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Steeped in tradition
May 9, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

British culture, like the iconic tea for which the island empire is so well-known, is steeped in tradition.

I considered this during a recent evening when I donned my topper, assembled a beaker of Beefeater Gin and tonic, and sat down to watch the highlights of the royal wedding.

Anyone who is a regular visitor to the Curmudgeon’s Corner knows that I don’t give a monkey’s about weddings.

However, I do enjoy a good spectacle, and nothing says spectacle quite like a royal wedding.

Some people might think that events like this are nothing more than an excuse for cultured ladies to see which one can appear in public in the most outlandish hat. This, of course, is true, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Ridiculous hats (on the heads of ladies) is certainly an important tradition in Britain. Each year, at Ascot and other meetings of the aristocracy, they get more absurd than the year before. These hats are not functional headgear, but modern millinery art.

One can’t help feeling sorry for the poor dears who have been bamboozled into wearing these monstrosities. Not only do the hats distract the eye from their otherwise flawless attire, but it must give these ladies sore necks to wear hats that prevent them from sitting up straight in vehicles or in spaces with low ceilings.

It should be noted that while women seem to need a new hat (or a new complete ensemble) every time they attend a major social event, men’s formal attire hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.

Top hats, for example, have been around in their current form since the 1700s, and have been popular with a wide range of sophisticated gentlemen, from Victorian England, to Hollywood, to Washington DC. Honest Abe and Uncle Sam wore them, as did Groucho Marx and Fred Astaire. Toppers are both stylish and practical, even providing a place to store one’s rabbit if one happens to be a conjurer.

One must concede that the Brits have had a lot longer to develop traditions than we have.

Even on this side of the pond, most people are familiar with the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and other haunts of the monarchy. Those serious cats with the bright red tunics and bearskins tend to make an impression on one.

Household Troops have guarded the sovereign and the royal palaces since Charles II punched in about 1660, more than a century before the US declared its independence.

Of course, British history goes back much, much further than that, but this is an example of how well-established their traditions are.

The British, in general, seem a lot more particular about the form of things than we are. In every situation, there are protocols that must be followed.

I understand that all of the 1,900 honored guests at the recent royal wedding were issued a 22-page set of instructions that outlined what they could wear, what they must do, and how they should act. I am not sure that would fly at an American wedding.

This is nothing new, however.

Our British brothers and sisters established many of their favorite customs years ago, and they have stayed remarkably the same through wars, plagues, and Labor governments.

The British are not immune to technology, but unlike Americans, their attitude seems to be more a matter of fitting technology to their traditions, rather than changing their traditions to fit technology.

The coronation of Queen Liz II in 1953, was the first that was seen by more people on television than heard on radio.

Television was still fairly new at the time, and those who experienced the event have noted that every television set in the nation drew a crowd. As many as 40 people gathered to watch the grainy black-and-white broadcast on screens as small as 9 inches, which suggests that those at the back probably didn’t see much, and yet, they still wanted to be a part of the experience.

Many Americans would find this hard to understand, but a lot of the loyal British subjects who watched the broadcast of the coronation at home dressed up in their best clothes for the occasion, and cleaned their houses until they sparkled because the queen was going to be “in” their living rooms.

As an observer of human nature, I find it interesting that we fought a war to gain our independence from the monarchy, but two centuries later, we still seem to have a fascination for all things royal.

We even “crown” our own kings, queens, princes, and princesses in schools, in organizations, and in a myriad of competitions.

The popularity of the British royalty was evidenced by the enormous number of people who watched the wedding, and by the wall-to-wall coverage that the event (not to mention the preparations for it) received in Britain and around the world.

The British monarchy may not wield the power it once did, but there is no denying it is still an important institution within, and outside of the Commonwealth.

And, despite rude comments some outsiders have made about their dental work, there is no doubt that the Brits have style, silly hats notwithstanding.


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