Burberry: the new white socks?

Football hooligans have taken to wearing Burberry in a big way, leading some British pubs to ban it, writes Brian Boyd

Football hooligans have taken to wearing Burberry in a big way, leading some British pubs to ban it, writes Brian Boyd

Roland Barthes would love it. Up until a few years ago, the Burberry clothing range carried connotations of stately country piles and a spot of grouse shooting. The expensively priced, upmarket range was invariably used to dress people with double-barrelled names and received pronunciation speech patterns. Now, however, anybody wearing the Burberry brand faces being banned from a growing number of UK bars and nightclubs. Burberry, it appears, is now the garb of choice for football hooligans and lairy lads and as such has become the new "white socks" for pub and club security staff.

It's the semiotics of fashion: how a clothing brand can signify something radically different from that it first signified - with the change occurring in the blink of a Zeitgeist. It may well give us a new "ism" to wring our hands over: "clothesism" - the prejudice associated with judging a person's character merely by the brand of clothing they wear. Sociology departments worldwide should be put on alert.

So are these pubs and clubs being nakedly (sorry) clothesist in their approach? It has long been observed that football fans attending matches - although not necessarily in the Eircom league - are a bit bling-ed up in their attire. A survey of any average English Premiership ground on a Saturday afternoon would find plenty of Burberry, Henri Lloyd and Aquascutum in the stands. While these brands would have been more regatta and gymkhana staples before, the "democratisation" of clothing (equal clothing rights for all) means the old certainties have broken down.

It's simply because English football fans do mindless hooliganism very well that these brands are now being tainted by association. Last month, two Leicester pubs were the first to impose a Burberry ban. A spokeswoman for the pubs concerned said they were refusing entry to anyone wearing Burberry because the brand "is associated in the area with a couple of big gangs of lads who drink heavily and have an unofficial uniform of Burberry caps. This is a flexible policy though; if a lady comes in with a Burberry handbag, we are not going to turn her away". The "Burberry ban" is now spreading around the UK. Managers of a nightclub in Blackburn are now issuing details of their Burberry ban on flyers and posters around the town.

Founded in 1856, the Burberry brand bills itself as "the authentic lifestyle brand" and it first acquired its "class status" image when Burberry mackintoshes made for soldiers during the first World War were reserved for the officer-classes. Its signature plaid design was primarily used for coat lining, but now it adorns Burberry's umbrellas, luggage, scarves and caps. Turnover last year was £675 million (€988 million), according to latest figures, and the brand has been publicly worn by Madonna, David and Victoria Beckham, Kate Moss (who used to be the "face" of Burberry) and various royals and aristos.

Fashionistas claim that the "rot" set in when ex-EastEnders actress, Daniella Westbrook, took to clothing herself (and her pets) from top to toe in the fabric. Burberry is now fashionably popular among what the British call "chavs" (a chav, loosely speaking, is a person in a shiny tracksuit who drinks cans of beer at the bus stop).

This is not the first time a particular clothing brand has journeyed so dramatically from one social group to another. Twenty years ago, Tommy Hilfigger was the "ultra-preppy" uniform for middle- to upper-class whites. It was swiftly appropriated by black urban youth as a form of hip-hop uniform and for a while developed an "edge" - until pathetic fortysomethings muscled in, thinking the brand made them somehow "with it".

British police have welcomed the "Burberry ban", with PC Karen Holdridge of Leicester's Violence and Disorder team saying: "Well-known football hooligans have a particular dress code. These people are recognised as coming into the city centre day in, day out and causing trouble, so this is one way of cleaning up the clientele."

A Burberry spokeswoman says of the ban: "Burberry is a very aspirational, cross-generational, cross-gender brand. With regard to the Leicester issue, it's clearly a localised issue and it's actually quite insignificant in the face of the brand's global appeal."

Henri Lloyd, another brand implicated in the row, say the ban shows "ridiculous prejudice" while the UK Licensed Victuallers Association dismissed the move as "preposterous" and urged bars and clubs to lift the ban.

Perhaps, however, all of this has got nothing to do with a number of violent football fans; perhaps the problem lies somewhere more central to British life. About five years ago, sales of denim jeans plummeted suddenly. Extensive research was carried out by jeans manufacturers and it emerged that the wearing of denim was associated with naff, middle-aged men. Photographs of Jeremy Clarkson and Tony Blair, both distressingly squeezed into their jeans, were produced as evidence.

With this in mind, remember that photograph taken of the British Prime Minister while he was on holiday with Silvio Berlusconi in Italy last month? Look closely and you'll see Tony wearing a Burberry polo shirt.

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