Cool as folk: why Britain’s young rebels are embracing ancient rites

Folklore customs dating back centuries are suddenly cool with a new generation keen to connect with the planet and defy the establishment

If you’ve never danced with the “obby oss” or been daubed by a bogie, then a new show at Compton Verney art gallery in Warwickshire is for you. Making Mischief is the first exhibition dedicated to British folk costume and the traditions celebrated by communities all over the UK.

There you can learn about the game of Haxey Hood played in Lincolnshire each January or Padstow’s May Day celebrations and the stylised obby osses that lead the celebration. Or there’s the Jack in the Green festival in Hastings where the bogies splatter onlookers with green paint.

Making Mischief’s aim is not just to document community folklore traditions but also to show how they are revived and updated for the modern world – one that includes female morris dancers and LGBTQ+ performers. The Jack in the Green festival has featured gay bogies for the last 30 years. These changes come thanks to the growing interest from new, younger generations in making the customs their own.

“I’ve been curious to watch younger people tapping into folklore,” says Simon Costin, co-curator of Making Mischief. “I think it started with the New Nature Writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. There’s also the growth of the environmental movement with groups such as Extinction Rebellion. The people engaged with folklore customs now aren’t nostalgic, they’re looking forward – they’ve realised seasonal traditions are a way to reconnect with the planet.”

Costin made his name as a fashion set designer, finding fame for his collaborations with British designer Alexander McQueen. His lifelong fascination with customs led him to set up the Museum of British Folklore about 12 years ago although his collection doesn’t yet have a permanent home. He also became director in 2013 of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall.

Folk music star Gwenno has released albums in Cornish and Welsh.
Folk music star Gwenno has released albums in Cornish and Welsh. Photograph: Claire Marie Bailey Claire Marie Bailey Music PR handout

“There’s a lack of spirituality in people’s lives,” says Costin. “Organised traditional religion is abhorrent to most of them – ‘thou shalt not’ doesn’t resonate any more – so instead they’re looking at prehistoric monuments and pilgrimage routes.”

This may also explain why more pagans and wiccans were counted in the 2022 census than ever before and shamanism is the fastest-growing religion in the UK.

Folk traditions echo through many new elements of popular culture. As well as the current wave of folk horror films, including box-office hit Enys Men, there are club nights starting up such as Klub Nos Lowen, which champions Cornish folk music and dance, and breakout folk music stars such as Gwenno, who has released albums in Welsh and Cornish and was nominated for the 2022 Mercury prize. New clubs and social groups are also bringing like-minded people together.

Stone Club, founded by artists Lally MacBeth and Matthew Shaw in 2021, organises walks and gatherings for people fascinated by prehistoric pagan Britain. There’s also the Wiltshire-based magazine Weird Walk, which was started in 2019 by musician Owen Tromans, designer Alex Hornsby and James Nicholls who runs a record label. It’s dubbed a “journal of wonderings and wanderings” and showcases writing about Britain’s pathways, ley lines and mystical histories.

Contributors include comedian and Observer columnist Stewart Lee and artist Jeremy Deller. Art is Magic, a book of Deller’s work to be published in May, will feature his exhibition of folk art, and Sacrilege, his bouncy castle Stonehenge.

“People are drawn to ancient sites, stories and traditions,” says Weird Walk co-founder Hornsby. “Sacred landscapes and their lore offer respite, reconnection and an enjoyable yomp. There’s usually a decent pub nearby, too. Someone recently told me that in previous years their mates used to post about going to gigs or to football on the weekend, then all of a sudden it was hikes up mountains and rituals at standing stones … folklore and ancient history is gaining a foothold in the era of social media.”

Pop star Dua Lipa wears a Chopova Lowena skirt inspired by the Scottish kilt and Bulgarian traditional dress.
Pop star Dua Lipa wears a Chopova Lowena skirt inspired by the Scottish kilt and Bulgarian traditional dress. Photograph: @chopovalowena/Instagram

Fashion designers are also bringing the styles of ancient Britain back. John Alexander Skelton, currently one of the most critically acclaimed names in British fashion, unveiled his latest collection last month. To show his work, Skelton held an exhibition of photographs shot on Orkney in which his clothes were modelled by the local community. The soundtrack featured residents talking about the area over music written by a local fiddle player.

Irish fashion designer Simone Rocha’s latest show featured models wearing tiered veils – a reference to the tradition on the Aran Islands of wearing petticoats dyed red as headdresses to take part in funeral processions. Skirts by British-Bulgarian label Chopova Lowena, which combine Scottish kilts and Bulgarian folk costumes, have become a favourite among fashion editors and celebrities.

Simon Costin – wearing clothes by Skelton – is keen to emphasise that, despite the talk of British communities and traditions (slightly loaded words in post-Brexit times) these customs are not nationalistic.

“Folklore is pure anti-establishment chaos; in the show we look at how many traditions were suppressed because they were moments when people lost control. Many were started by communities driven to celebrate by a passion for culture. Notting Hill carnival is a good example of that.”

Costin hopes the new show will raise awareness of how popular folk customs are in the UK now. “I think the greater museum fraternity, in its wisdom, has undervalued vernacular culture,” he says. “It’s difficult for archivists to get their heads round because it’s constantly mutating and growing. Museums are about things that are enshrined, and folklore resists that.”


Alice Fisher

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In love with the glove: the TikTok generation falls for a classic look
A must-have accessory for today’s musicians, actors and models, the latest hot trend harks back to the golden Hollywood era

Lauren Cochrane

23, Jan, 2022 @5:15 AM

Article image
Celebrity shirts: getting the message off their chest
Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift are just the latest stars to use a wordy garment to have their say in public

Priya Elan

09, Jul, 2016 @10:11 PM

Article image
Hello chaps! Beyoncé leads fashion posse back to the wild west
With Idris Elba’s new film about a black outlaw set for release, cowboy hats, fringing and boots are in style

Priya Elan

15, Aug, 2021 @5:30 AM

Article image
Social media is an unkind space, Darcey Bussell warns teens
Former Royal Ballet star speaks out ahead of film update of Coppelia, which focuses on the pressure to change looks in pursuit of happiness

Dalya Alberge

27, Feb, 2022 @8:45 AM

Article image
Grandaddy cool: why young men are dressing old school
First it was Peaky Blinders, then Harry Styles. Now flat caps, tailoring and tank tops are back into fashion for a new generation

Priya Elan

20, Jun, 2020 @2:16 PM

Article image
Too cool for the pool … holidaywear brings summer to the city
Designers from Pucci to Gap, and celebrities such as Rihanna are embracing the beach chic trend for sunny days on urban streets

Ellie Violet Bramley

08, Aug, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Life inside the wild London club where lesbians were free to be themselves
A new documentary takes viewers back down the rickety stairs to the trailblazing Gateways in Chelsea

Ginny Dougary

18, Jun, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Homer Sykes: capturing the whimsy, folklore and festivals of Britain
The photographer, whose interest in the country’s curious customs spans more than 50 years, has a new exhibition

Kim Willsher

01, May, 2021 @8:15 PM

Article image
Stone Roses, Trainspotting and the grunge look: the 90s revival is here
In music, film, art and fashion, the 1990s are now making a comeback. But is this driven by nostalgia or does it reflect a shift in the national mood?

Morwenna Ferrier

12, Feb, 2012 @12:13 AM

Article image
Fisherman’s Friends: behind feelgood film of Cornwall’s folk stars lies a tragedy
Uplifting movie tells how the Cornish singing group hit the big time – but not of the terrible blow that came after

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

18, Nov, 2018 @7:30 AM