THE FIRST PROTEST
CIVLISE THE CITY
In 2001, barely a year into the chap being founded, the chaps themselves felt the urge to take to the streets of London to deliver their message. Civilise the City was an organised protest against the perceived vulgarity of the contemporary world. The chaps felt that central London, along with most other cities in Europe, was being buried under a tide of bland, homogenized consumerism, obliterating the heart and soul of the city. Their plan was to march through London in ranks of gentility, taking the precise opposite approach to the typical angry protest, with its ranks of scruffy students and tattered placards, and everyone shouting and chanting and enraging the constabulary. The only placards held by the Chaps bore slogans such as ‘Civilise the City’, ‘Give Three-Piece a Chance’ and ‘Make Gloves, Not War.’ The Metropolitan Police had got wind of the protest and sent their usual riot force down to man it, but were clearly taken aback at how genteel the whole march went. Their chief inspector, taking a quick inventory of proceedings, even commented to one of the protestors,
This is the most civilized protest
I’ve ever seen.
“Well, you try getting a decent cup of tea on Oxford Street, sir,” came the swift but polite reply. Try and find somewhere that sells gentlemen’s braces within a mile of Trafalgar Square. Try and find anything that isn’t a tepid, tedious, watered-down version of American culture. Try and find anything that marks this place out as England, that maintains any shred of the habits and fashions that once made this place so popular with tourists. They come to see men in bowler hats carrying umbrellas, and they get Starbucks.
The chaps met at the statue of Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, and proceeded in immaculately attired lines towards the centre of London. Already, they caused a stir. The citizens of London are used to seeing protests on their streets all the time, with the police response ranging from herding them along selected roads in order to keep them under control, to full-scale riot control and the use of tear gas. This, however, was something different. There was no sound except the shuffling of brogues on asphalt, thornproof tweed brushing against lampposts, the gentle murmur of polite voices and the occasional sound of a match being struck to light a pipe. Along the way the chaps paused outside underground stations and executed mass hat doffs to anyone exiting them. The sight of fifty very well dressed men doffing their hats to strangers immediately had a positive effect, and prepared the chaps for the more gruelling tasks ahead. Other ‘warm-up’ exercises included assisting old ladies across the road, most of which were warmly received, though one went a bit wrong when the ‘old lady’ turned out to be an art student dressed in a similar style to an old age pensioner. Much random shaking of hands also occurred, as a way of interacting with the public and to show that the chaps came in peace. After the initial limbering up period, the Chaps were ready for their first full-scale assault.
MacDonald’s hamburger establishment was the first of their targets. En masse, the chaps entered and approached the counter. One of them asked, very politely, if they might speak to the maître d’hôtel. Another requested a plate of medium rare devilled kidneys, while his companion asked if he might be given a cigar cutter and an ashtray.
Security was called immediately. The chaps were quickly and unceremoniously escorted from the restaurant, none of their epicurean needs having been met. It was a devastating blow, but not a surprising one. How could this behemoth of American corporate fast food culture possibly respond in any other way to amusing requests for non-existent produce? However, the point had been made, and the chaps proceeded to their next destination: the Nike Store at Oxford Circus. Here they asked to speak to the head cutter and view some fabric swatches. The response from the staff was less violent than at MacDonald’s, but just as insulting, for they expressed no interest whatsoever in what they chaps were saying to them. It was as if they were being addressed in Mandarin. They simply turned away and continued making neat piles of denim jeans on the shelves.
A similar response came from the staff in Top Shop, Carphone Warehouse and Starbucks. The chaps were so polite that nobody realised they were protesting against anything. But still their voice was heard. Once they had gathered outside some other ghastly chain store on Oxford Street, and stood there, idly smoking their pipes, nipping from their hip flasks and occasionally doffing their hats, car horns began to beep. Passers-by stopped to compliment them on their dress or just to chat with them. Old people smiled at them in recognition of something they thought had been lost. Young people smiled at them in response to something that seemed new and funny. It was very small, very tidy and very good mannered, but in its own way it was a revolution.
The Chaps ended up, as meticulously planned, assembling in Piccadilly Circus. Here several of their number had brought portable tea sets and miniature kettles, for Chaps cannot work for very long without a break for tiffin, and it was already well past four o’clock. Pipes were recharged, hip flasks made their appearance and were passed to those who had forgotten to bring theirs that morning, in the excitement of choosing which shirt to wear for this momentous day. A little megaphone work was carried out, as a nod to traditional protest techniques, but there was no anger or hatred emanating from the speaker. The message, addressed to the protesting Chaps themselves as much as anyone else, was one of gentle encouragement and gratitude for joining us on this demonstration. The ubiquitous police presence, whose constables were by now weary of accompanying this obviously unthreatening mob, was even given a brief thank you by the protestors, some of whom even offered them a cup of tea or a nip from their hip flasks. These, as well as offers of cigarettes or congratulatory cigars, were declined.
The tourists who regularly flock around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus were entertained by the Chaps’ presence. They probably didn’t realise that, with their sportswear clothing, branded rucksacks and chain-store carrier bags, they were actually being demonstrated against – but the Chaps were doing so in such a calm, civilised manner that no-one was upset or offended. In a way, the Chaps were doing British tourism a favour, for some tourists perhaps come to London expecting to see men in bowler hats holding umbrellas, and women dressed like Miss Marple, but are then disappointed to find that Londoners look exactly like Madrilenos or Parisians. The Chaps gave a small selection of tourists an exact replica of what they expected to find in London, except with megaphones and placards.
When we stood outside underground stations en masse, and doffed our hats to every lady who emerged, we weren’t trying to say, let’s go back to the 1940s. We were trying to bring back a bit of joie-de-vivre to a society we felt had lost its way. By turning the gentleman into a form of revolutionary agent provocateur, we had created the Chap. People saw that we weren’t simply dressed up in old-fashioned clothes; we were bringing it all back home; dragging the English gentleman into the 21st century and turning him into a force for social change. And hopefully in an amusing way, to reflect the fact that his cause was not exactly perestroika.
TATE MODERN PROTEST
THE ASCENT OF WHITEREAD
When it came to organizing a protest against contemporary art, the chaps found themselves in a cultural dilemma. On the one hand they were completely in favour of art and freedom of expression generally; chaps will spend hours in art galleries, admiring the works of Sickert, Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites and even the Fauves (though wearing tinted monocles to shield their eyes from the bright colours). On the other hand, they see much contemporary art as holding up the same values as the things they dislike about Starbucks et al: the world of art has become another big business and the art itself has strong corporate links. The artists who succeed today are the ones with the savviest business minds as well as artistic talent. A one-off joke by Marcel Duchamp has been turned into a multi-million dollar industry. Artists are no longer eccentric bohemians guzzling wine and discussing the meaning of life; they are in boardrooms drinking Evian water and discussing the value of their stock. Art has become a kind of corporate furniture, specifically created to fill empty spaces which businessmen want filling with something ‘meaningful’.
The chaps observed the installation of a new sculpture by Rachel Whiteread in London’s Tate Modern, and felt, upon closer inspection of both the work of art and the explanation of it offered by the artist, that it was a load of old cobblers. ‘Embankment’ consisted of a vast pile of resin casts of the inside of cardboard boxes, which reached up to the cavernous ceiling of the Turbine Hall, in a gargantuan and pointless display of matter over mind.
There was only one gentlemanly response to this mountain of resin: it had to be conquered. The chaps had come prepared, being dressed entirely in the apparel of Edwardian mountaineers, with lengths of rope, haversacks and other essentials such as hip flasks and spare pipes.
They deliberately chose the most difficult face of ‘Embankment’ to ascend – the South West face – and had only made it half way up when tragedy struck: the perimeter of the base was suddenly surrounded by security guards, angrily exhorting the chaps to descend. Well, once a chap sets his mind on achieving something, it is very difficult to stop him, so they scrabbled to the summit and planted the Union Jack there. After a quick celebratory drink and a very brief ceremony, the chaps came down to face the music. The Tate had sent a curatorial representative to tell them off, threatening them with criminal damage suits for scuffing the resin casts with their brogues, but it was clear that they were not going to bother to enforce this, for it would simply have drawn attention to the very vacuity of the piece, and ultimately given the Tate and the art world in general some very negative publicity.
ABERCROMBIE & FITCH PROTEST
THE SIEGE OF SAVILE ROW
The chap’s most spectacular protest, and the one with the most heartfelt motivation, was against the proposed opening of a new store on Savile Row by Abercrombie & Fitch.
The Chaps’ belief was that you can go to practically any street in any city in Britain and buy the sorts of clothes peddled by Abercrombie & Fitch. You cannot, however, go to any street in the country to get a bespoke suit made, and this is why the trade should remain where it is – so that when the time eventually comes when we can all afford Savile Row’s prices, we will know where to go.
For over 200 years, the Row has been the heartland of English bespoke tailoring, the international source for the most beautifully crafted suits in the world. This is where the uniform was made in which Horatio Nelson was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, and where Edward VII invented the dinner jacket. Savile Row is where the iconic male wardrobe of the 20th century was founded. Production on Hollywood movies would be halted while actors from Rudolph Valentino to Frank Sinatra were flown over to the Row to have a waistcoat cut properly. Anderson & Sheppard made Fred Astaire’s tailcoats, and kept a section of carpet loose to be peeled back during his fitting, so he could ensure the tailcoat flowed around his body correctly while dancing.
One of the few connections between Abercrombie & Fitch and Savile Row is the huge mark up. In traditional tailoring houses, this is because a bespoke suit takes up to ten weeks to construct, over 60 hours of labour and numerous fittings. In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, it is because they have used aggressive marketing campaigns to attach a high premium to the letters A and F, especially when cut from frayed bits of denim and glued to a T-shirt.
Give Three-piece a Chance
On 23rd April 2012, St George’s Day, some 120 chaps and Chapettes assembled outside number 3, Savile Row, which had also happened to house the Beatles Apple shop in the 1960s and was where they had played their last concert on the rooftop. The Chaps carried placards proclaiming “Give Three Piece a Chance – Save Savile Row from Abercrombie & Fitch”. They stood, calm, resolved and determined outside the empty building, until Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer – long-term chap associate and musical aide-de-camp – struck out the chords for the Beatles’ Give Peace a Chance. The chaps sang along, substituting the words with “Give Three-piece a Chance”, and marched in an orderly fashion around the corner to Burlington Gardens, where Abercrombie & Fitch already had a flagship store.
The chaps positioned themselves in serried and immaculate ranks before the muscular fellows patrolling the entrance without their shirts on (apparently an enticement for young ladies to enter the store, though since the shop doesn’t actually sell half naked young men, this seems to make little sense). They continued singing their adapted song, while the world’s media filmed and photographed them from across the street. The story ricocheted around the world instantly: England was seen doing what it was known for, standing up for tradition in an amusing and eccentric way.
The children’s clothes store went ahead and opened, despite two further years of obstacles and planning problems. The chaps returned exactly two years after their original protest to visit the newly opened store, only to find such a disappointing and pathetic range of overpriced children’s clothes, with nobody remotely interested in buying them anywhere near the store, that they felt vindicated. Abercrombie & Fitch had nearly bankrupted themselves to open this store and it hadn’t been worth it. It was a pyrrhic victory, to say the least.