The couture catwalk is back with vibrant prints, tunics, and knee-high boots – more 50 years after the original ‘youthquake’
Although the new exhibition, Beautiful People: Fashion and Textile Museum in London, Beautiful People in 1960s Counterculture was 15 years in preparation, it is “timely”, according to Dennis Nothdruftt, head of exhibitions. It is back in fashion.
The big news at Prada’s first show since the pandemic was the return of the miniskirt. This shape is synonymous with Mary Quant, a London designer from the sixties. Maxis were also seen at Versace, Max Mara and worn by many celebrities, including Selena Gomez, Jennifer Lopez and Adele. Maria Grazia Chuiri, a Parisian designer for Christian Dior, held a show last week. Miniskirts and pop colors were the rage.
Culture is also influenced by the 60s – with Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary in the pipeline and BBC’s Ridley Road drama. Music has the Rolling Stones back on tour and Harry Styles a symbol of the retro look. Gen Z has been focusing on the Y2K style of the millennium but it seems that the 60s are the decade fashion, culture, and style can’t get enough of.
Beautiful People is a look at a particular period in the second decade and the lively scene in London’s boutiques. The designs on display where available in shops such as Granny Takes A Trip, Apple boutique, Hung on You, and Mr Fish. This is where Mick Jagger discovered the long-sleeved dress that he wore to a gig at Hyde Park in 1969. The theme of rock gods is present in the display. There are pieces by Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Jagger as well as items from designers like Thea Porter, Bill Gibb, and Mr Freedom.
Beautiful People can be either a Proustian experience or a lesson in the history of youth culture, depending on the visitor’s age. One reason why the decade is still so popular 50 years later is that we automatically see youth as the future. The “youthquake”, which occurred in the 1960s, was perhaps the first time such an event ever took place.
“We were very elderly,” Barbara Hulanicki jokes. She was 24 when she founded Biba with Stephen Fitz-Simon. “We went on to dress young women wearing miniskirts and knee-high boots in vibrant prints. Our clients were teens who had escaped their disapproving parents. They all got jobs as typists and moved to London. It was jam-packed with music. It was incredible. It was amazing because everyone was just starting out, so there weren’t grandiose grande dames or other things like that.”
Nothdruft believes that we are connected to the 1960s ideas of “finding ourselves” and how these transferred into clothing. “People allowed their personalities, so it was an age of self-expression. It is still a common theme. We all wish we could feel the same.”
Another reason for the appeal of this period is the many modern ideas that can be traced back. Cleo Butterfield, co-curator of the exhibition at C20 Vintage, pointed out that designers use vintage pieces from markets or repurpose interior fabrics such as those used for bedspreads.
She said, “It’s just the beginning of upcycling. It is notable that the Beatles opened an Apple boutique. It was opened for six months in 1969. It was the first example of musicians working with fashion. This path is familiar to us today.”
Even in movements that seem to be opposed to the peace and love associated with the 1960s, the influence of this period can still be felt. In 1971, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood opened World’s End, a punk shop that was known for its nonconformist style. It was located in the same place as Hung On You. This location became a symbol of a new, more spiky era.
Nothcruft claims that even though they didn’t like the current generation’s mood, they were still influenced by it: “The final result was very different, but there was an idea of expression that could alter the status quo.”
Paul Gorman is the author of The Look: Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion who also wrote a biography about McLaren, believes the 60s are popular because they are easy to digest. “The 70s were chaotic. There were many different things happening at once, while the 60s are more linear in their development of styles.”
He says that youth is what makes it exciting. “It’s different now, where your mum goes to Zara like you do. This was an age when youth fought for freedom, defiance, and exuberance. People were ready to make divisions with the previous generations. We now view the sixties as “an era of innocence… It has that youthfulness.” Spare Rib [the feminist magazine] was launched in 1972, but not because some were more liberated than others. Mods are primarily white, heterosexual, and male-dominated. He also says that mods tend to be romanticized. Gorman stated that it’s not about stomping down the King’s Road wearing flowers in your hair and watching the footage they revive each time.
Beautiful People boutiques were often exclusive and only for the privileged few. Hung on You was opened by Jane Ormsby Gore and Michael Rainey, an aristocrat. Granny Takes a Trip featured the Oscar Wilde quote, “One should either wear a piece of art or be a work-of-art” above its doors.
Biba’s clothes, on the other hand, were affordable and wearable for a new generation, which was a reason why Biba is still popular today.
“I believe we were the first to do pricing right. Hulanicki said, “And listen to the market.” The brand was priced to meet the needs of their clients. “They were on approximately nine pounds per week. They would spend three pounds per week on a bed and three pounds on spaghetti. Three pounds a week in Biba.”