The rose-tinted look at history is bumping against current terror attacks.
On a recent night in early June, in a lavishly decorated club space just north of the Thames River, revelers in their 20s and 30s are wearing 1940s garb: vintage tea dresses for the ladies, military uniforms for the gents. They’re enjoying war-themed cocktails like the “Spitfire” (inspired by the British fighter plane). And, this being 2017, they’re Instagramming the World War II-era set design, from the propaganda posters to the makeshift command center.
The Blitz Party recreates a romantic, dimly lit version of London under attack. The first event took place in 2009. It now occurs every few months in increasingly large venues, with a capacity of 1,000+. Tickets cost £30–£40 (or around $40–$50), and period dress is mandatory.
While partygoers are expected to turn up in retro outfits, they can get some help with finishing touches inside the venue. There’s a long line for the hair and makeup stand, where lips are brightly reddened and hair is curled into victory rolls (possibly the only hairstyle to be named after an aircraft maneuver). There are swing dancers galore, as well as lounge singers performing stylized covers of Nirvana and Lana Del Rey songs.
This gauzy view of the Blitz period—that time during World War II when children were evacuated to the countryside, German bombs rained down on the city, and air-raid shelters were ubiquitous—has taken root in London. Pop-culture memorials to the era are legion: In literature, there’s the adulterous couple of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, or the volunteer warden reliving the bombings in Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life; on screen, there are mysteries like “Murder on the Home Front” and literary adaptations like The Night Watch.
The most recent addition to this category is “The Halcyon.” This U.K. show, which was cancelled after a single season and will air in October in the U.S., is set in a luxury London hotel during the Blitz period. The title card image, where a woman’s bare legs are more prominent than the wartime setting, sets the tone for the series. This show, with its focus on romantic relationships and scandalous goings-on in a ritzy hotel, soapily trades on its dramatic setting. It establishes that World War II was, er, sexy.
The Blitz Party capitalizes on that idea, too: Some of the attendees talk about their appreciation of the period’s aesthetic. Thirty-year-old Kerry Maskell likes to get dressed up for events like these, which are more of an occasion than a standard-issue club night. Pip Kindersley, age 28, talks about how iconic the period was, both in terms of fashion and reshaping gender roles. And some people point to the allure of a strapping man in a uniform.
All of this gets at a very specific image of the Blitz—marked by what one writer has described as “metropolitan orgasm” and one academic has analyzed as an erotic reimagining of urban space. That is, the communal shelters and collective spirit of the time created a new kind of public sexual freedom. Whether this is true or not isn’t really the point: The crumbling, war-struck metropolis has come to be seen as passionately fevered, and Brits swoon over the love stories that emerged from the era. This is mostly particular to a romantic notion of London, even though London wasn’t the only British city to experience a Blitz.
This image is also characterized by nostalgia. Andrew Hoskins of the University of Glasgow researches memories of conflict and how these are shaped by “media templates,” which he describes as narratives that “impose a particular interpretation on the past, especially through using images.” Hoskins says that the WWII image of resilient unity is one of the strongest media templates in the U.K. “We have a very rosy glow about WWII in popular culture in this country, for better or worse,” he says.
There are several reasons for this. One is the perversely reassuring spirit of that war. While more recent conflicts have been contentious, popular opinion on World War II is, according to Hoskins, “relatively settled.” Unlike the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War with Argentina, or the Iraq invasion, British involvement in the Second World War is almost uniformly a source of pride. Thus, today “you can’t knock the Blitz template,” Hoskins says. For the current generation of young people looking to the Blitz period for comfort, “it’s something they’ve heard about, and may not have a living generational memory [of].”
The Blitz nostalgia craze also enables a collective, and supposedly classless, virtuousness about shared experiences of deprivation and a uniform sense of threat. The WWII ration book has become a design icon, just one of the many icons popularly associated with World War II (which are among the most enduring images of Britain). Just two examples are the “Keep Calm and Carry on” slogan, now beloved of merchandisers, and the “Blitz spirit” of stiff-upper-lip resilience.
The austere, can-do spirit of that time has also been turned into an unexpected money-spinner for a current generation of thrifty environmentalists and DIY-ers. You can see this in all sorts of cultural markers: the reissue of wartime booklets on domestic skills, or cooking blogs and books that celebrate the forced simplicity of WWII rationing.
This unifying kind of nationalism, for a country with an ambivalent attitude toward its imperial past, is satisfying. But it’s not apolitical. In Hoskins’s words, the “feelgood factor about a mythical time,” which Brits currently associate with the Blitz, helps to resolve “the problem with the legitimizing of warfare.”
That is to say: In the starkest terms, there are good conflicts and there are bad conflicts. WWII is the best example of the former. Modern-day terrorism, with its uncomfortable questions of values and identity, is murkier.
But they’re bumping up against each other. In the past few days there’s been a heavy police presence in East London, with sirens and police vehicles racing down busy streets. This law enforcement response to terror attacks is coupled with a fair amount of racial tension. An acquaintance of mine, an older white Brit, has been decrying her South Asian neighbors in the Whitechapel neighborhood, where restaurants are advertising their after-dusk Ramadan specials.
Kindersley, a Blitz Party attendee who’s come with her Australian boyfriend, speculates that even in her great-grandparents’ generation, this kind of party was tinged with a bit of sadness. Then, London’s women far outnumbered its men. There would have been constant reports of men dying on battlefields, while it was largely women shoring up the home front. Kindersley calls the Blitz Party, and what it represents, “bittersweet.” It seems like an appropriate term for a collective memory that’s both celebratory and sad.
The real-time responses of many Brits to the recent urban attacks has parallels with the continued prominence of the Blitz spirit, nearly 80 years later. There’s a celebration of defiant resilience, including tweets that draw an explicit connection to the London Blitz.
503 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on London during the war. We're not reeling. We're just saying Fuck You! pic.twitter.com/VFzdprqdze— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) June 4, 2017
On June 3, the London Bridge attack occurred halfway through a Blitz Party celebrating D-Day. Whether the attendees were aware of it or not, they were already displaying the “Blitz spirit” that’s become mythologized once more.