If you want to get ahead of the fashion game these days, you need to be prepared to go further afield. Damned if I’m telling you where, though.

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2 Comments

Filed under 20th Century, History, London, Shopping, Soho, Weird shops, West End

2 responses to “They changed it, now it sucks

  1. does going to Liberty count as going to Carnaby St? admittedly I don’t buy anything, just offcuts of fabric.

    the Kinks deserve points for “carnabition army”

    • TGW

      Yep, probably the lyric that’s caused the most confusion to karaoke compilers everywhere. “Carny Beaching? Calmly Reaching?”

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