With events like umbrella jousting, London’s Chap Olympiad celebrates an offbeat, oh-so-British subculture. But what is the meaning of 'chap' today – and why are there so many of them?

“Ladies and gentlemen,” cries the master of ceremonies, “where else can you find a man on a bicycle pouring tea, wearing a suit of armour?”

We are in Bedford Square, London. The bicycle mentioned is for 'Tea Pursuit', a competition in which contestants pour from a teapot into a cup – all while pedalling across a makeshift field of artificial grass. The current contender is 'Sir Artemis Scarheart', whose lower half is covered in a stainless steel plate.

It’s just a typical scene from the Chap Olympiad, a surreal, Pimm’s-soaked field day devoted to the sport – and art – of being a perfect English gentleman. Contestants sporting boaters and blazers, plus-fours and cricket sweaters, linen and tweed participate in games like the Wodehousian 'Aunt Avoidance' (according to the rules, “competitors must make it from one end of the track to the other, avoiding absurd requests from aunts while keeping a lit pipe and with a chap-like saunter”). Other challenges include 'Not Playing Tennis' (players keep a ball aloft while reading a newspaper), 'Well-Dressage' (essentially: posing artfully on a hobbyhorse) and the 'Champagne Charlie Pyramid of Dextrous Dandies' (a human pyramid, with champagne-pouring). For the winner, there is the 'golden cravat' – the award for the most gentlemanly chap of all.

The Chap Olympiad wasn't always the phenomenon it is now. When it began 11 years ago, it was just an ad hoc gathering of like-minded friends in Regent’s Park, all of whom were involved with satirical 'anarcho-dandyist' magazine The Chap, founded in 1999 by Gustav Temple and Viv Darkwood.

They didn't decide to become chaps, says Michael 'Atters' Attree, a humourist and Chap editor who has been present at the Olympiad from the beginning. “That's just who we were!”

Glory days

Identified with well-groomed gentlemen who draw from the social and sartorial codes of a bygone era, chap culture has seen a recent resurgence – one that has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of subcultures like steampunk. The Chap Olympiad has grown too. Today, it is a sold-out event that garners coverage in outlets like The Times, The Telegraph and Time Out. It attracts everyone from lifelong vintage aficionados to what Attree calls “fair-weather chaps” – curious Londoners looking to let loose or raucous hen parties.

Then there’s a third category, according to Attree: reactionary nostalgists who take the longing for England's glory days of Empire – not to mention themselves – a bit too seriously.

The Americans have cowboys. The British have gentlemen

Nothing could be more English, after all, than the figure of the chap. “Americans have cowboys,” says photographer Rose Callahan, whose 2011 book I Am Dandy profiled chaps and dandies worldwide. “The British have gentlemen.”

Clayton Hartley, Secretary-Treasurer of the New Sheridan Club, a social club of chaps and enthusiasts that first took shape on The Chap's online message boards, says being a chap is about more than what you wear. It’s a state of mind, “a fondness for, I suspect, the security of the past," he says. "You know, the days when men would doff their hats to each other and smoke their pipes.”

We're cherry-picking from a different time

Of course, Hartley admits, such security is itself a fantasy – after all, from the Great Depression through World War Two, the 1930s and '40s his club's members often emulate were hardly Britain's most untroubled eras. And the idyllic leisure associated with the figure of the chap was unavailable to all but a very privileged few.

But that, Hartley says, is what makes the fantasy of being a chap so rewarding. “We're cherry-picking from a different time,” Hartley says, adopting “the lifestyles of the wealthy” – even just for an evening or an afternoon.

Maid in England

The New Sheridan Club's Defence Secretary – official job description: “organises events and puts the wind up our enemies” – Sam Hutchinson (aka Sir Artemis Scarheart) agrees. In fact, had he lived in any of the eras he recreates, he'd hardly have had the opportunity to be a chap at all: his grandmother was in what he calls “domestic service”. But adopting the clothing and manner from a vanished era’s privileged set offers its own scope for rebellion – a democratisation of an identity once available only to a few.

To buy a set of tails, for example, appropriates a symbol that his family couldn’t access before, he says. It’s both “a statement that I am further along than my ancestors” and recognition of the fact that such a linear view of class no longer needs apply. One doesn’t have to wait to be invited to an Ambassadorial Ball to wear white tie, after all; tickets to Hartley’s own Candlelight Club events start at £25 ($39).

Plus, Hutchinson says, the rules of chappishness – from when to doff a cap to a lady to the etiquette of pipe smoking – offer a framework for behaviour that modern society lacks. “How do you greet somebody? How do you sign off an email?,” he asks. Chap culture gives a sense of “Oh, this is how you do this,” he says.

We actually like sets of rules and established forms of dress

At the same time, Hartley notes, there's something inherently rebellious about adopting the behaviour of a chap in this day and age – about choosing rules in an era without limitations. Back when he was a journalist, Hartley says, he often was invited to black tie dinners. “There were always guys who would try to subvert it, or they'd wear black tie but wear it around their head, you know, Oh, you can't tell me what to do.'” Rarer, but in his opinion far more subversive, are those who “relish the opportunity to embrace the dress code and maybe dial it up to eleven.” That includes chaps. “We actually like sets of rules and established ways and forms of dress. I think partly because no-one does it anymore – it is rebellious,” he says.

In fact, both The Chap magazine and the chap phenomenon rose from punk subculture. “There's quite a lot of overlap between heavy goths and steampunks and dandies,” Hartley says. “It's anti-fashion.”

If that all sounds a bit earnest, Hartley admits that the line between seriousness and self-deprecation is a fine one. Hartley recalls once having dinner with a young viscount who wondered aloud about the purpose of The Chap magazine. “He said, 'I've never really understood if it's for people like me or taking the piss out of people like me.’'' Hartley laughs. “Well, actually, it's both!”

A spiffing sport

After all, what could be more English than taking a time-honoured cultural icon and turning it into a giant joke? Holding court at the Olympiad ringside in a red velvet frock coat with gold brocade, Attree introduces me to his beloved pet bat brooch (he’s named it Batty: a counterpart to his pet riding whip, Whippy) before informing me that being a chap requires not taking anything – including being a chap – too seriously. Nostalgia, the longstanding English tradition of “taking the piss” (making fun of someone or something), a longing for a better, bygone England, a healthy dollop of irony – all this, Attree says, make up the essence of chappishness. What matters, Attree insists, is that you make it your own. “You can even wear trainers,” he says. “As long as you're really interesting.”

It is this gleeful spirit of tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness that gives the Chap Olympiad its madcap energy. During a game of bicycle umbrella jousting, Sir Artemis Scarheart discovers to his chagrin that plate armour, however smart, is not conducive to pedalling. Reduced to standing forlornly while his opponent rides in literal circles around him (as the master of ceremonies notes with glee), Scarheart throws himself upon the point of his umbrella. He receives points for honourable behaviour and wins the match.

At last, late in the afternoon, the Olympiad comes to an end. Scarheart comes in second, winning a silver cravat for his trouble; Attree attempts to flirt with the fiancée of the winner of the Moustache Competition.

And the Chap's de facto anthem – 'gentleman rhymer' Mr B's All Hail the Chap – begins to play:

It's a call to charms, a design for living/within a world so unforgiving

Where sloth and banality are the standard brew/well, we've upped our standards – so up yours too!

Give your pipe a tap, park your rattle trap, raise your hat or cap

As we say, all hail The Chap!

It’s utterly impossible to listen with a straight face. But that may be the most English part of all.

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