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Beautiful People: Art Nouveau, Individuality and Upcycling

Coming of age in the late 1960s and early ‘70s meant free love, experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, and newfound freedoms. Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counter Culture, recently opened at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, focuses on the exclusive clique of rock royalty, upper-crust influencers, boutique owners, graphic artists and photographers, who inspired a generation of young people to explore new possibilities, get in touch with their feminine side, become hippies and aficionados of bohemian fashion.

Boutique Culture

The beautiful people in question, many featured in a 1966 photograph of Chelsea based 'English Boy' model agency in the Terence Pepper curated photo gallery upstairs, appear in cameo throughout the exhibition. The real stars are the fashions and textiles, together with the cutting-edge stores where they were sold. Alongside Art Nouveau inspired poster art, there are William Morris print jackets  - as worn by George Harrison, psychedelic patterned garments, medieval fantasy dresses by Bill Gibb, Zandra Rhodes and Marisa Martin, and Art Nouveau and 1930s influenced clothing by Barbara Hulanicki and Ossie Clark.

The main gallery has been transformed into a retro shopping experience, with displays mimicking the façades and signage of famous boutiques from the late 1960s and early ‘70s, including Granny Takes a Trip, Mr Fish, Hung on You, Apple, Quorum and Biba. And there’s a fab online catalogue with period graphics, a helpful timeline, and an intriguing cast of characters.

Vintage and Upcycled Clothing

Sheila Cohen’s vintage clothing collection formed the initial stock of Granny Takes a Trip. Selling vintage pieces as fashion items was a novel idea at the time, but wearing them on the street was considered highly radical. Cleo Butterfield, who along with her husband, Mark, guest-curated the exhibition, and supplied “eighty percent” of the items on display, was keen to highlight the emergence of vintage and upcycled garments. Much like Jimi Hendrix’s trademark military jacket, the exhibit worn by Mick Jagger was purchased second hand, in the Portobello Road. This was the first time that vintage clothing became desirable.

Dead stock and vintage fabrics were also used to create new pieces, many coming from the cloth department of Ponting’s, long since departed from the Kensington streetscape. Bedspreads were turned into shirts and jackets. Examples, including a couple worn by Keith West, can be seen in the Granny Takes a Trip vitrine. In one of the upstairs displays, Cleo celebrates anti-consumerist upcycling. There are dresses made from pre-worn scarves, a vintage Catherine Buckley dress created from curtain pieces dating from 1900-1936, and 1960s shirts made from 1930s printed fabric. A photograph depicts Cleo in her former Portobello Road shop, wearing a vintage dress that also features in the exhibition. At the time, she was selling original 1940s garments to Sally Mee, who recycled them into new garments, one of which is on display. 

Androgyny and ‘Ethnic’ Dress

Kaftan tops, like the well-preserved example worn by Peter Daltry of the psychedelic band, Kaleidescope, were popular for men. According to Mark Butterfield, this was a “great menswear moment,” men wore, “really out there prints,” and he recalls old women coming up and hitting him in the King’s Road in response to his unconventional choice of clothes. Mr Fish revolutionized the way men dressed. Mick Jagger famously wore what appeared to be a dress, though it was really a long shirt with an oversized frill, and the photographic exhibition includes an image of David Bowie modelling another Michael Fish dress. Androgynous styles were popular, but many of the garments in question borrowed shapes and fabrics from other, more exotic, parts of the world, such as the Middle East - like Thea Porter’s bohemian menswear jackets, waistcoats and Afghan coats.

Bespoke Tailoring

At the same time, there was a renewed interest in men’s tailoring. The Apple boutique, designed by the Fool collective from the Netherlands, was set up by the Beatles for the purposes of tax evasion. They also purchased Dandie Fashions, turning it into a part of the store called Apple Tailoring. Meantime, Tommy Nutter’s early suit designs referenced the 1930s. Examples of these, along with glam rock outfits by the likes of Mr Freedom and Biba are also in the show. On the famous Abbey Road album cover, all four Beatles are said to be wearing Tommy Nutter suits apart from George, although John Lennon apparently owned a multitude of white suits…

Photographic History

I could have listened all morning to Terence Pepper describing the “young dudes” featured in his curation of images and magazine clippings. They all seemed to know each other, or be related; like the Boyds, the Shrimptons and the Ormesby Gores (said to “the swingingest sisters in London”). And many were ‘Chelsea bluebloods’ or old Etonians. Perhaps that’s why Nigel Davies, who discovered Twiggy (and went on to become her manager and partner) changed his name to Justin de Villeneuve?

Back to the Garden?

This exhibition showcases many of the influences of today’s music, fashion and art scenes and is very much a ‘magical mystery tour’: a dreamtime for ‘dedicated followers of fashion’. Being immersed in the melting pot of retro culture, hippie styles and psychedelia made me wonder if contemporary Londoners are less individual, fashionable and happening? Now that ‘60s and ‘70s styles have been recycled several times over, and virtual fashion is a growing area, are we missing out on the fun of partying, experimenting and communal creativity? Today’s Beautiful People seem more like commercial contrivances, and puppets of social media, rather than real human beings, with their own style and character. They are certainly no match for the arty intellectuals and entrepreneurial aristos in this show (eventually superseded by the punk movement during an economic recession). However, with increasing concern over global warming and conscious consumption, are fashion and retail on the brink of becoming dominated by a (new) generation of anti-capitalist upcyclers? 

Go and see the exhibition, and let me know what you think.

Will you?

Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counter Culture is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 13th March, 2022.

Below you will find some items by the featured designers that are currently in stock here at ShopCurious:

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