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How the Shabby Chic Style Evolved From the Brit Chic Look

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What Is Shabby Chic?

Shabby chic evolved from typical English country house décor, via chocolate-box cottages through suburban Laura Ashley acolytes, and out of the large, cluttered, eclectic, bohemian-inhabited Victorian terrace houses that dominate inner-city, urban architecture in Britain. In went a soupçon of French farmhouse, a scrap of Shaker, a smidge of Scandinavian, a pinch of Indian, a trace of Moroccan, a touch of goth and it was done.

Shabby chic was, and should be, an eclectic mix of styles and eras. Useful objects should sit happily next to beautiful ones. The best kind are both useful and beautiful. Shabby chic need not be cluttered; indeed, simplicity and function are at the heart of a shabby chic home.

The English country house, from whence all shabby chic floweth.

The English country house, from whence all shabby chic floweth.

Delicious but a teeny weeny bit contrived.

Delicious but a teeny weeny bit contrived.

A Shabby History

Back in the 1970s, before shabby chic became a recognised style, it was fairly easy to pick up old solid pieces of late Victorian through to 1930s furniture that no-one wanted any more. The second-hand junk stores were full of it. Market traders couldn't get rid of it.

Tons of perfectly good and very well-made pieces were burned or left to rot, while Britain excitedly embraced the urban Conran look that was attempting to pass itself off as sophisticated country style.

Along with the furniture, out went the doors, architraves, panelling, floorboards, fireplaces, china, linen, and other beautifully made but unwanted lace, hand-stitched and faded soft furnishings. Those without much money for Habitat had to make do with these readily-available, but disdained, materials. They, being born of the hippy generation, sanded and scrubbed, washed and painted the old furniture into submission.

Out went dark, treacle-varnish dining tables; out went spindly, over-designed, uncomfortable 1960's chairs. In came big comfy sofas, stripped pine dressers and distressed oak cabinets. Mismatching became desirable; patchwork was back in vogue; bright, heart-warming colours were embraced. We Britishers were well acquainted with the style – we just didn't have a name for it... until clever Rachel Ashwell, took it to America, opened a store in Santa Barbara and created her Shabby Chic emporium that was, in essence, a small corner of England.

Americans loved her idea and went with it, taking it from something that came out of lack of money and necessity to a dainty urban style that owes more to dollhouses than to real, muddy, rainy, British country life. Well, the time has come. We want it back. We are reclaiming our gentile shabbiness for our very own. Brit-chic is coming home!

Shabby-cat floorboards

Shabby-cat floorboards

Elements of Shabby Chic: Brit Chic Style

Start with the floors. Shabby chic floors are always stripped, stained, varnished or painted boards. Kitchen floors are quarry tiled and strewn with rag rugs. Any original tiled or flagstone floor is fine. Carpet is not encouraged but can be tolerated in low-traffic areas like bedrooms. Laminate is out. Sorry. However wood-like it is, it can't ever be a substitute for proper floor boards. You might just get away with painting it with a very hard-wearing floor paint in a good shabby chic colour, i.e. white, cream, duck-egg blue, or that lovely soft green, beloved by the National Trust, and laying down some worn rugs.

Wall-to-Wall Shabby Brit

Walls can be painted or papered. Painted is preferred – if you really must paper, then stick with a small unobtrusive print; resist the current trend for bold designs, they are already passé anyway. Paint can be plain and almost any colour you like as long as it is matte (flat). Or, you can revive some of the paint-effects of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Remember rag-rolling and sponging? Marbling and tortoise-shelling? Combing and stippling? What fun we had with all that. If you have to go this route, then be subtle – overlay that enthusiasm for metallic sheen with a little restraint. You are aiming for 'chic', remember? A desirable alternative is painted panelling which can look good in any size home.

Now it doesn't matter if it gets scuffed a little more.

Now it doesn't matter if it gets scuffed a little more.

Furniture Is Best Distressed

Furniture is always comfortable and practical. Forget dainty. Shabby chic started in country houses that had to accommodate the hunting, shooting, fishing set. Furniture was there to be used, not admired. Where there were Labradors and children, white sofas were never an option. Loose covers are always a Very Good Thing. While the rest of the world are turning to Ikea and lime green, go for blowsy floral printed covers – great for hiding paw prints, cat hair and baby sick. Tartan is a good shabby chic standby, but don't overdo it.

Wood furniture can be sanded, waxed, stained or painted and distressed. Solid kitchen tables look great with plain wood tops and painted legs. Whatever you do, don't try to match and coordinate – that is death to authentic shabby chic.

Nice shabby chic dining room... and I agree there is no need to iron the tablecloth - but I said NO Austrian blinds!

Nice shabby chic dining room... and I agree there is no need to iron the tablecloth - but I said NO Austrian blinds!

Windows Get the Brit Chic Treatment

Windows are simple – plenty of sheers, antique curtains, and/or wood blinds – though these should be restricted to urban living and never, ever used in cottages or proper country homes. If you are lucky enough to own a house with built in shutters, then no curtains, apart from some romantic lace, are necessary. Classic plains or delicately patterned, Laura Ashley-type, fabrics reign supreme when it comes to fabrics for windows. However, if you can get hold of faded, lined velvet, then you've struck shabby chic gold.

Never, ever revive the fashion for Austrian blinds. Or, indeed, flounces of any variety.

There will be a shabby chic treasure in there somewhere. Car boot sales are a great source of inspiration.

There will be a shabby chic treasure in there somewhere. Car boot sales are a great source of inspiration.

This is a trend. Don't do it. You'll be repainting in a month

This is a trend. Don't do it. You'll be repainting in a month

Shabby Chic Accessories (The Brit Chic Way)

Ah, yes. This is where stylists have a field day. Yes, it is nice to have an antique French bird cage but there are too many imitations around – wrought iron and fairy lights are a bit clichéd these days. And everybody recognises Cath Kidston. If you are after true shabby chic then develop your own style. What elements in the last few decades appeal to you? Don't be put off by home décor magazines that say you must stick to pale colours or you really must have these over-priced cushions. Right now, in the UK, there is a huge trend for decorating with the Union Jack, and it is all over the place, particularly in shabby chic online stores – trends are not good, trends cost money and look dated very quickly. Your shabby Brit chic-ness must rise above trends and become timeless.

The whole point of shabby chic is that it is a style that evolves from the personalities of the people living within it. You can't buy authentic shabby chic from fashionable designer stores. You have to put it together yourself, otherwise it is contrived, and that is exactly what shabby chic is not.

Ask your family members if they have any old china stashed away – it needn't be priceless Victorian teacups, but a good old 1970s vintage dinner service. There are tons of china in charity shops that would fit the bill perfectly. Car boot sales are a great source of shabby chic – look critically at your prospective purchases – can it be sanded, rusted, verdigris-ed, painted or otherwise 'shabbied'? Mix up your eras like a crazy era-mixing thing!


© 2012 Bev G

Chic or Shabby?

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on October 16, 2012:

Many thanks, klanguedoc :)

klanguedoc on October 16, 2012:

Love your hub.

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on October 07, 2012:

Hi Sierra! I'm a great believer in adding shabby by painting. Maybe because my furniture painting is pretty scruffy at the best of times!

Sierra Mackenzie on October 06, 2012:

A great hub! I love shabby chic but I am too much of a do-it-yourselfer and I would go to work immediately painting all the shabby away. Hmmm, maybe I can paint and then distress as you mentioned. Love it.

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 23, 2012:

Oh husbands... you have to just allow things to morph gently into the style you want. He wont even notice! :-) Thank you for stopping by.

CraftingTime from Spring Hill, Florida on June 23, 2012:

Enjoyed the pictures. Very inspiring. This is absolutly my style. Wish my husband agreed.

Good job!

europewalker on June 20, 2012:

Excellent hub, lots of great info. Love the beautiful photos. Well done!

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 20, 2012:

Thanks very much, moonlake.

moonlake from America on June 19, 2012:

Very interesting. Enjoyed your hub and your photos. Voted Up Shared.

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 19, 2012:

Many thanks, Francesca. Often, I find Hubs write themselves - whoo - scary!

Francesca27 from Hub Page on June 19, 2012:

Personality plus! Thanks for the beautiful pictures and for the rest of your hub. Great job!

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 19, 2012:

Thank you so much, rebekahELLE. Homey and comfortable is a millions times better than new and gleaming.

rebekahELLE from Tampa Bay on June 19, 2012:

Your title drew me in off the feed. Love the hub, it's helpful, entertaining and put together well. I've always been a shabby chic fan and love the creativity of placing things that we love in the perfect place. My son's girlfriend recently came over and said, I love your home, it's so homey and comfortable. I took that as a compliment.

I love the paragraph which starts with; "The whole point of shabby chic is that it is a style that evolves from the personalities of the people living within it." Your hunt for the perfect images was worth it, they look beautiful. :))

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 19, 2012:

Thank you, Julie :-)

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 19, 2012:

Oh and cynthgtt... lol.. that long run-on sentence in the intro was more by accident than design - I kept adding bits.

Bev G (author) from Wales, UK on June 19, 2012:

Thank you, Natashalh, cynthggt and denisemai, your comments and visits most appreciated :-)

@Natashalh - I am fed up of seeing the blasted flag everywhere I look!

@cynthgtt & denisemai - I do mostly use my own photos but these are from other people who have kindly shared their work under a Creative Commons license on Flickr. Took me hours to track them down!

Blurter of Indiscretions from Clinton CT on June 19, 2012:

Nice photos and very informative hub. Voted up and sharing!

Denise Mai from Idaho on June 19, 2012:

I adore Shabby Chic design almost as much as I adore your photos. This is a good hub with great ideas. Makes me want to refinished some old furnifure!

Cynthia Taggart from New York, NY on June 19, 2012:

I think I will remember the first sentence of this hub the rest of my life. You drew me in immediately and your pictures - well - perfect. I am definitely a shabby chic fan now. I wish I knew to take such great photos. Are you a photographer too?

Natasha from Hawaii on June 19, 2012:

Hahaha, shabby cat floor. I love the hub! And I especially love that you say not to paint your bed side table with a Brit flag because you'll just be repainting again soon. I guess it's because of the Jubilee, but this Brit chic thing is going nuts right now!

Voted up and awesome!