Tthe new exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s counterculture, could have been 15 years in the making, but says exhibition director Dennis Nothdruft “in a timely manner”. The 1960s – a decade so turned into retro references that it has become costume parties – are back in vogue.
On Prada’s first physical show since the pandemic, the big news was the return of the miniskirt, the classic sixties form so associated with London designer Mary Quant. Minis have also been seen at Versace and Max Mara – and worn by celebrities including Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez and Adele. Last week in Paris, Maria Grazia Chuiri’s show for Christian Dior went back to the brand’s 60s designer Marc Bohan, with miniskirts and pop colors dominating.
The influence of the 60s is also present in the culture – from the BBC’s new drama Ridley Road in the cinema with Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary on the horizon, and in music with the Rolling Stones back on tour, and Harry Styles an icon for the retro look. While Gen Z has recently focused around the Y2K style from the millennium, it seems that the 60s are the decade, fashion, culture and style still can not get over.
Beautiful people focus on a specific period in the second half of the decade and the vibrant scene in London’s shops. There are displays with designs sold in stores, including Biba, the Beatles’ short-lived Apple boutique, Granny Takes A Trip, Hung on You and Mr Fish, where Mick Jagger found the dress (actually a long shirt) he was wearing to a concert in Hyde Park in 1969. Rock gods are a theme – there are pieces worn by Jagger, Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix, as well as artifacts from designers including Mr Freedom, Thea Porter and Bill Gibb.
Depending on the visitor’s age and life history, Beautiful People will be either a Proustian experience or a history lesson in a flowering of youth culture. Perhaps one of the reasons why the decade remains so prominent more than 50 years ago is because, if we now automatically look at young people as trendsetters, the 60s – the “youth quake” – may have been the first time it happened in earnest.
“We were very old. We were 24, ”joked Barbara Hulanicki, who founded Biba in 1963 with her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon and continued to dress young women in miniskirts, knee-high boots and vibrant prints. Her clientele were teenagers who had fled from rejecting parents. “They all had jobs to write… and they came to live in London. All the music happened. It was amazing. And everyone started too, so there were no grandiose grand ladies or the like, ”she said.
Nothdruft says that we connect with the ideas of the late 60s about “finding oneself” and how this transferred to what people had in a widespread way for the first time: “People let their personalities be expressed in “clothes, so it was an era of self-expression. People still relate to it. A certain part of us wants to feel that we could do it.”
Perhaps another part of the perennial appeal is how many modern ideas can be traced back to this era. Cleo Butterfield from C20 Vintage, who curated the exhibition, points to designers who either use vintage pieces found in markets or recycle interior fabrics like those used for bedspreads.
“It’s the beginning of upcycling,” she said. “You would not get rid of things from the past, you would recycle them.” The Beatles Apple boutique is also notable. Opened in just six months in 1969, it was one of the first examples of musicians working with fashion, a path we now know.
The influence of this period is there – even in movements that are apparently against the peace and love associated with the 60s. In 1971, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren opened the punk store, known as the World’s End, in the same place as Hung On You, symbolizing a new, more pointed era.
But, says Nothcruft, even though they rejected the mood of the previous generation, they were influenced by them: “The end result was very different, but there was the idea of expression that could change the status quo.”
Paul Gorman is the author of Appearance: Adventure in rock and pop fashion and a recent biography of McLaren. He thinks the 60s are so popular, in part because the decade is easily digestible. “The 70s were really chaotic, several different things were going on at the same time, whereas the 60s are pretty linear in the development of styles.”
He claims that the focus on young people makes it exciting: “It is not like now where your mother goes to Zara. This was an age when youth was defiant, exuberant and people were willing to make a division with previous generations. We now see the sixties as “an innocent age… It has that youthfulness, utopianism, idealism, liberation” but Gorman is eager to point out that this is only part of the story. “Some were more liberated than others, and therefore it took until 1972 for Spare Rib [the feminist magazine] to be launched. If you’re particularly thinking of mods … it’s actually really white, heterosexual, male dominated. “He adds that the portrayal of the sixties tends to be romanticized. “It’s not just jumping down the royal road with flowers in your hair, the footage that they revive every time,” Gorman said.
Many of the shops in Beautiful People were by their nature exclusive and too few privileged. Hung on You, opened in 1965, was founded by aristocrat Michael Rainey and his wife Jane Ormsby-Gore, while Granny Takes a Trip had the Oscar Wilde quote “One must either be a work of art or carry a work of art” over the door.
Biba, on the other hand, had an influence because the clothes were portable and affordable for a new generation of young women with disposable income – an idea that still appeals today.
“I think we were the first to do the right thing. And listen to the market, ”said Hulanicki. The brand was specifically priced for the salary package for their clientele: “They were at around nine pounds a week. They would pay three pounds a week on the bed, three pounds a week on spaghetti. And three kilos a week in Biba. ”