Lifestyle Revolution: How Taste Changed Class in Late 20th-Century Britain by Ben Highmore - review by Will Wiles

Will Wiles

Cushions & Class

Lifestyle Revolution: How Taste Changed Class in Late 20th-Century Britain


Manchester University Press 248pp £25

In 1980 my parents bought their first home in the UK, a two-bedroom semi on a new-build estate in an inner suburb of Oxford. I asked my father where they got their furniture and received an anecdote about driving a van to Newcastle to get a Chesterfield settee from his uncle. But did they buy anything at Habitat? I remembered the shop being an influential part of their universe, as was the thick hardback slab of Terence Conran’s The House Book, with its stripped-brick dust jacket. But what actually came from there? It was a bit expensive, Dad said, though they did get some red plastic chairs there. Mostly it was where they went to get ideas.

A lot of people got ideas from Habitat. The store was founded by Conran in 1964 as a place offering ‘instant good taste’. Taste is a notoriously difficult thing to pin down, and so is class, in Britain at least. And where to start with a concept like ‘lifestyle’? Lumbered with these baggage-laden words, Lifestyle Revolution: How Taste Changed Class in Late 20th-Century Britain is a somewhat enervating title for a book. But readers who look past it will discover an engrossing and perceptive account of what happened to Britain – specifically middle-class Britain – between the late 1950s and the John Major years. A professor of cultural studies at the University of Sussex (a highly on-point institution for this sort of enterprise), Ben Highmore is an alert and unblinkered commentator, and although highly focused, his story touches on every part of the country and everyone in it.

He concentrates on the new middle class that arose in this time and which shopped at Habitat: people in the growing media, communications and service sectors, higher education, the arts and what would later be called the ‘creative industries’. People like my parents, in fact: my father worked for Oxfam and had met my mother while they were both working in the theatre. Run my background through a centrifuge and it will produce a residue of Habitat catalogues, Good Housekeeping, The Guardian, Posy Simmonds cartoons, Adrian Mole and Japanese paper lampshades. This is exactly the kind of material Highmore puts under the microscope.

Habitat, for the uninitiated (or for those only familiar with its rather sad present incarnation), traded in modern furniture, including pieces in innovative shapes and materials, as well as rustic homeware, sometimes imported, such as the terracotta ‘chicken brick’. The furniture was displayed in posed room sets, a novelty at the time, and the homeware was piled high in warehouse-like abundance. All this offered the consumer a relaxed route into modernity. You didn’t have to ditch all your old furniture but could combine it with a couple of well-chosen modern pieces. And if you didn’t have the right old pieces, like the scrubbed pine table or the Brown Betty teapot, you could get those as well. It made the modern feel homely and it made the rustic feel modern. The Conran faith was highly syncretic, which made for very good business, as it won over more and more customers, including young middle-class people trying to differentiate themselves from their parents’ generation and people from working-class backgrounds moving up in the new prosperity.

Lifestyle Revolution isn’t just about Habitat, though Habitat serves as a barometer of what the new middle classes wanted. Highmore looks at colour supplements, Pizza Express, new-build homes, new-build universities, Len Deighton and Keith Floyd, Good Housekeeping and Spare Rib, and, yes, Posy Simmonds and Adrian Mole. He looks at the way that tastes formed and disseminated, particularly via magazines, while an excellent chapter on inner-city gentrification examines how the new middle classes steadily colonised Victorian districts that had been scorned as slums when working-class people lived there. In those reclaimed terraces, Habitat’s rusticity provided cottagey comforts.

This is far from a new area of study. Habitat has attracted sociological commentary since it first opened its chic, pivoting door on Fulham Road and recent years have seen a plethora of social histories dealing with this period. What Highmore does beautifully is combine careful reading – he draws on a wealth of material, from writers including Angela Carter and Jonathan Raban – with concision and charm. In fact, one of the numerous strengths of Lifestyle Revolution is its quotes, which are well chosen and plentiful without overwhelming the text. The same could be said of its illustrations. He brings the best qualities of academic writing to a book the general reader will enjoy. Highmore’s picture of the recent past also feels much more lively and sympathetic than similar accounts. In a chapter examining classic portrayals of status-seeking and status anxiety, such as Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party and the sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, Highmore prises open the widely accepted idea that people choose their furnishings simply to impress other people and buff their position in society.

As it filled its homes, this generation reshaped its attitudes. Even the humble duvet became a symbol of a changing world. Bedding was once inherited or given as a wedding present. The duvet is more disposable. ‘As a child I slept under an eiderdown that had been my grandmother’s,’ Highmore writes. ‘No children or grandchildren will inherit my duvet. Having a duvet would have felt like the past was slipping through your fingers – something to mourn perhaps, but also something to embrace.’

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