Advertisement
Culture

'Peaky Blinders' Has Done the Impossible: Changed British Men

We spent a day at the TV show's first official festival and saw 10 million men in those little caps.

by James Greig; photos by Orlando Gili
03 October 2019, 11:52am

Guests at the 'Peaky Blinders' festival.

Peaky Blinders has had a strange and rare effect on British popular culture.

You don't see too many memes, reaction GIFS or viral tweet-threads dissecting the show, and it's yet to become fodder for Hinge bio cliches or the kind of poster you'd buy at a fresher's fair.

What you do see, though, is adult men, going about their lives, dressed like Tommy Shelby: out with the G-Star hoodie, in with the woollen suits, penny collar shirts and, of course, those little fucking caps – so much so that, earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics listed flat caps as one of the items which now define Britain's spending habits.

peaky blinders festival 2019

This represents cosplay on an unparalleled scale, albeit largely enacted by people who probably don't know what cosplay is (prior to the launch of his clothing line Garrison Tailors, Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight insisted, "Our intention is to make clothes for 2016, not for fancy dress parties... these are not costumes").

It's hard to think of a TV programme exerting a greater influence on the way British people dress. Game of Thrones might have had a higher viewership, but you don't often see groups of men heading to the pub dressed like Jon Snow unless they're on their way out of a LARPing convention. As well as the menswear boom, Peaky Blinders has become a popular wedding aesthetic, the inspiration for a grime video and the theme of a number of pubs across the UK.

Peaky Blinders is an entertaining crime drama and I can understand why people like it, even if it does feature too many slow-motion montages of the lads swaggering down alleyways, set to terrible pub rock songs. But its popularity as an aesthetic has caught me off-guard – I simply don't understand it. So I decided to attend the first official Peaky Blinders Festival, in Birmingham, in an effort to figure out why dressing like a 1920s gangster has captured the imagination of Britain's blokes – and what, if anything, this says about the moment we're living in.

peaky blinders festival 2019

On a Saturday far too hot to be wearing a tweed suit, I arrived in Digbeth, an area described to me as "Birmingham's answer to Shoreditch". Given how awful Shoreditch is, Birmingham's answer really should have been "no", but Digbeth – a formerly industrial area of canals, viaducts and red-brick factories – turned out to be far prettier than the comparison suggested.

peaky blinders festival 2019

When we arrived, I found that almost everyone had made the effort to dress up – the men in the classic Blinders get-up, the women wearing black cocktail dresses with pearl necklaces.

peaky blinders festival 2019

There was an admirable level of detail in the festival's efforts to evoke a specific period: throughout the day there were random bursts of immersive theatre; couples having vicious screaming matches, street brawls being broken up by policemen and (worryingly for me) rat-like journalists getting told to piss off. As everyone got more drunk, it became harder to tell where the immersive theatre ended and reality began.

peaky blinders festival 2019

First on my agenda was the Garrison Tailor's fashion show. Not to brag – and please don't envy me, it's unattractive – but I had seats in the front row.

I found the show pretty underwhelming, to be honest. The clothes all seemed high quality, but it's hard to get excited by fashion that, by its own raison d'etre, is so backwards-looking. The inclusion of a range of casual clothes was baffling – surely the only point of buying clothes from a Peaky Blinders brand is if you want to look like a character from the show? The jeans-and-sheaux casual looks on offer just looked like the kind of thing a bank manager would wear to a barbecue in Chipping Norton. Tommy Shelby would never.

peaky blinders festival 2019

Based on both the fashion show and the festival at large, it seems fair to say that the Peaky Blinders aesthetic can be defined, above all, by its adherence to conventional masculinity. Whether conscious or not, it reads like a reaction against a move towards androgyny in high-end fashion.

I don't imagine many of the people who dress like this are deliberately kicking back against designers like Palomo Spain or Nicolas Ghesquière, but the aesthetic does feel like a reassertion of traditional gender identity. "I like dressing like this 'cause it shows what a real gentleman should look like," said Daniel, who was attending the festival with his girlfriend. "I suppose Peaky Blinders has had a bit of influence, but I've always thought that men should dress like this. A man should be a man and a woman should be a woman."

peaky blinders festival 2019

As well as relating to masculinity, the Peaky Blinders aesthetic embodies a form of British nostalgia that's far more swaggering (and infinitely less twee) than the kind that was popular in the first half of the 2010s – an era defined by Mumford and Sons, Cath Kidston, and "Keep Calm and Carry On". It's a way of dressing better suited to doing coke in a Yates Wine Lodge and then head-butting someone than it is attending the Chap Olympiad, or riding a unicycle, or having a stupid twiddly moustache, meaning – whatever else you can say about it – it's marginally cooler as a result.

"I think, since the early-60s, men in the West have dressed like American adolescent boys," Stephen Knight tells me over email. "In a way, men have been encouraged by popular culture not to grow up. The Peaky look is very grown up. It takes care and time to get the look together, and I think it suggests a certain dignity. I doubt it would have become popular if women didn't like it."

This latter point I can believe all too easily: I'm ashamed to say I felt a pang of desire for a great deal of the flat-capped gentleman I encountered at the festival. Forgive me, father, for I have thirsted.

peaky blinders festival 2019

It seems to me that part of the appeal of Peaky Blinders lies in its fetishisation of violence (and the camaraderie that comes with it), in its harking back to a less restrained form of masculinity. But Knight disagrees: "I think the violence in Peaky is justified because it always has consequences: people get hurt and stay hurt, and the consequence may play out two episodes or two series later. Also in Peaky, violence is always depicted as ugly and even repulsive."

As the festival drew to an end, it was ultimately hard to see it as anything too nefarious. In fact, I'd be tempted to describe it as "good, clean fun". But it was also, despite being surprisingly international, one of the whitest and most heterosexual large-scale events I've ever attended. With its carnivalesque atmosphere and rigidly defined gender codes, it felt like a Straight Pride parade (or a wedding – but same difference, am I right!), albeit the most benign version imaginable. Charitably, I believe that straight people deserve to have a good time, too.

Given the overwhelming extent to which the period drama genre focuses on the tedious social mores of the upper classes, there's also value in a TV show, and attendant subculture, which portrays and celebrates working class British history, however inaccurately. For all its faults, I'd take Peaky Blinders over Downton Abbey a million times over – can you imagine the sheer, insipid horror of a festival dedicated to the latter?

@fudwedding / @orlandogili

See more of Orlando Gili's photos below:

peaky blinders pub birmingham
peaky blinders clothes charity shop
peaky blinders dress up
peaky blinders costume
peaky blinders costume
peaky blinders caps
peaky blinders costume
peaky blinders
peaky blinders fancy dress
Tagged:
Fashion
Birmingham,
peaky blinders