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Here’s an article I wrote for the 7 September 2012 issue of The Lady magazine.
Biba and me…
On the eve of an exhibition to celebrate the trail-blazing Sixties fashion label, devoted fan Ruth Ling recalls the thrill of buying her first grown-up jacket. It’s still with her four decades later.
Friday, 11 July 1969. Can you remember what you were doing then – and, just as importantly, what you were wearing? I can, because the date was momentous. That day, after five years of determined effort, I finally succeeded in being expelled from my horrid posh girls’ school. I celebrated by going to see the group of the moment, Thunderclap Newman (then at Number One with their hit Something In The Air), play at Leeds Town Hall. And I felt and looked fabulous – because that morning my new jacket had arrived in the post from Biba in London.
Even my big sister, whom I’d coerced to go to the concert with me, recognised my true worth that night. In my Biba jacket, I was the coolest girl in Leeds. Sixteen years old, I was looking forward to going to a sixth-form college in September. While my friends would be wearing school uniform, bought from the quaintly old-fashioned Marshall & Snelgrove, I would spend my days in jeans, kaftans, embroidered waistcoats – and Biba. While they were buying their Saturday-night gear from Chelsea Girl and C&A, I was getting mine from London’s most talked-about boutique.
The spirit of the Sixties: a model wears the identical jacket, and matching ensemble, to the one cherished by Ruth Ling and worn by a friend, Georgia Bray Wilson
Twiggy, Bowie, Sonny and Cher and the Stones all shopped at Biba. And so did I. My jacket, from the summer 1969 catalogue, is made of the finest baby needlecord in a warm gingery brown. It was also available in pale salmon pink or vanilla and had a big ‘baker boy’ hat and jeans to match. But I was too hard-pressed on my £1-a-week clothing allowance to afford the £4.10s for the jacket, never mind the rest. It has the sweetest little rounded collar, puff shoulders and self-covered buttons down the front, the bottom one on an inset waistband at hip level – a feature typical of the late Sixties. I still love that jacket so much that it (and my other Biba garment, a brown herringbone tweed pinafore dress) has survived more than four decades. When the time comes, I’d like it buried with me, please.
The story of my jacket is included in the ‘Book Of Memories’ about Biba clothes in a forthcoming exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Biba And Beyond examines the history of the pioneering label that changed the look of street fashion in the Sixties and 1970s – and the career of Barbara Hulanicki, its founder and designer, and now one of the most respected interior designers in the United States.
Biba classics that changed the face of fashion forever
Biba’s ranges encompassed romantic, Victorian-inspired dresses, fun cotton summer dresses and shorts, boho Russian-style greatcoats, maxi-skirts and Cossack shirts and, most of all, an Art Deco 1930s vibe – with leopardskin (fake fur and prints) a Biba trademark.
Starting out as a mail-order business in 1964, Biba opened a small boutique in Kensington that September, moving to larger premises nearby in 1966, and again in 1969 – finally, in September 1973, taking over the old Derry & Toms store in Kensington High Street. Its sultry interiors where ordinary working girls mingled with celebrities, created a distinctive, rather louche, Biba lifestyle.
Biba models, c.1973, photographed by Brian Duffy © Duffy Archives
With items loaned by major collectors and diehard fans, and pieces from the museum’s own collection, the exhibition features photographs, illustrations, film, music, garments and the stories of those who wore them, including the four fans (see right) who tell us why their treasured Biba clothes remain so special to them.
Biba And Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton BN1 1EE, from 22 September until 14 April 2013; 03000- 290900; www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk
Ruth Ling writes a vintage fashion blog: http://metroretrooflondon.wordpress.com/
We loved it too…
Sue Groves, 61, of Hove
‘I was working at Biba, as PA to Barbara Hulanicki’s husband Fitz, in 1973. They used to sell off the samples cheaply to the staff, and I bought a three-piece – a dress with spaghetti straps, trousers and jacket – for 30p. My daughter Emily wore the dress and jacket when she got married in Florence four years ago, because she knew the outfit was very special to me. Biba was incredibly well priced and became a whole lifestyle. I wanted everything in the store; it struck a real chord with me.’
Jackie Jackson-Smith, 62, of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex
An early convert to Biba, Jackie and her school friends would visit London from Cambridge specifically to shop at the boutique. ‘I had dresses, a purple pinstripe maxi-skirt suit and several T-shirts – which I still have,’ she says. So when she got married in 1971 and asked her fiancé to choose her outfit, he picked out this two-tone satin-look bra top and flared trousers. ‘It was very daring and my grandmother said I looked like “one of those”, but we expected to shock the older generation in those days.’
Jackie Jackson-Smith in Biba
Daphne Mair, 63, of Peterborough
While a student at Manchester University, Daphne bought a full-length peach satin gown for a May Ball in 1968. ‘I also wore it to the following year’s ball and to a Kidderminster Golf Club dinner dance. It was reasonably priced and a welcome alternative to the frumpy, expensive evening wear of the time. But I later saw it described in a magazine as a nightdress and negligée!’
Kelvin MacDonald, 65, of Brighton
‘In 1973, I was a year out of university and in my first job, and for the first time had some spare money. I’ve always liked sharp tailoring, so I went to Biba and bought a suit. I lived in the trousers, wearing them to work with a bow tie – though the waistcoat and jacket were for special occasions. When I wore the whole get-up to a Sixties party a few years ago, people were amazed by it and asked where I’d hired it from.’
The London 2012 Games may be over, but the cultural Olympiad continues until the autumn, with something of interest for just about everyone – comedy, dance, films, museums and heritage, music, outdoor and carnival events, poetry, theatre and performance – and vintage fashion! Yes, even you old fashionistas are catered for.
You can’t get much more vintage than 5,000 years, and that’s what’s on show in the exhibition Dress the World: Living in Silk. This international loan exhibition from the National Silk Museum of Hangzou, China, narrates the story of thousands of years of silk manufacture and design, and explores the Chinese influence on fashion through one Nottingham gallery’s collection of Far Eastern garments. The exhibits include some of the earliest surviving fragments of silk fabric in the world, along with fabulously ornate garments and accessories from the Qing and other dynasties, and modern examples of sericulture. The rich colours, symbolism and exquisite craftsmanship of Chinese silk are highlighted, and the process of producing the luxurious yarn over several millennia is explained.
Dress the World: Living in Silk
Until 16 September; 10am – 5pm, Tuesday – Sunday
Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery
Admission £5.50 / concessions £4
Telephone 0115 915 3700
Shoes have played an important part in fashion over the centuries, and Northampton has long been at the centre of Britain’s shoe-making trade. So it’s fitting that the exhibition Dress the World: The World at Your Feet is taking place in the town.
Shoes express cultural identity, background and status. Imagine a cowboy in flip-flops. You can’t, can you? He’s nothing without his boots. And when a shoe restricts movement (say, when it has a very high, narrow wedge heel) it creates a dependency on servants to help the wearer to get around, as was necessary for wealthy fashionable women in the 18th century) – thereby indicating affluence and public… er… standing.
More than 1,000 pairs of shoes from around the world are on show to illustrate the part that footwear plays in many cultures. In some, shoes are associated with luck and fertility. One Greek tradition requires the names of the bride’s friends to be written on the soles of her shoes, and those that remain at the end of the night’s dancing are believed to be the next who will marry. In some parts of the world, special shoes are worn in death to protect the deceased and support the spirit on its way to the next world. Elsewhere, it is mourners who symbolically wear special footwear.
The World at Your Feet exhibition includes items loaned from the Royal Palaces as well as museums and the community.
Dress the World: The World at Your Feet
Until 23 September 2012; 10am–5pm, Tuesday–Saturday, 2–5pm, Sunday
Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
4-6 Guildhall Road
Telephone 01604 838111
Dress the World: Suits and saris is a major exhibition exploring the fusion of British, South Asian and East African fashion and the interaction of the fashion trade between Leicester, India and East Africa.
A series of narratives, The Stories of the World, examines such issues as how British and South Asian clothing influences are translated on the high street, how wearing certain items makes us feel and how clothes help us express ourselves, the museum’s Gujarati textile collection collected in response to community concerns in the late 1980s, street style, the historic fusion of British and South Asian textiles in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how the South Asian and East African Asian community helped turn the city’s Belgrave Road into a centre for British Asian fashion.
Dress the World: Suits and saris
Until 7 October 2012; 10am – 5pm, Monday – Saturday; 11am–5pm, Sunday
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery
53 New Walk
Telephone 0116 225 4900
The athletes’ trot around the Olympic stadium at the end of the London 2012 opening ceremony last Friday night was not far short of an international fashion show. While a few of the teams wore national dress or something like it – Mexico in a glorious array of big Technicolor dresses, Tonga rocking the thatched hut look in their grass skirts and haystack head dresses – many of the official outfits were designed by some of the world’s most prestigious couturiers.
The Italians were suave in minimalist monochrome navy and white tracksuits by Giorgio Armani, while their sailing team wear Prada. The neighbouring tiny European republic of San Marino has a uniform designed by Salvatore Ferragamo, while the luxury brand Hermes provided riding jackets for the French equestrian team.
Jamaica’s outfits feature the national colours of green, yellow and black, and were designed for Puma by Cedella Marley, daughter of the island’s most famous export, singer Bob Marley.
Another daughter of a music legend, Stella McCartney, created the uniform for Team GB. Based on the Union Jack flag, but with the red controversially stripped out and sidelined to use of a trim and on the socks and shoes, the outfits were pared down to navy, turquoise, cobalt and white. The designer said she had deconstructed the Union Jack to make it “more delicate and feminine.” But with her Scottish surname and the uniforms resembling the blue and white saltire of St Andrew, one wonders if this was her comment on the future devolution of Scotland? McCartney worked with Adidas to design both the sports kit and “village wear” (lounge wear) for Britain’s home team, although none were seen in the opening gala as the team paraded in white and gold tracksuits.
Most striking of all the contestants’ costumes, the American team’s preppy East Coast sailing fraternity look was pure Ralph Lauren. The clean-cut navy blazers, crisp white trousers and skirts, navy berets and blue, red and white striped scarves were given an extra fillip by the super-confident march around the arena of the good-looking, Steradent-bright US athletes.
The New Zealand team brought a 1940s vibe to the parade. Their ensembles in grey, white and black were inspired by the uniforms of the country’s team in 1948 – the last time the summer Olympic Games were held in London. Designed by Irena Prikryll of Rodd & Gunn, the formal men’s uniform was a neat combo of grey slacks, a black blazer with white piping and a pinstripe shirt. The women wore the blazer over a white, on-the-knee cotton dress patterned with the New Zealand fern and Olympic rings emblem.
While the fashion industry is agreed that this is the most stylish Olympics ever, the Czechs were obviously mindful of the British summer weather and paraded in bright blue Wellington boots and white shorts. And Spain bucked the high-end trend by kitting out its team in lurid red and yellow outfits by Russian sportswear company Bosco that would look at home behind the counter of any branch of McDonalds.
“Want extra fries with that?” Must try harder next time, amigos!
A dress, bodice, bloomers, chemise and other items formerly owned and worn by Britain’s longest-reigning monarch were sold last Saturday, 30 June, at Hansons Derbyshire Auction Centre in Etwall, Derby.
The lot had attracted interest from around the world and sold for £6,200 to an American buyer.
The waistband of the dress measures a substantial 43 inches, while a pair of boots was a petite size 3. The clothes had been discovered in a suitcase.
Before the sale, auctioneer Isabel Murtough of Hanson’s Auction Centre said, “It would be great if a museum collection could acquire it for the general public to enjoy.” She added that the items, all about 125 years old, would need to be kept in a controlled environment to protect them from humidity.
Victoria, of course, was famous for her mourning. After her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid fever in December 1861 aged only 42, the Queen slumped into a deep depression, remaining in seclusion for the next few decades, rarely appearing in public and wearing black for the rest of her life – 40 years. She insisted that the Prince’s rooms in their residences were kept exactly as they had been in his lifetime, and that her servants brought hot water into his dressing room every day as they always had for his morning shave. She even had a plaster cast made of his hand, which she took to bed with her to cuddle. To say that she became obsessive about her mourning would be an understatement – the nation became decidedly worried about the Queen’s state of mind.
Fancy a Victorian mourning dress of your own? I’m selling a beautiful black moiré taffeta mourning skirt in excellent condition. Its one concession to decoration is the ruffle at the bottom (below, left). Ankle-length, it’s a UK size 10; the waist (the only measurement that matters, given its voluminous skirt) is 28“ / 69.2cms. There’s a similar skirt to this currently selling on Etsy for $325, but I want this to go to a good home, not necessarily a rich one, so I’m asking a more modest $95 (£60).
If you’re interested in it, please email me at email@example.com.
This unusual and very sexy sleeveless tee-shirt came from Next in 1985 but is thoroughly 1950s Americana in style. Made of thick black 100% cotton with a fleece-like interior, its size is ‘small’ but it fits a UK women’s size 12. (That’s a 10 in the US, 40 in Europe, 46 in Italy and 42 in France,)
The front has a thick raised design in a flocked finish showing a baseball player with a 19 on his back and the words PERFECT PITCH.
Any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!
All the clothes I sell are from a smoke-free and pet-free home and are sent wrapped in tissue paper — I have 100% feedback and many previous buyers have commented on how well I pack things.
It’s yours for £16. Just email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to snap it up.
They say the camera never lies, but my dad’s told some whoppers. Look through our family photograph albums – with their mock snakeskin covers and silky tassels – and you will see a bewildering parade of big cotton dresses, puffed out with starch, laden with decorative collars and kept firmly in place with the broad sash attached to the waist which Mum MetroRetro tugged tight and tied in a huge bow at the back with a flourish. Ms MetroRetro didn’t always cut a dash in sleek black trousers. Oh no. For, even though as a child I was usually to be found up a tree, on a bike or building dens in the woods, Mum MetroRetro often won the battle to try to feminise me. Shorts and tee-shirt wrestled off, frock straitjacketed on. Snowy white ankle socks (a triumph of optimism over experience, that), red Clarks T-strap sandals. Instrument of torture wielded over my head and then, as I shrieked in pain, Mum M-R dragged it through my hair – time and time and time again. When she’d got every last tangle and burr out, she would sadistically twist and turn my poor tresses to make me look (she thought) like Kathryn Grant in The Big Circus. She wanted her seven-year-old child to resemble a leotard-clad trapeze artist in some cheesy 1950s circus film? Yup. She did. Child cruelty. And it got worse. Jeannie the high wire flier didn’t just have plaits – she had a single but lustrously thick plait teased over to one side and placed artfully over her right shoulder by the film studio’s hair stylist, which gave her a very lop-sided look. And so, therefore, did I. This assymetrical wodge of hair was uncomfortable and immensely irritating. I looked as daft as… well, a brush.
The high-wire acrobat look followed the ‘Gloria’ look. A couple of years earlier, Batchelor’s Peas had used a winsome moppet called Gloria, who was about my age (five), to advertise its neon-green apparently radioactive processed peas. Gloria’s two long plaits were looped up behind her ears, each end secured with half a dozen metal Kirby grips to the back of her head. So Mum M-R, always itching to get creative with my long hair, dutifully braided, looped and used an arsenal of hardware to weld my plaits to my head. All those pins were agony. And they worked their way out soon enough. All Gloria had to do was beam with pleasure at the anticipation of a dish of Batchelor’s Peas. I had trees and garage roofs to climb, and dens to construct in ditches, and none of these hairstyles worked when there wasn’t a personal stylist standing three feet away from a camera.
Why is it that I can remember every frock I owned as a child? Is it because I had comparatively few garments, compared to how many cram my five wardrobes now – so each one got an airing more often? Or is it because every time I did allow myself to be strapped into a frock (and what were those big bows tied at the back all about? A subliminal message about apron strings and a little girl’s place being in the home?) Dad MetroRetro was always lurking somewhere with his camera, ready to snap me and the dress for posterity – another pretty picture to send to Gran in a futile attempt to convince her I was a sweet little girl, not a wild-haired tomboy. To look at our family photographs, you’d think I spent my life in big cotton dresses. I’m sure I was more often in shorts or trews, tee-shirt or anorak. But our dad’s camera suggested otherwise. Especially when we lived in the Far East, in a country where everyone wore brightly-coloured cotton garments all the time. That’s when Mum M-R’s passion for fashion was really given free rein.
These are the dresses from my childhood that I’ll never forget.
The earliest outfit I remember – the corduroy pinafore with smocking on the hem and bib – and a cardigan with a Fair Isle design across the chest. Pattern overkill? There’s a lot of yardage in that baby’s outfit. But just look at Mum’s skirt – tons of heavy tweed. How did she manage to carry all that around with her? And wasn’t she hot?
Big sis and I had what were known in the family as our ‘Oxford and Cambridge’ dresses. As in the team colours for the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Here she is in her ‘Cambridge’ blue dress, while I’m in pink rosebuds, puff sleeves and more smocking. Ten out of ten for girliness with this outfit, Mum M-R – you definitely won that round!
And here’s my ‘Oxford’ blue dress, while big sis is in navy and white spots and the kid in white net.
Let’s take a closer look – if rather a blurry one – at this trio.
This picture seems to be all about those brick steps… but, no – wait! Look, there’s that ‘Oxford’ dress again, just squeezing in at the bottom.
And here my ‘Oxford’ dress makes the ideal garb for plottin’ in…
Though pink roses, smocking and puff sleeves and a big white ribbon in the hair are worn for the actual execution of the crime. Perhaps for the air of innocence they lend to the scene? Big sis is fetching in lilac gingham, while the kid wears… er… a rather full nappy.
The dress on the far right featured ‘finger-painted’ squiggles – deep pink on white. Mum wears pink seersucker. Lots of it. With a petticoat beneath. And pearls. To address the itinerant sweetmeat vendor. I appear to be protesting about something. Possibly that the tightness of my plaits was giving me a migraine. But probably just at all that blinding pinkness.
Here the finger-painting gets an outing along with a little blue jacket and white shoes. Big sis is similarly attired in patriotic red, white and blue. And it wasn’t even any kind of jubilee year!
There must have been a worldwide glut of pink seersucker that year. This is a large helping of it, along with a pink-and-white honeycomb-patterned sweater. Which had a matching pink-and-white honeycomb-patterned cardigan. Oh my! How lucky was I?
The kid models a natty ensemble in stripes trimmed with velvet ribbon. But just look at those layers of sequinned organza on the girl climbing up the slide in front of her…
The kid goes for bows – one on each shoulder, one either side of her head.
Meanwhile, mum is still loyal to her pink seersucker…
Oh, at last! Appropriate leisure wear! Climbing trees requires shorts and… er… broderie anglaise…
Let’s see that close up. Yup, making a bid for Jackie O chic, that’s shorts and broderie anglaise…
Did I mention the Watson sisters? There were four of them and three of us (no horrid boys!) and we spent the summer running over the fields between our house and theirs to swim in the river where it ran past the end of their land. And posing for photographs on the village green in our crisp cotton frocks after a bit of compulsory maypole dancing. Yes, really. Different era. Notice how my big sis and their littlest one are both wearing petticoats to bulk up their frocks. Erica and I are, too; we just manage to keep ours hidden. My big sis’s dress is high-waisted with a cherry pink band above it, almost Empire line. Mine has thick stripes of pink and pistachio green, the exact colours of Neopolitan icecream. A proper summer dress.
And here’s that icecream dress again, but after 50 years the colours on the photo have faded beyond all recognition. Mum is still proudly flaunting that pink seersucker, though, and big sis has come up with a new frock we haven’t seen before…
And so has Mum! Look, it’s got sleeves on and everything! Big house, but that dress can sure hold its own against it for size and volume.
Of course, now, with the wisdom of hindsight and age, I yearn for those dresses. If we hadn’t moved around so much in my childhood, one or two of them might have survived the throw-away-two-thirds-of-all-your-possessions cull we went through each time we upped sticks to a new home. I would love to have kept a couple for old times’ sake. But I spent so many years trying to avoid being siphoned into one of those pretty little girl frocks, wanting to get down and dirty in my tomboy clothes instead. Never thought I’d one day feel nostalgic for them.
And you know what? They were gorgeous. Well-made, top quality cotton, never frayed or wore threadbare, buttons never fell off. They weren’t expensive, though. All our clothes came from Marks & Spencer or Ladybird. Just good quality.
Mum M-R always said I chose such lovely clothes when we went shopping. But what do mothers know? Despite their claims otherwise, we all know mothers were born yesterday.
And then, finally – a triumph for sisters in frocks everywhere! Two of us – the smart older sisters – manage to catch Dad off-guard. So here, ladies and gentlemen, dear readers, are big sis and I, captured for posterity sporting a more natural look for his camera. While the kid looks none too pleased at finding herself the odd one out and in a dress again, two-thirds of us are exactly as Nature intended – in shorts, hand-knitted cardies and with wild, free-flowing hair.