Lifestyle Revolution: How taste changed class in late 20th-century Britain by Ben Highmore

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Review by Annabel

Some years ago, our Shiny editor-at-large, Simon, reviewed a book by Ben Highmore called The Great Indoors. That book explored typical homes over the last century or so room by room – I had added it to my wishlist, but never got around to acquiring a copy. But Highmore’s name stuck in my memory and when I spotted that he’d written a book all about taste and class in the late 20th century I couldn’t resist asking for a review copy. 

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the key makers and shakers of this period who play the most significant role in the book are Terence Conran and his business partners, founders of Habitat in 1964. I remember when Habitat first opened in Croydon; it was the mid-1970s by then, and as teenagers, we often went into town en masse to inhabit the store – an added attraction being that the Croydon branch housed a creperie – 
Quel délice! With its clean, white looks that focused your attention on often bright products piled high, it was the antithesis of the stuffy department store down the road. 

But before we get to Habitat, there is the beginning of the emergence of the blurring between working and middle classes in the late 1950s. It was no longer purely about income; ‘it was about community, about education, about culture, about accent, about taste.’ Highmore concludes his introduction by explaining how he intends to illustrate the ‘soft revolution’ in taste and lifestyle by ‘stalking the high street watching new chains of shops and restaurants open (and sometimes close again)’, and as he says prophetically, 

‘Behold, the duvet cometh…’

The next chapter is devoted to an exploration of ‘Taste and tastemakers’ and its central role in the rest of the book. He explores the origins of the word from ‘an old French word for touching and feeling’ (via a Shakespearean definition referring to carnal knowledge), and its links to testing things. 

And of course, we use the term to refer to forms of discernment, judgement. We say that someone has ‘good taste’ and imply that they seem to have an intuitive ability to pick out the coolest, the ‘right thing’. Taste is a small word to bring all that together: to link the senses, experience, and judgement. It is also a vital word for describing how we experience the world.

The following chapter looks at the Habitat story, in particular exploring how they chose the products to sell, and how the stores were laid out to exploit that ‘can’t-wait-to-get-it-home’ feeling. I hesitate to use this word, but their secret was a curated range of goods:

Instead of inviting customers to choose from a range of teapots as a department store might, it offered one, and that was a distinctly old-fashioned dark brown glazed earthenware teapot (‘Granny’s old brown teapot’ as the first brochure would put it). The teapot wasn’t any old teapot, it was – within Habitat’s imagination – the sine non qua of teapots. It was a teapot steeped in teapot-ness.

Yes, Habitat did the this isn’t just any teapot, it’s an M&S teapot vibe decades before the other chain store but didn’t have the voiceover to go with it on the adverts. However, their buyers certainly had the knack for picking and promoting the eclectic range of goods on offer. There’s a wonderful photo of a ‘dump display of the chicken brick’, another of their iconic products, but I can’t remember ever encountering one in anyone’s kitchen.

Habitat were one of the first stores to launch a catalogue too. In 1966, they produced a folded broadsheet with hand-drawn illustrations and fun copy to describe the products, but this morphed into a more professional affair once they launched their mail order business in 1969, before arriving at the annual full-colour catalogue a couple of years later, which was full of lifestyle advice and room settings. The catalogue was sold in their stores and although I wasn’t old enough yet to have my own pad, I bought copies religiously to pore over and imagine how I’d live this kind of tasteful life. It’ll be no surprise that when I did get my own house in the mid-1980s, it was largely furnished from Habitat, and most of those pieces are still in use in my house decades later, even if the storage boxes and glasses have not survived. This chapter spoke volumes to me!

This period also saw a huge expansion in housing and the need to be able to mix old and new inside, which is where the potent image of old scrubbed pine tables laid with more that mix of ‘moderate modernism’ and a faux-farmhouse urban rustic style that Habitat’s range of goods made easy. 

But it was not just about Habitat; the high street was taking off, and thanks to Elizabeth David and her bestseller French Provincial Cooking published in 1960, foodie tastes were about to get a real kick-start, backed up by Len Deighton’s masculine ‘cook strips’ in the newspapers (later made into books as shown in the film Alfie). Pizza Express with their distinctive type face, still in use today, opened in Soho in 1965 bringing a ‘borrowed authenticity’ from Italian cuisine out of the trattorias for the masses with casual style. 

One of the biggest influences on lifestyle, culture and food though was the introduction of colour supplements in the weekend newspapers, pioneered by The Sunday Times, and that mix hasn’t changed much in ensuing decades. 

The colour supplement shares the tempo of the times: its beat is ‘instant nostalgia’. You read about the Algarve and already you are imagining the holiday snaps you will have taken. 

Subsequent chapters take a serious turn looking at more social factors, including gentrification, contrasting the run-down and dilapidated Notting Hill of the early 1960s with the restored version of later decades, and the influence of West Indian culture, amongst others. 

There is also the evolution of Social Science as a university subject, which leads to a very entertaining dissection of Malcolm Bradbury’s 1975 novel The History Man, ‘a book that today reads like the fever dream of those who are obsessed with the idea that “wokeness” is wrecking higher education,’ and a look at the work of cartoonist Posy Simmonds. 

He goes on to look at other commentators in the media on class, taste, culture and changing social structures and the striving for status: Sue Townsend’s lovably pompous Adrian Mole, Bob and Thelma’s aspirations and Terry’s lack of them in Whatever happened to the Likely Lads, and an acerbic look at the role of the room divider in Abigail’s Party – the iconic Mike Leigh play, broadcast in 1977 – he’s not really a fan (I reviewed the fortieth anniversary playscript here).

Abigail’s Party took some of the sociological presumptions that had been circulating in the 1960s and 1970s – the idea that the new middle classes or lower middle classes were the ones most infected with acquisitive greed and status envy – and blew it up into a tragic farce. Taste was weaponised to the point where it killed Laurence. 

Highmore’s account ends with the demise of Habitat in the high street against the explosion of IKEA, and the ubiquity of the aforementioned duvet. This book was never less than thought-provoking, and Highmore’s sources and references are meticulously researched and noted and his writing is engaging and full of wit and humour, unexpected in a more academic text (this book being published by Manchester University Press). It took me on a wonderful nostalgia trip but his thought-provoking analysis of such a complex subject, done in such an entertaining style is making me consider it still.

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Annabel is a Co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.

Ben Highmore, Lifestyle Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2023). 978-1526108821, 248pp., hardback.

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2 comments

  1. Oh, now this sounds right up my street, Annabel, as I can recall much of this design style (and I actually still love it…) As for the chicken brick – I once shared a flat with someone who owned and used one!!!

    1. Sadly, the Habitat furniture since it became part of the Sainsbury group isn’t quite as well-made now (going by reviews), but my 1980s dining table and chairs, office desk, lamp and chair, and big low and wide chest of drawers are still going strong, and my mum’s bright 1970s orange ceramic kitchen utensil holder is full of knitting needles! I still love that style too.

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