They May Have Lost Their Empire but Britain's Sloane Rangers Are Suddenly Back in Style

updated 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They eat jelly with a fork. They wear bowler hats while riding bicycles. They work as lawyers or wine merchants or receptionists, never as traveling salesmen, plumbers or carnival barkers. They love hunting dogs and race horses and the British Royal Family, but they're not so fond of ideas or introspection. They converse in a strange patois that exaggerates the trivial and trivializes the tragic: A dinner party is "absoLOOTly riveting" while a war is "a little local difficulty." They once commanded a navy that controlled a worldwide empire. Now they vent their aggressive instincts by throwing bread rolls at one another at parties.

They are called "Sloane Rangers"—named after London's Sloane Square, in whose environs many of them live when they are not freeloading for the weekend at a richer relative's country manor. In their own very British way, they are to England what preppies are to America, and they live just as surely by their own quaint rules. "Sloanes come mostly from the upper middle class with a foot in the nobility," says Ann Barr, features editor at the distinctly Sloane magazine called Harpers & Queen.

Barr knows whereof she speaks. With her collaborator, Peter York, she has chronicled every facet of Sloane life in The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook. Half parody and half guide, the book has sold more than 110,000 copies since October publication and turned a socioeconomic anachronism into one of the hottest fads in England.

Ironically, the Sloanes have become a national fancy at just the time when they became an economic irrelevancy. "It is no longer good enough to be the child of an Old Boy/Girl," the Handbook laments. "...You're the first generation of female Sloanes to face years of earning your own living." Even more ironically, it is the Sloane style that has become fashionable—and Sloanes don't believe in style. They believe in "What Really Matters"—timeless sartorial verities like navy blue pleated skirts for women and green Husky jackets (a kind of lightweight parka) for everybody on every occasion. In a way, though, the book and the fad make a certain strange sense in the England of the '80s. "The timing is right," says York. "In post-Falklands Britain, there is a respect for traditions, rules, loyalty and duty. And then there was the Royal Wedding."

Ah, yes, the Royal Wedding. It was the apex, the apogee of Sloane culture—and the bride was the epitome of Sloane style. "The Princess of Wales is the 1980s' Supersloane," the Handbook proclaims. Even before she married into the royal clan, Lady Diana Spencer possessed the perfect Sloane sensibility: "virginity, marriage, love of the country, animals—in short, everything that Really Matters." The royals are, of course, the uppermost rung of Sloanedom—with one notable exception. "The Royal Family are all Sloanes except for Margaret," says Barr. She is a "me person and too social," the Handbook harrumphs.

Simply adopting ruling-class costume cannot transform the non-Sloane into anything but a suitably turned-out social climber. "Sloane Rangers are more born than made," says Barr, who was born one but claims to have escaped her roots. "From birth, it is dinned into them what they can do and what they can't do." Indeed, the un-written rules of Sloanedom are rigid. There are vast areas of human activity that are simply unthinkable—everything from scraping an avocado skin to seeing a psychiatrist to voting Labor.

In fact, the life of a Sloane is not all hunt clubs and horseback riding. "It can be hell out there," says York, a non-Sloane who regards the breed with skepticism. "There are an awful lot of rules."

By next month, however, Americans won't have to go over to England to know what Sloanes are all about. St. Martin's Press is publishing the American edition of the Handbook and obviously hoping it will prove as appealing as the 1980 best-seller The Official Preppy Handbook. York is confident that, despite its British bent, the Sloane Ranger look will recapture the colonies. "I think Sloanes will take over in America," he predicts. "The E.T of 1983 in America will be a little creature in a lovely navy blue pleated skirt."

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