Cultural Revolution and Modernity in the Sixties

After
World War II the manufacturing of couture became crucial to the economic
recovery and prestige of both France and Britain; thousands of people were
employed in the trade. Haute couture was a handcraft industry. Every garment
was ordered and made to measure for the individual client and was created in
house by specialist dressmakers and tailors. Embroidery, beading and ribbon
work was outsourced to specialist ateliers such as Lesage in Paris and S. Lock
in London. Paris was known worldwide as the centre of luxurious high fashion, some
designers became household names such as Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga. Their
collections dictated changes in style. London couture was led by royal
dressmakers like Norman Hartnell and other members of the Incorporated Society
of London Fashion Designers up until the sixties. For it was in the
sixties that the entire structure of the fashion system was challenged from
bellow. The prestige of the couture came under attack, as new designers and
boutique owners began to give attention to a new youth market, and adult women wished
to look like their daughters. A new generation of designers brought fresh ideas
to the making and retailing of clothes in the Sixties, experimenting with materials
such as plastic, synthetic fibres – Perspex, PVC, polyester,
acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, etc. – to create easy-care outfits that were
eye-catching and fun, also
paper to create disposable fashion. Designers such as Mary Quant successfully
challenged the dominance of Paris fashion and opened boutiques selling
affordable, youthful styles; their creations became successful export
epitomizing ‘Swinging London’.

While
it is always interesting to compare the clothing of the beginning of the decade
with the grab at its end, the Sixties is particularly significant, reflecting
so dramatically the vast social changes that occurred in the intervening ten
years. The transformation was attributable not only to post- war prosperity and
the shift to suburbia with its informal lifestyle, but also to the youth
movement which rebelled against established dress codes. Increasingly,
entertaining took place at backyard cookouts, and eating out meant fast food
drive ins, so there were fewer dress up events. Comfort became universal in the
form of pants. Hence fewer dresses were necessary to complete a wardrobe, while
those that did appear in catalogues, as well as in clothing shops, were
distinctly more formal and differed markedly from their casual counterparts.
Pants, the dominant article of sixties apparel, came in a wide variety of
styles and covered most occasions, and ages.

1960s
Fashion prior to the British Invasion in 1964 was a continuation of the late
1950s. Most of us associate all 1960’s fashion with short skirts, but the short
skirt was not really worn by many people until 1966 and not worldwide until
1967. The trend before the mini skirt and mini dress, the straight shift, which
had developed from the sack dress from 1957, was still well below the knee. But
with the Beatles came a new and very different fashion influence not Paris or
Milan but ‘Swinging London’. Fashion in the 1960s Britain was representative of
just how accelerated cultural change could be; it symbolised the optimism and entrepreneurship
of the ‘babyboomer’ generation, as it came of age, its colourful inventiveness in
vibrant relief against those earlier privations and the British fashion
industry, and many of the creative industries found a new international
eminence and attention. The brand-new post war “babyboomer” generation was
proving that it was a power to be reckoned with. They had energy and sheer
numbers on their side and they turned the designers away from catering to the
old and wealthy to creating fashions specifically for young adults. As the
phenomenon continued teens and even pre-teens were also included for the first
time. The teenagers were the symbol of the growing distinction between the
generations, and with increased economic means in a time of almost full
employment teenagers were identifiable as a lucrative consumer market. The pace
and experimentation that was then taking over Britain made the young people of
the nation desire for change. For many of them life would be very different
from their parents, and in 1960s British fashion would reflect social and
cultural change. The country was said the have launched into an age of unparalleled
lavish living, a new world.

 

Mary Quant
without any real training in fashion, -as she was a young art student at the
time-, possessed of a clear vision, she decided that she wanted to provide fun
and excitement in the form of clothing to ordinary girls like herself. Quant
stated in her autobiography that she found everyday apparel for both youth and
adults boring and very unpleasant on the eyes – ‘To me adult appearance was
very unattractive, alarming and terrifying, stilted, confined, and ugly. I knew
it was not something that I wanted to grow into’, she also said the following ‘I
hated the clothes the way they were, I wanted clothes that were much more for
life, much more for real people, much more for being young and alive.’. Quant began
her business in 1955 when she opened her first boutique, Bazaar, in London’s
King’s Road. Bazaar catered for a new generation of young, newly-affluent
adults who had time to enjoy shopping, it inspired many imitations in ‘Swinging
London’, and out of
her small boutique in London hit upon the winning combinations and created a
fashion feeding frenzy starting with the mini skirt. Styles which were
previously driven by the necessities of the middle class were now being
designed for young people who constituted a newly empowered buyers’ market. Quant
anticipated an age; her clothes were fresh, breezy and bright, at a time when
Britain was still grey and boring. Quant found London girls seeking newness
only too willing to try her new darling short mini skirt and the fashion trend
took off because it was so different; and to wear it well, you had to be
youthful to get away with an outfit that was so controversial, particularly
among adults. The Quant style was soon known as the Chelsea Look. The shapes
Quant designed were simple, neat, clean cut and young. They were made from
cotton gabardines and adventurous materials like PVC. The Kings Road in Chelsea
became one of the main clothes centres of the Sixties in London, following the success
of a small lane behind Regent Street near Oxford Circus, called Carnaby Street.
These were the fashion shrines of British youth in the early to mid-Sixties. By
1965 Carnaby Street had become the centre for boutiques, with all the latest
clothes for the dedicated fashion followers of ‘Swinging London’

 This is a short
raincoat of beige PVC, lined with woven cotton in a black and white check. It
has a turn-down ‘Christopher Robin’ collar, and fastens at the back with six copper
alloy buttons. There is a seamed yoke across the chest with a bust dart at each
side, at the hips are two rectangular pockets. The long sleeves fasten with a
strap held by a single button. This raincoat, a shorter version of a long coat
from the ‘Wet Collection’, was highly modern. It fused innovative, up-to-date
materials with Quant’s contemporary vision. The design of this raincoat dates from
1963, the year Mary Quant showed The Wet Collection in Paris,
the result of Quant’s experiments with PVC. In her autobiography Quant by Quant (1966, p.120) the designer states that it took around two years of
manufacturing trials following this show to successfully bond the seams of PVC
garments because she found that the plastic either stuck to the foot of the
sewing machine, or was perforated by the needle and thus easily torn. The
samples made for the catwalk show were not suitable for mass-production, Quant
realising fairly quickly that the PVC had to be cotton-backed. She was later
contacted by the Alligator Company, an established manufacturer of rainwear,
who advised her how to best join the PVC. Despite its widely-recognised
importance, production issues meant that the Wet Collection was one of Quant’s least financially successful collections. It is
estimated that she managed to deliver only 15-20% of orders made for her PVC
garments. Nevertheless, despite initial problems with production, the PVC ‘wet
look’ became one of Quant’s signature styles, its bright colours and shiny
texture a symbol of 1960s London’s urban renewal, vibrant youth culture and
‘Pop Art’ stylings.

 

 

It was in
1967 that the social revolution of the Sixties reached its peak. It was the
year of ‘flower power’ with the ‘summer of love’. The hippie movement later in
the decade also exerted a strong influence on ladies clothing styles, including
bell bottom jeans, tie dye, batik fabrics, as well as the well-known flower and
paisley prints and the stylised daisy – an adaptation of Mary Quant’s logo-
became the universal emblem of the new look. While focusing on colours and
tones, accessories were less of an importance during the Sixties. People were
dressing in psychedelic prints, vibrant, eye catching colours and mismatched
patterns.

 

Young
people around the world erupted in rebellion in 1967. The effect on fashion was
immediate and powerful. At the time thousands of young people flocked to San Francisco
to celebrate a new culture of love. Flower power replaced space age futurism,
and the new Carnaby Street became Haight Ashbury, a district of San Francisco, where
the hippie movement originated from. Many of the same people who had been mods became
hippies, who’s hair was long and wild, used drugs, favoured exotic, colourful
and psychedelic styles. Their anarchic patchwork of clothing also boasted of
journeys to Morocco and India.

 

When
flower powers first became a theme in fashion, the flowers themselves initially
intended to be pop in style. Flat, bright, geometric daisies (Mary Quant) were
very much in favour. Brightly coloured plastic shoes with a daisy on each toe
represent a typical example of the transitional look, but soon there was an
emphasis on natural fibres, plastic wad definitely out of style.