Once a year, in the small town where I live, there is a Victorian Fair. Handcrafted sweets, cakes and biscuits made to traditional recipes are sold by stallholders in Victorian mobcaps (alas, at modern prices). There is a man on stilts who rides a bike on stilts – extraordinary – and a Victorian carousel, and an organ grinder (no monkey), and a great many people in Victorian clothes, or at the very least wearing the kilt. (And thank you Prince Albert for that.) Every year I go (for the cakes and sweets) and every year I’m afraid it will be twee but it remains very charming and because the streets are closed to traffic, it almost is a step back in time.
It does make me wonder, though, how this royal era will be celebrated in a hundred years. In Victoria’s day the British empire was so vast there was always a part of it bathed in sunlight (except of course the home counties). It was a time of growth, expansion, trade, and inventions. Yet if you want to look Victorian, you put on a mobcap, or a top hat.
For that matter, if you want to dress for the first Elizabethan age, the Tudors, put on a neck ruff. One of those pointed hats with a floating veil at the pointy end is pretty evocative, too. Fashions must have changed rapidly in Elizabeth I’s famously fashionable and glittering court, even more so in the earlier years when women dressed to catch the eye of her volatile father (or, later, to avoid it) but it is the ruff and the slashed doublet, the pointed hat and jousting armour, that evoke the whole Tudor period.
So what will be the visual signature of this reign? Punk? The mini skirt? Holding a mobile phone, perhaps – in a hundred years they will probably be organically grafted into our bodies, and children will gaze round-eyed and silenced at the very concept of ‘holding’ one. Television, definitely – the first huge boom in television sales was for the coronation. Everest was climbed, for the first time. A Pope resigned, for the first time in living history. Maggie Thatcher’s bird-like cartoon may feature, she’ll always be the first female prime minister. All races, colours and creeds became equal, and atheism has become the new way of boring people very much indeed. Those who still feel passionately about religion are eyed nervously – they are statistically likely to turn violent. Has there ever historically been so much terrorism? From the IRA to the Taliban, the era, speeded up through speakers, would feature a lot of booms, and the tears of women. Lots of wars, too – crash, clatter, boom and more tears. In the same period women themselves have gone from stay-home wives and mothers who smacked their children when they were naughty, to tattooed body-pierced single mothers who swear at their children but never punish them, and take on any critics using language that would make a coronation-period stevedore blush. The Woman’s Liberation Movement changed the face of family and the workplace for ever.
The early years will also be evoked by the space race, and the Moon landing. Most of us have lived all our lives in this one royal reign. What do you think will, in time, immediately identify the last sixty years so that the casual visitor, coming across a small town historical fair, will know instantly which era is being celebrated?