Suits You, Sir: An Interview with Gustav Temple of The Chap
Late last year, we were delighted to interview Gustav Temple, founder and editor of The Chap magazine, a gentleman's quarterly that "takes a wry look at the modern world through the steamed-up monocle of a more refined age." We talked to him about English dandyism, nostalgia, and what's wrong with the world today.
In another interview (3 A.M.) you've said that you see Chappism as a democratic movement. How do Chaps reconcile this with imitating an aesthetic and a style of behaviour (Woosterish diction, etc) associated with the elite?
What was yesterday's elite is on today's supermarket shelves. We have never advocated the false imitation of any mode of speaking, Woosterish or otherwise. What I meant is that a certain style of dress, swagger and social habits that was once the preserve of the aristocracy is now available to anyone. In fact, people who don't consider themselves Chaps are spending far more money on designer clothes, luxury homes and consumer durables than it would cost someone like me to live a vaguely Chappist life.
There seems to be a nostalgic element in Chappism, connected to a general dislike of contemporary culture. What are the Chaps nostalgic for in particular, and what is it in modern culture that they object to?
Chaps are nostalgic for times when one was paid personal attention by staff in the most common corner shops, when buying items such as pipe tobacco and cheese was a pleasure, involving conversation with the shop keeper and browsing the delights on offer. Today shopping is declining towards the clicking of buttons while on the Internet. [In the past] one could take one's luncheon in a Lyons Corner House café, where a waitress would bring one's meal to the table and receive a tip for her trouble. Today one is expected to stand in a queue for something as derisory as a cup of coffee and the whole experience is rather unpleasant….there is no consistency in modern culture. One enters an establishment with no idea what to expect inside. What looks like a restaurant turns out to be a nightclub, an ostensible tobacco merchant is in fact a "head shop" - leading to all sorts of embarrassments.
Do you think that the English eccentric is an endangered species?
The genuine eccentric is not so much endangered as practically extinct. The only hope left is for English people to keep the spirit of their eccentrics alive. The age of the real eccentric has passed, since today everyone is far too self-aware and in need of earning a living to be eccentric.
Would it be fair to call the Chaps reactionary, or are they ahead of their times?
Oh, ahead of our times, of course. Most contemporary culture seems to be about going with the flow and adopting whatever creed comes along. The Chap stands up for the individual, the eccentric and the whimsical. The stance of maintaining standards of decency, common courtesy and chivalry might seem reactionary to some, but to others [it is] a gesture towards the improvement of social interaction.
If conformity is the problem, why do the Chaps evoke the styles of the forties and fifties rather than those of the sixties (a decade widely seen as a time of considerable sartorial individualism)?
To have evoked the styles of the 1960s would be to follow in the footsteps of every youth group since that revolutionary decade. Looking back to earlier than that raises far more interesting notions of playing with apparently conformist sartorial styles. Like William Burroughs, who always wore immaculate suits and ties, even while pursuing a thoroughly illegal existence in the heart of the drug underground. For him it was a disguise, to ensure he got through airport security; for Chaps it provides, paradoxically, a freedom from the constraints of fashion. The palette of the 1940s is far broader than it might seem on the surface. Once you begin searching, and your starting point is to make these clothes the only ones available to you, you soon realise that you have a lot of shopping around to do, if you are to explore the full range of the 1940's man's wardrobe.
You seem to think that English young people today are more conformist than they used to be, certainly where dress is concerned. Why do you think that is?
I have no idea why that is, merely that the result is a very shabby, unimaginative crowd. I also find the ubiquitous use of sportswear and mountaineering gear in an urban setting a trifle ridiculous, and wonder whether young people are living out fantasies of becoming adventurers and explorers, or whether they genuinely enjoy having dozens of straps, clips and pieces of Velcro dangling from their persons.
I've heard that the Chaps put great stress on behaving 'nicely.' What does this niceness involve?
Which Chaps have you been speaking to? This goes back to the diction - entirely a matter of personal choice. I have met some quite nasty Chaps, and many cads, who don't behave nicely, but nevertheless can be qualified as Chaps, due to their dress sense and their rejection of the contemporary code.
Do you think that English dandyism is necessarily associated with a rebellion against contemporary culture?
Since the first significant English dandy, Beau Brummell, rebelled against popular fashions, dandyism necessarily should be rebellious. However, in his day, the styles of the macaronis were so outlandish that a subdued style was the only elegant option. Since today the young bucks are mooching about in nylon sportswear and 'oatmeal'-coloured utility wear, the role of the dandy should be the exact opposite, and he should be flamboyant, colourful and, most importantly, exceptionally formal.
Is English dandyism similar to Continental varieties (i.e. the French)?
No, because the English invented dandyism and exported it to France. Continental dandies were only ever imitations of English ones.
The Chaps put considerable emphasis on 'decadence.' Why is there this 'decadent' overtone?
Otherwise it would be a trifle dull being a Chap! How much time can one spend opening doors for ladies and doffing one's hat to constables, before one works up a thirst for a flagon of absinthe? It fits in perfectly, if one takes a look at the personal habits of eighteenth-century gentlemen, who gambled, drank and gambolled in the streets. It is only a pity that duelling has been outlawed for some time.
Why does poetry appeal to Chaps?
Poetry appeals because it is so at odds with contemporary culture; it is a slow, considered activity that cannot be quickly achieved or electronically enhanced.
When and how did you yourself first become interested in dandyism?
When I read about Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm in my early twenties. The New Romantic movement was then in full swing. At least they were more flamboyant times, but it still took a great effort to find decent three-piece suits.
Is there such a thing as a 'Chapette' dress code, and if so, could you describe it?
The Chapette dress code, such as it exists, [involves] tweed suits, brogues, soft-collared blouses, stockings, hats, gloves, parasols. Christian Dior's New Look always works in any era, as long as the ladies don't try and cut any corners and wear a cocktail dress with plimsolls.
There is a lot of talk about the Tweed Revolution in Chappist circles. What exactly would this involve? Would the universal adoption of tweed be sufficient to satisfy the Chaps, or do they want more far-reaching change?
The Tweed Revolution would result in a general raising of standards for people at every level of society. Trains and buses would only have first-class carriages; porters would be reintroduced at railway stations; all shops, however large, would be independent, and the larger ones would have liveried doormen; Lyons Corner Houses would be reintroduced and would replace all branches of Starbucks, Costa etc; sportswear would only be permitted on sports fields; cricket would replace soccer as the national sport; national service would be reintroduced; a classical education would be the norm in all state schools; council estates would be razed to the ground and their residents integrated with home-owners in all parts of every town or city; large chain stores such as Gap would be forced to reinvest their enormous profits into providing bespoke tailoring services at reduced prices; supermarkets would be replaced by ballrooms where tea dances would be held, and food would only be available in small local shops with subsidised prices; the whole centre of London would be pedestrianised and traffic forced to circle around it: this would bring the tourists back and swell the public coffers enough to fund all of the above.
On a purely practical note, how do the Chaps get hold of their anachronistic clothes?
Could you describe your vision of the English gentleman?
A courteous, civil sort of fellow whose charm and wit cuts through the banality of day-to-day life, who dresses in a manner that is pleasant to behold and imbues people with a wistful nostalgia.
What is the link between Chappism and situationism?
When we tried to "Civilise the City" in 2001, that was a form of situationism, in that it was a public performance of an aesthetic ideal.
Do Chaps ever get hostile reactions from other people when they are out and about?
It has become more and more acceptable nowadays, what with pop groups dressing as Chaps. But before that it was never going to be seen as threatening anybody, purely because of the familiarity of the dress-code, however eccentrically pursued.
Do you see the Chaps as continuing the tradition of English sartorial subcultures (i.e. the Mods), or are they a new departure?
They are not like Mods because they are not a mass youth-movement. They are more like dada because Chappism is a reaction to the mainstream by an intelligent minority
Recently Chaps have staged a number of anti-modern art protests. What is the group's objection to modern art?
The fact that it has received the same treatment as everything else in life: globalisation, centralisation into a handful of powerful brands (Tate, Hirst, Emin, Guggenheim, etc.), but principally because most of it is an insult to the aesthetic sensibility.
Are there significant Chappist contingents in the provinces as well as in London, and in other European countries?
I don't know about 'contingents,' but there are certainly a lot of Chap readers outside London, and pockets of them in European countries, mainly Germany, France and Finland.
How did the idea for the annual Chap Olympiad develop? For the benefit of those who have never attended one, could you explain what goes on?
It is an alternative to traditional sporting events, in that panache, elegance and style are rewarded rather than sporting prowess. It is a festive circus of buffoonery, drunken heroism, sudden bursts of song, and Chaps and Chapettes pitting their soi-disant gentlemanly skills (such as pipe smoking, wearing oversized trousers, mixing cocktails, knotting ties, grooming, and unfurling umbrellas) against each other. It was devised as a social occasion that wasn't just another 1930s soiree, of which there are so many these days. The Chap always aims to be one step ahead of its imitators.
The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor. Many thanks to Gustav Temple for his time.