At House of Wolf, an 1838 music hall in London with stained-glass windows, aged bronze walls and tasselled lampshades, Dec. 31 was positively fizzing. Men in ascots lent their top hats to paramours in fishnets and corsets. In the Apothecary bar, they passed around absinthe cocktails in bevelled crystal, while cabaret dancers cancanned across the stage and everyone toasted the New Year.
That year would be 2013, but the revellers at House of Wolf were partying like it was 1899.
We’ve all seen those gilded days come back to the streets: the round wire spectacles, strong-man mustaches, suspenders and straight-razor shaves. By day, these New Edwardians occupy a world of artisanal spelt breads and cafés decorated with salvage and needlepoint artwork. Last year, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of TV comedy Portlandia spoofed the trend for knitting circles and craft beers in a video titled Dream of the 1890s.
“Remember the 1990s, when everyone was pickling their own vegetables … and people were wearing glasses all the time, like contact lenses had never been invented,” asked Armisen, before the camera cuts to a group of butchers in waistcoats and long beards grinding meat, and a bartender in a seersucker blazer and straw boater serving beer from a vat. “Remember the 1890s, when the economy was in a tailspin, unwashed young men roamed the streets looking for work and people turned their backs on huge corporate monopolies and supported local businesses?”
That Edwardian attitude has been brewing in Portland – and niche North American neighbourhoods – for years, influenced by the English-gentleman revival across the pond. British ’zine The Chap, 14 years old this year, publishes a manifesto that declares “Thou shalt always worship at the trouser press” and “Thou shalt always wear tweed.”
Increasingly, though, the flocked wallpaper, wood panelling and red-velvet curtains of House of Wolf are emerging from the counter-culture and entering the mainstream.
“It’s a growing trend and it’s going to continue,” says Matthew Fleming, one of House of Wolf’s co-founders. “This is a reaction to the previous trend of ultra-minimalism. When you go in one direction, people will always start looking to do the opposite.”
In London, House of Wolf has become a standard-bearer for this yesteryear style, popular with thirtysomething dandies in three-piece thrift suits who, while flung toward a paperless future of pocket gadgets, cling to ideals of sustainability, authenticity and heritage. Just as we calculate food miles and insist on knowing the origins of the meat we order in restaurants (Portlandia mocked that too), we want to be told that the kitchen table we covet was hewn from hand-cut timber by an artisan living off the grid. The injection-molded plastics so popular in the past decade have had their day.
“In a world where pretty soon we’ll be downloading 3-D printouts of all sorts of goods instead of manufacturing, the people who are just about old enough to remember handmade things are hanging onto that,” says Fleming.
“I think it’s fascinating that the faster we move, technologically, the further we seem to be digging into our past for lifestyle cues,” says Liz Ikiriko, co-owner of The Arthur, a vintage home and Canadiana shop in Toronto. “Maybe it’s that so much is unknown as to our future – technologically, ecologically, economically – that we anchor to things from the past that can steady us.”
Ikiriko says she’s watched customers pass over 1960s and 1970s throwbacks – trends she reckons have been “overdone” – in favour of turn-of-the-century styles that “may have more staying power.”
Design retailers in West Toronto are banking on that staying power. Following a street like Dundas westward from Bathurst is like travelling back through time. Hit the Junction and you’ll find Brownie cameras and vintage maps at Russet and Empire. Post and Beam (even the names are retro) will sell you a brass banker’s desk with deposit-slip inserts, or ceramic English floor tiles, all from the late 19th century.
“When we have to buy the latest iPhone 5 because our iPhone 3G doesn’t work after only three years of use, it creates frustration, and also appreciation of anything that was built to last a lifetime,” Ikiriko says. “Hence the love of well-crafted Edwardian wood furniture, elegant suits and ties and Somerset Maugham.” Not to mention Underwood typewriters. The Arthur’s date back to the early 1900s and are bestsellers.
These days, it’s possible for anyone with access to their grandparents’ attic to make, if not a fortune, then some extra cash peddling quilts, French brioche moulds and cut-glass candlesticks. Still others seek to rebuild that era from scratch.
Organizations like the Western Development Museum, at four branches across Saskatchewan, and the Ontario Artist Blacksmith Association are helping to revive traditional skills in a world where metal shop and woodworking are disappearing from school curricula.
“There’s certainly a resurgence of people wanting to do something a little more meaningful or practical,” says Rob Buckley, who 10 years ago launched the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills in southwest England. A former agricultural engineer with Massey Ferguson, Buckley now offers weekend classes in blacksmithing, hedge-laying (the creation and maintenance of hedges), chair-making and glass-blowing to all sorts, from retirees to urban hipsters. He even trains second-career students to help him in his weekday job as a builder of straw-bale homes.
Buckley has watched neo-Edwardianism expand into the countryside via urban transplants interested in the slow food and craft movements. “If more people realized how easy it is to make their own bread and their own furniture, they’d do it too.” He says he sees something familiar in today’s middle-class revivalists. “We had a movement like this before the wars – it was Arts and Crafts,” he says, referring to the crusade led by designer William Morris, patron saint of traditional craftsmanship, in the 19th century.
For Morris, whose campaign for simple, functional beauty lasted well into the 20th century, design was a symptom of societal mores; Victorian ostentation was a sign of moral failings.
He would see a kindred spirit in Buckley, who sees his work as “enlightened.”
“Learning a traditional craft can turn your life around. A skill can teach you self-respect,” he says. “Everyone wants to be on the computer, or at least think they do, but ultimately everything’s got to be made by somebody. So it’s nice that young people are putting down their Xboxes and picking up hammers.”