Fashion in 1960s London

This section explores the development of Sixties fashion from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, linking it to London's different fashion districts.

Established traditions: Mayfair 1955–1960

'In the 1950s youthful clothes were non-existent; I used to make my own. At that time if you were on the tube you were expected to wear a pair of gloves…It was all old lady stuff.' Vanessa Denza, buyer.

In the post-war period exclusive dressmakers and their wealthy clients set the standards, just as they had done before. They looked to Paris for inspiration but their work and lives revolved around the West End in London.

There was a distinctive London style, shaped by traditional tailoring, the events of the Season (Ascot, Henley, Glyndebourne) and a very English sense of decorum. The epitome of elegance was represented by the twelve most prominent Mayfair couturiers who belonged to the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers.

By the early 1960s this Mayfair generation was fading in significance, its sophisticated and elitist approach at odds with the new spirit of egalitarianism. But the Society still provided a useful precedent for younger pioneers, in its attention to cut, its inventive use of fabric and its clever approach to marketing.

Mary Quant - a new approach: Chelsea 1955–1967

Window dressing at Bazzar, 138a King's Road, 1959. © Getty Images

Window dressing at Bazzar, 138a King's Road, 1959. © Getty Images

'Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dresses.' Mary Quant

Around this time a group of young artists, film directors and socialites gravitated towards the King's Road. Known by the media as the 'Chelsea Set', they made the name Chelsea synonymous with a new way of living and dressing.

Mary Quant's boutique, set up in 1955, epitomised this new philosophy and set the standard for later entrepreneurs. Called Bazaar, it was known for its surreal window displays and eclectic mix of clothes, accessories and costume jewellery. The clothes were decidedly modern. 'I want relaxed clothes,' said Quant, 'suited to the actions of normal life'.

With Quant's husband Alexander Plunkett Greene and friend Archie McNair providing the business backup, the venture was profitable, though it appeared chaotic. Some of the goods were sourced from art students, or made up overnight, and the mini shift dress soon became Quant's trademark.

Retail innovation: Knightsbridge 1961–1967

'A whole new world of retail sprang up.' Felicity Green

In the 1950s Knightsbridge was dominated by the stuffy department stores frequented by debutantes and their mothers. The first traditional store to cater specifically for the youth market was Woollands. In 1961, inspired by Mary Quant, it opened the '21 Shop' as an in-store boutique for young working women.

21 Shop sold clothes that were 'simple, zany, not for squares'. The buyer, 22-year-old Vanessa Denza, sought out new talent in the Royal College of Art and worked closely with young designers. Brilliant at turnover, she could get an order of 1000 dresses delivered within a week and sold a week later.

'Like a dam bursting' (to use Denza's phrase) other retailers soon followed her lead, with Young Jaeger, Harrods' Way In and Miss Selfridge establishing themselves as household names.

Menswear revolution: Piccadilly 1964–1970

'I remember going to Turnbull & Asser and having a bright pink shirt made, then being asked to leave the Cavalry Club for wearing it. This happened again in about 1966. I was wearing a white suit made by Blades.... I was asked to leave Annabel's Nightclub for having a white suit on!' David Mlinaric, interior designer.

Fashion-conscious young men set out to challenge the staid rules of masculine etiquette that had prevailed since Victorian times. Circulating in the overlapping worlds of fashion, the media and high society, they forged new styles of dress and deportment. The result was the modern dandy, a flamboyant figure in frills and velvet, whose adventurous wardrobe perfectly suited the creative atmosphere of the time.

A new group of entrepreneurs, often from aristocratic backgrounds, spotted this shift in taste. They moved into the area around Piccadilly Circus, long famous for dressing the British gentleman, and opened shops whose peacock products combined traditional tailoring with the design flair of fashion graduates. Many of the new designers had emerged from the first menswear courses, recently set up at the Royal College of Art and London College of Fashion. The results were spectacular, a new 'man about town'.

Suit, Tom Gilbey, about 1968. Museum nos. T.642:1, 2-1995; T.643-1995

Suit, Tom Gilbey, about 1968. Museum nos. T.642:1, 2-1995; T.643-1995

Suit, Blades, 1968. Museum no. T.353-1980

Suit, Blades, 1968. Museum no. T.353-1980

The rise of the boutique: King's Road 1965–1970

'The King's Road is a wilderness of stoned harlequins.' Christopher Gibbs, antique dealer.

Mary Quant's Bazaar, 'the grandmother of all the little shops', provided a new way of shopping. Until then, mature women had bought their clothes in department stores or gone to dressmakers, while many young women created their own outfits.

Young graduates and enthusiastic amateurs sensed the new spirit in fashion and plunged in. Taking advantage of cheap rents on the King's Road, they opened their own boutiques among the fish shops and greengrocers, attracting customers with their outlandish names and anarchic window displays.

A visit to the King's Road became a journey towards self-expression. On a Saturday afternoon the Rolling Stones and the new pop aristocracy would mix with the crowds, and shoppers emerged transformed, as suede-clad American Indians or romantic heroines in satin and lace.

 

The heart of swinging London: Carnaby Street 1964–1972

Carnaby Street, London, Lord Kitchener, late 1960s

Carnaby Street, London, Lord Kitchener, late 1960s

'Working class design, British fashion, Rock and Roll, The Beatles, Carnaby Street... You had all these rebels without causes, and all of a sudden everything came together. The gods smiled.' Robert Orbach, retailer.

Carnaby Street became synonymous with the idea of Swinging London. Using the skills of the established Soho 'rag trade', it sold relatively inexpensive, trend-driven merchandise that mirrored contemporary changes in society and culture.

In the early days, the clientele was linked to showbusiness. Then, from the mid 1960s, working-class Mods came flocking into the brash outlets of John Stephen (the 'King of Carnaby Street') in search of sharp Italian-style suits. By 1968 shoppers could also find mini-dresses, kaftans, shirts and accessories provocatively emblazoned with patriotic symbols and counter-cultural slogans.

Carnaby Street has often been dismissed as a garish tourist trap. But in its hey-day the clothes and attitude sold there revealed the key Sixties characteristics of innovation, iconoclasm and fun. Above all, they echoed the prevailing spirit of sexual and political revolution.

Exoticism and nostalgia: London's bohemia 1967–1973

'Second hand furniture, old houses, old clothes… Oh God, those vast, whitewashed rooms with bare floorboards and a mattress in the corner with an Indian coverlet on it…. The pure asceticism of the late sixties.' Angela Carter, novelist.

In the late 1960s futuristic themes gave way to exoticism, romanticism and nostalgia. Drugs, the counter-culture and the hippy trail to India suggested an alternative to the commercial fashion scene. Rediscovery of Victorian artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris stimulated a revival of historic and rural styles. The result was an eclectic combination of the ethnic, the antique and the psychedelic.

Many of the clothing trends of the early 1970s originated in the decadent milieu of London's bohemian quarters: Chelsea, Notting Hill and Kensington. These districts offered a faded grandeur that appealed to those with limited budgets and boundless imaginations. Large derelict flats and empty retail spaces offered an ideal environment for pop stars, artists and entrepreneurs to develop alternative approaches to life, business and fashion.

Biba: Kensington and beyond 1964–1974

Biba, High Street Kensington Shop, london, photography by Philip Townsend. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Biba, High Street Kensington Shop, london, photograph by Philip Townsend. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

'The most 'In' shop for gear…. A must scene for the switched on dolly bird.' Time, April 1966.

Barbara Hulanicki opened her first Biba store in an old chemist's stop in Abingdon Road in 1964. Her last, and most ambitious, enterprise was to take over Derry & Tom's department store on the High Street in 1973.

What linked all the Biba stores was Hulanicki's skill in creating environments that complimented the romantic, sensual appeal of her clothing. The atmosphere was unique, with loud music, stylish staff, dimly lit period interiors and chaotic changing rooms. The clothes were also good value, so young working women could shop alongside models, singers and TV personalities.

Through a combination of mail order, distinctive branding and an understanding ofits customers' dreams, Biba set a template for the 'lifestyle' approach that would go on to support British retail successes in the 1980s and '90s.

Out of London: Paris and New York 1965–1968

'They were looking at us and we were looking at them.' Sylvia Ayton, designer.

Until the 1960s, London's clothing industry operated in the shadow of the great Parisian couturiers. Paris, with its focus on made-to-measure garments for a fabulously wealthy, elite group of women, was the hub of international fashion. But suddenly, with the growth of the youth market, London began to set the pace.

Paris maintained its edge thanks to a group of young designers trained in the couture tradition but thinking into the future. Fashion houses such as Cardin, Courrèges and Saint Laurent learned to reach younger consumers. They opened ready-to-wear boutiques and concessions in department stores, and created 'space age' garments that were instantly copied in the high street.

In the United States, the youth market was massive and department stores made millions by importing London designs. But retailers also realised the potential of the boutique. In New York especially, homegrown boutiques flourished, selling exclusive, avant-garde designs to a sophisticated clientele.

The Wolsey Angels Appeal

We urgently need your help to raise the £5,000,000 it will cost for the V&A to acquire four Renaissance angels cast for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey and later in the possession of Henry VIII.

Help us buy The Wolsey Angels

Shop online

A to Z of Wedding Style: V&A Fashion Style Guides (Hardback)

A to Z of Wedding Style: V&A Fashion Style Guides (Hardback)

This entertaining A to Z follows the success of the popular V&A guides to Style and Hollywood Style. Compiled by Kate Bethune, it brings together …

Buy now

Event - Art Nouveau Fashion

Wed 01 October 2014 13:00

LUNCHTIME LECTURE: An introduction to this important style, focussing on a number of important designers – Worth, Lucile, Paquin, Poiret – and key subjects such as jewellery and accessories, the role of advertising, artists as designers, and the relationships between designers and their clients.

More details