Beautiful People: a new show at the Fashion and Textiles Museum, London

I haven’t shared a museum or gallery visit with you in such a long time (for sadly obvious reasons) but, at last, I’ve been to one that is probably worthwhile to write about because you may have time to visit it for yourself if you’re within reach of London!

Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960’s counterculture’ is the latest exhibition to open at the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey, London. I went a few days after it opened and there was a lovely ‘buzz’ to it because a good number of people were there (but not too crowded by any means) and a great backing track of familiar Sixties music to accompany it.

The map at the start shows the locations in and around London of all the boutiques featured in the show, some of them were remarkably short-lived whilst others opened more than one branch, at least for a time.

Boutiques were an entirely new concept at the start of the Sixties, before then young people were pretty much obliged to dress exactly like their parents and shopping for clothes, if you didn’t sew your own, was a very dull affair in traditional gents outfitters or snooty ladies dress shops. All of that began to change when Mary Quant opened Bazaar, her first London boutique and many others soon began to follow suit (pardon the pun!) Clothes shopping became a fun and sociable activity, trendy boutiques with exciting interiors, pumping music tracks and fast-changing, attractive merchandise became more commonplace.

Both young women and men started to break away from the constraints of very formal fashions prior to the early Sixties and young men in particular embraced much less starchy ‘masculine’ designs with many bright colours and shapes and new fabrics coming into their wardrobes. Women of course were already embracing miniskirts with wild enthusiasm.

Beatle George Harrison wearing a formal tailored jacket made using William Morris’ Golden Lilies fabric.
Jimi Hendrix lived in London for 9 months 1968-69 and fully embraced the vibrant lifestyle, including clothes like this ruffled crepe-de-chine shirt. (I can recommend a visit to the Handel Hendrix Museum in Mayfair if you have half a day to spare in London)
The use of floral designs on men’s clothing from the mid sixties onwards demonstrates how gender-fluid fashions were becoming over this period. The shirts were often reminiscent in style of Eighteenth century shirts worn by men with ruffles and frills but such exuberant prints were a new departure.
In 1966 a young Mick Jagger bought an authentic late nineteenth century Grenadier Guardsman’s jacket for approximately £4 from a King’s Road boutique to wear on TV music show Ready Steady Go. After his appearance, the shop promptly sold out of everything they had in stock!
The club UFO was a favourite amongst the hip young ‘set’ and their artwork shows a mixture of Art Nouveau influences and psychedelia.
The print on this shirt is typical of the new designs gaining popularity, this features a montage of images taken from Nineteenth century fairground and circus posters.

Moving on through to the main part of the exhibition, it is set out with examples of garments from a number of the boutiques which were most notable during the Sixties. Often they are in high-cost areas of London such as Chelsea or Knightsbridge, and were owned and run (with varying degrees of financial competence and success) by the wealthy offspring of British landed gentry. The information notes made me laugh because they describe how dark, noisy and shambolic a lot of these shops were, with stock all over the place, inconsistent supply and poor quality of the stock, they weren’t intended to be welcoming if you were the ‘wrong sort’ of shopper! Some were barely shops at all, just a space to hang out with your friends that had a few clothes draped around it (like a teenager’s bedroom…) If Daddy was underwriting the venture it didn’t much matter how successful it was!!

Granny Takes a Trip was one of the best known of these boutiques and traded for a good length of time compared to most. Eventually, during the Seventies, Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood took over the premises and it went through a number of incarnations before becoming her flagship World’s End store.
Hung on You, dapper suits for men
Androgynous men’s wear at Mr Fish
The Beatles even got involved with their Apple boutique.
Of course Biba is the name most synonymous with Sixties boutiques, I overheard several show visitors reminiscing about shopping there and it sounds like a chaotic experience…I can’t stand shopping in Primark because of all the mess, Biba sounds like a Stygian nightmare!
Quorum was another popular hangout
Many of the clothes were not especially well constructed or made using good quality fabrics. They were experimental with new textile developments embracing the likes of Nylon, Lurex, Crimplene and the now-derided Polyester. Of course, at the time, these were terrifically exciting new innovations so it’s easy for us to be sniffy about them now but it released millions from the drudgery of labour-intensive laundry or buying expensive-but-dull clothes which had to last.
Biba and Quorum displays

Moving upstairs there are even more examples of the fashions from the decade, it was interesting to see the more fluid shapes here with possibly 1930s and 40s influences, certainly different from Mary Quant’s simple colour-blocked shapes at the same time.

Men’s tailoring, including green panne velvet.
There’s more than a hint of Glam Rock creeping into these outfits with Lurex and lame a-plenty.
The zigzag design on this dress pre-dated Bowie using it as a part of his Ziggy Stardust persona.
From the late Sixties into the early 1970s many Boho, patchwork, ‘ethnic’ and ‘gypsy’ styles enjoyed huge popularity. They were often pieced together scraps of Indian cottons and silks, this in an era when sustainability had little to do with everyday life and protection of the planet was seen by many as the preserve of slightly cranky individuals…
The Fashion and Textiles Museum was originally the brainchild of legendary British designer Zandra Rhodes so it is only fitting that there are few examples of her own work upstairs to finish.
There are also dresses by other iconic designers of the era including Bill Gibb, and Ossie Clark and his wife, textile designer Celia Birtwell. These designer outfits are much higher quality than many in the show, they are beautifully made using gorgeous fabrics with exquisite details and my photos can’t do them justice.

To sum up, this is a show that any generation can enjoy because there are so many great clothes on show. I’m not old enough to remember much of the Sixties but that didn’t matter-I enjoyed overhearing some of the women chatting who clearly were there though! The show is on now until March 13th, booking is recommended although I didn’t and took a chance on the day. FTM is a small independent museum and I always enjoy a visit there, White Cube art gallery is a few minutes walk further down the road plus there is a glass blowing studio nearby which is open to watch the artisans at work so there’s much to enjoy in the area. It’s so close to the river too which is a bonus.

How’s this for an iconic view of London? You’re welcome!

It’s wonderful that museums and galleries are now reopening and they need our support if we can offer it as we emerge from the pandemic. The ones I’ve visited so far have felt safe and not too crowded, numbers are limited and booking is definitely advisable if you’re making a special trip, and the opening days may be more limited too so check their websites.

Thanks for reading, until next time,

Sue

11 thoughts on “Beautiful People: a new show at the Fashion and Textiles Museum, London

  1. Thank you for this great trip down memory lane! I was a teenager through the 60’s and though living in rural Wales, remember well the huge change that came about in fashion. I was making many of my own clothes, and designs were much simpler than the dresses my mother made for me, and herself, in the 50’s. Too far for me to get to the exhibition, but great to see it through your eyes. Thank you. Jan

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  2. Our dressmaking club went here on Saturday and was just as enthusiastic about the exhibition. It sounds as though a visit here is a must. Unfortunately I couldn’t go but I aim to get there soon. In the 1960’s I remember shopping at the Biba boutique in Abingdon Road, sometime before the large store opened, and bought a hat in the same blue as my boyfriend’s sports car. I thought I was the bee’s knees until the wide brim caught the wind, as he gathered speed, and the hat was whipped off. I had to run back and get it, luckily it had not been run over and only needed some dirt brushing away.

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    1. Thank you Barbara, that’s such a great story! I can picture it now, you must have looked so chic until disaster struck! You have quite a while to get to the show and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you do.

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  3. Thanks for this review, I definitely need to brave the chaos that is Avanti West Coast and have a day trip to visit. I read about a lot of the boutiques mentioned when I was researching my Masters (I was incapable of skim-reading anything I found interesting, even if it wasn’t especially relevant!), so it would be great to see the actual clothes.

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  4. Susan, many thanks for a fabulous review. I really enjoyed the photos and your narrative really made me feel as if I was walking around the exhibits myself. Thankyou soooo much for all your effort.

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