The English Reserve?

I’m somewhat mystified by one particular aspect of the English culture that seems to me a contradiction. There’s this well-developed idea of the “English reserve,” a sort of social malady associated with awkwardness, bumbling, and even apparent coldness in social situations. (The roots and manifestations of this behavior have been analyzed extensively in the excellent book “Watching the English” by Kate Fox; truly a must-read anthropology-lite book for anyone interested in the ways of the natives here.) We think of British humor as smart and understated, with the notable exception of the zany Pythons, and even that has been quite reasonably explained. We think of English dress as very formal. Here’s where the cracks start to show for me. On further consideration, we think of the English menswear as very formal. I recall thinking of women’s hats a bit before I moved here, but I was most certainly not prepared for what I found in terms of women’s daily apparel.

To put it bluntly, I find the young females here dress quite suggestively. Prior to moving to England, I personally associated fish-net stockings with ladies of the night and perhaps Halloween parties, but here they are normal, everyday wear. The amount of cleavage I see on any given day is startling to say the least. The skirts are short and tight. I am American, and thus perhaps tending at times to revert to my puritanical roots, but I find the amount of flesh on display from the average girl on the street frequently causes my jaw to drop. Is this cultural? Or … Am I just getting old?

The only explanation I can come up with for this bizarre juxtaposition of reserve and exhibitionism among the young females is extremely unsatisfactory and not really an explanation so much as part of the problem. I present as evidence the “page 3 girl” phenomenon. When I was in the UK for the first time, many years before I ever dreamed of moving here, I nearly spit coffee all over the table at a coffee shop when, on opening a newspaper left behind on a table, I discovered the page 3 girl. (If you are like I was and don’t know what this is, I suggest this article on the BBC website; even the Wikipedia entry could get a person in hot water if viewed at work.) I’m not terribly interested in a debate on the pros and cons of the page 3 girl or how a feminist should view these things; its mere existence and acceptance in British society is something I find both interesting and surprising.

So back to my original point… if partial nudity is par for the course in a daily newspaper, fishnet stockings suddenly don’t look so “unreserved”.

Update:  Kate Fox writes both on cleavage and the page 3 girls (I finally finished the book this afternoon).  I did not find her remarks on page 3 girls too interesting, she comments that the nudity is somehow “non-sexual” and widely accepted amongst both sexes as harmless (I’m obviously paraphrasing here).  More interestingly, she does claim that the amount of cleavage displayed is a good indicator of class… I maintain that the idea of acceptability of ANY cleavage is a good indicator of Englishness.

6 responses to “The English Reserve?

  1. nice writing, pleasured reading. the double standard ethicts of english on sex is ridiculous

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  5. Dear writer,

    I have just been spending 6 and a half months in Nottingham UK. What I found most striking is that the UK, especially the cities, is such of a liberal place. You can find any sort of person or subculture there.

    English reserve epresses itself in implicit language and often times in politeness.
    England however has as well undergone a sexual and cultural revolution and I am attributing what you have described to countercultural changes( opposed to Calvinism and puritansim) and agressive marketing.

    It is interesting however, that many people told me that German girls wear less make up and are ususally dressed more decently. In the UK I foud that there are generally two extremes: the run- down, sleazy Amy Winhouse- baggy pants girl and the neatly, tighly broomed Bechham type of woman.
    However, what I think is very beautiful is the fact that you still have loads of Bohemianism and indidividually dressed and styled people.

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