Swinging London: A lifestyle revolution

Sandra Westbrooke enjoys a nostalgic visit to this new exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum

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It was in April 1966 that the world woke up to ‘Swinging London’ thanks to an attention-grabbing feature in Time magazine. But, as this new exhibition shows, for Londoners and dedicated followers of fashion this lifestyle revolution had begun some ten years earlier.

At its forefront were two names: Mary Quant and Terence Conran. Together with fellow members of the Chelsea set – a talented group of young architects, designers, photographers and artists – their mission was to transform a drab, post-war Britain into a place that was optimistic and exciting.

Quant was born in London in 1934 to Welsh schoolteachers. They refused to let her study fashion, so she took illustration at Goldsmiths University (where she met her future husband, Alexander Plunket Greene) and after graduating, began an apprenticeship with a Mayfair milliner. In 1955 Plunket Greene bought a building on the Kings Road in Chelsea and Mary’s first boutique, Bazaar, was born. At first she stocked clothes sourced from the wholesale market, but quickly started designing her own – simple pinafores and shifts that offered an eye-catching alternative to the highly structured New Look garments still found in the more traditional shops.  Hemlines at Bazaar crept up and up, hotpants appeared, and she experimented with new materials, such as synthetics and PVC. Fans returned week after week, hungry for the latest look.

Chelsea became a magnet for the trendy and beautiful. Her clothes made international headlines when they were worn by the supermodels of the day, including Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, but although high fashion, they were affordable for the working woman. “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes accessible to everyone,” was her mantra. Ever savvy about marketing, from 1961 to 1972 she designed collections for J.C. Penney, the biggest department store chain in the US, where she was seen as part of the “British Invasion” alongside pop stars such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Her success led to the opening of a second Bazaar, this time in upmarket Knightsbridge. It was designed by Terence Conran, an old school friend of her husband. The store he created had a very different feeling from traditional dress shops. With no static window displays, passersby could look in and see the glamorous staff, all modelling the latest trends, and admire the central, free-floating staircase that reached down from the mezzanine.

Conran had a vision of bringing ‘the good life’ to the British public. He visited France, loved the homeware he saw, and in 1964 added further excitement to Chelsea with the opening of Habitat, his lifestyle store, in Fulham Road. Its duvets, chicken bricks, pasta jars, paper lampshades and wicker furniture spelt instant sophistication for young people, now enjoying the increasing availability of inexpensive package holidays and eating out at the trattorias and bistros springing up on UK high streets. Aware that many of his customers lived in small flats or bedsits, he introduced knock-down furniture – the forerunner of Ikea’s flatpacks – and products that were multi-purpose, such as the bed-settee.

To walk round the exhibition will for many be a trip down memory lane. As well as the room sets that showcase the designs of both Quant and Conran, there are sections that display Mary’s bold plastic jewellery and her makeup ranges with their iconic daisy logo. There’s also a selection of the many designs she produced for home sewers through patterns in the Butterick catalogue, some of which could happily be worn today. So shake out your miniskirt, and enjoy!

Swinging London: A lifestyle revolution. Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3XF. To June 2, 2019. Tickets £9.90 (concessions available).

The exhibition is accompanied by a learning programme that includes talks, events and workshops.

Details on the museum’s website https://www.ftmlondon.org/