In news that I imagine has Julian Assange weeping inconsolably in his London prison cell, Buckingham Palace authorities have refused to endorse any tea towels commemorating Prince William’s forthcoming marriage to Kate Middleton.
The official statement came from head of the royal household, the Lord Chamberlain Earl Peel, who said souvenir items such as T-shirts, aprons and tea towels would not be “in good taste”.
“We want items that are permanent and significant,” said Peel. Carpets, cushions, wall hangings, headscarves, biscuit tins, jars and china will be acceptable.
The upshot is that no maker of such souvenirs can use Prince William’s coat of arms, nor any official portraits of him with Kate, in a tea towel design, upending a British tradition that has lasted at least as long as the Windsor dynasty.
This is a terrible blow to The Sun, which had been running a competition for children to design the Wills and Kate tea towel.
Perhaps the palace is regretting having allowed a pretty appallingly designed tea towel in 2005, which starred Prince Charles and his bride Camilla Parker-Bowles. It features a giant Union Jack backdrop, a caption in all-caps Times New Roman over what appears to be a puddle of correction fluid, and the happy couple’s likenesses looking like bad portrait tattoos done in Blackpool.
The tea towel medium certainly has its aesthetic limitations. This Charles and Di towel, currently for sale on eBay, makes Charles look rosy-fresh from a big day on the ski fields — or a big night at the local pub. Not exactly a look for the ages.
Tea towels get their name because, back in the day, they were delicate linen cloths that the lady of the house would use only to dry her fine bone china tea service.
In The Kitchen Linens Book, Ellyn-Anne Geisel writes that linen is the best fabric for tea towels (or “dish towels”, as Americans call them), because it can absorb 20% of its weight in water and doesn’t leave lint on dishes.
Historically, women made their own tea towels — often embroidering them, or buying cheerful iron-on transfers, the first of which were marketed as early as 1879. Now tea towels are more commonly made from cotton, or a blend of cotton, linen and viscose — a man-made fibre manufactured from wood pulp, which speeds water evaporation.
Commemorative tea towels offer more sentimental value than trading value. Because so many Charles and Di tea towels were printed, they’re only worth £10 or so. Even a rarity, such as one printed to commemorate the 1937 coronation of Edward VIII — which never happened, due to his abdication — “would be worth £30 tops”, writes antiques expert Paul Hayes, a regular presenter on BBC TV’s Cash In The Attic.
But of course, tea towels are folk art, holding a special place in British hearts precisely because of their banal domestic role and quotidian use. They “fix” a moment of collective cultural memory, quite literally, in the fabric of everyday life. Knowing you have the “official” merch aids this feeling of being part of a big event.
However, folk art has always existed outside the boundaries of good taste, and remains remarkably impervious to official sanction. Pictures of crying children, indigenous artefacts such as boomerangs and tiki masks, portraits on black velvet and soulful wolf T-shirts are only a few of the objects whose sentimental attachments have survived years of ridicule to come out the other end, as retro kitsch. (In one unfortunate kitsch cluster, I recall a Melbourne pub once proudly displaying a black velvet portrait of a crying Aboriginal child.)
The internet has also enabled an explosion of folk art — in production and consumption. For instance, the humour website Regretsy wouldn’t exist without the earnest handcrafters of Etsy. Despite the official ban, I wouldn’t be surprised to see pirated, cottage-industry royal souvenir tea towels being sold via these online grey markets. Rule Britannia!