Cultural Revolution and Modernity in the Sixties

AfterWorld War II the manufacturing of couture became crucial to the economicrecovery and prestige of both France and Britain; thousands of people wereemployed in the trade. Haute couture was a handcraft industry. Every garmentwas ordered and made to measure for the individual client and was created inhouse by specialist dressmakers and tailors. Embroidery, beading and ribbonwork was outsourced to specialist ateliers such as Lesage in Paris and S. Lockin London. Paris was known worldwide as the centre of luxurious high fashion, somedesigners became household names such as Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga. Theircollections dictated changes in style.

London couture was led by royaldressmakers like Norman Hartnell and other members of the Incorporated Societyof London Fashion Designers up until the sixties. For it was in thesixties that the entire structure of the fashion system was challenged frombellow. The prestige of the couture came under attack, as new designers andboutique owners began to give attention to a new youth market, and adult women wishedto look like their daughters. A new generation of designers brought fresh ideasto the making and retailing of clothes in the Sixties, experimenting with materialssuch as plastic, synthetic fibres – Perspex, PVC, polyester,acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, etc.

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– to create easy-care outfits that wereeye-catching and fun, alsopaper to create disposable fashion. Designers such as Mary Quant successfullychallenged the dominance of Paris fashion and opened boutiques sellingaffordable, youthful styles; their creations became successful exportepitomizing ‘Swinging London’.Whileit is always interesting to compare the clothing of the beginning of the decadewith the grab at its end, the Sixties is particularly significant, reflectingso dramatically the vast social changes that occurred in the intervening tenyears. The transformation was attributable not only to post- war prosperity andthe shift to suburbia with its informal lifestyle, but also to the youthmovement which rebelled against established dress codes. Increasingly,entertaining took place at backyard cookouts, and eating out meant fast fooddrive ins, so there were fewer dress up events. Comfort became universal in theform of pants. Hence fewer dresses were necessary to complete a wardrobe, whilethose that did appear in catalogues, as well as in clothing shops, weredistinctly more formal and differed markedly from their casual counterparts.Pants, the dominant article of sixties apparel, came in a wide variety ofstyles and covered most occasions, and ages.

1960sFashion prior to the British Invasion in 1964 was a continuation of the late1950s. Most of us associate all 1960’s fashion with short skirts, but the shortskirt was not really worn by many people until 1966 and not worldwide until1967. The trend before the mini skirt and mini dress, the straight shift, whichhad developed from the sack dress from 1957, was still well below the knee. Butwith the Beatles came a new and very different fashion influence not Paris orMilan but ‘Swinging London’. Fashion in the 1960s Britain was representative ofjust how accelerated cultural change could be; it symbolised the optimism and entrepreneurshipof the ‘babyboomer’ generation, as it came of age, its colourful inventiveness invibrant relief against those earlier privations and the British fashionindustry, and many of the creative industries found a new internationaleminence and attention. The brand-new post war “babyboomer” generation wasproving that it was a power to be reckoned with.

They had energy and sheernumbers on their side and they turned the designers away from catering to theold and wealthy to creating fashions specifically for young adults. As thephenomenon continued teens and even pre-teens were also included for the firsttime. The teenagers were the symbol of the growing distinction between thegenerations, and with increased economic means in a time of almost fullemployment teenagers were identifiable as a lucrative consumer market. The paceand experimentation that was then taking over Britain made the young people ofthe nation desire for change. For many of them life would be very differentfrom their parents, and in 1960s British fashion would reflect social andcultural change.

The country was said the have launched into an age of unparalleledlavish living, a new world. Mary Quantwithout any real training in fashion, -as she was a young art student at thetime-, possessed of a clear vision, she decided that she wanted to provide funand excitement in the form of clothing to ordinary girls like herself. Quantstated in her autobiography that she found everyday apparel for both youth andadults boring and very unpleasant on the eyes – ‘To me adult appearance wasvery unattractive, alarming and terrifying, stilted, confined, and ugly. I knewit was not something that I wanted to grow into’, she also said the following ‘Ihated the clothes the way they were, I wanted clothes that were much more forlife, much more for real people, much more for being young and alive.’.

Quant beganher business in 1955 when she opened her first boutique, Bazaar, in London’sKing’s Road. Bazaar catered for a new generation of young, newly-affluentadults who had time to enjoy shopping, it inspired many imitations in ‘SwingingLondon’, and out ofher small boutique in London hit upon the winning combinations and created afashion feeding frenzy starting with the mini skirt. Styles which werepreviously driven by the necessities of the middle class were now beingdesigned for young people who constituted a newly empowered buyers’ market.

Quantanticipated an age; her clothes were fresh, breezy and bright, at a time whenBritain was still grey and boring. Quant found London girls seeking newnessonly too willing to try her new darling short mini skirt and the fashion trendtook off because it was so different; and to wear it well, you had to beyouthful to get away with an outfit that was so controversial, particularlyamong adults. The Quant style was soon known as the Chelsea Look. The shapesQuant designed were simple, neat, clean cut and young.

They were made fromcotton gabardines and adventurous materials like PVC. The Kings Road in Chelseabecame one of the main clothes centres of the Sixties in London, following the successof 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. By1965 Carnaby Street had become the centre for boutiques, with all the latestclothes for the dedicated fashion followers of ‘Swinging London’ This is a shortraincoat of beige PVC, lined with woven cotton in a black and white check. Ithas a turn-down ‘Christopher Robin’ collar, and fastens at the back with six copperalloy buttons. There is a seamed yoke across the chest with a bust dart at eachside, at the hips are two rectangular pockets. The long sleeves fasten with astrap held by a single button.

This raincoat, a shorter version of a long coatfrom the ‘Wet Collection’, was highly modern. It fused innovative, up-to-datematerials with Quant’s contemporary vision. The design of this raincoat dates from1963, 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 ofmanufacturing trials following this show to successfully bond the seams of PVCgarments because she found that the plastic either stuck to the foot of thesewing machine, or was perforated by the needle and thus easily torn. Thesamples made for the catwalk show were not suitable for mass-production, Quantrealising fairly quickly that the PVC had to be cotton-backed. She was latercontacted by the Alligator Company, an established manufacturer of rainwear,who advised her how to best join the PVC. Despite its widely-recognisedimportance, production issues meant that the Wet Collection was one of Quant’s least financially successful collections.

It isestimated that she managed to deliver only 15-20% of orders made for her PVCgarments. Nevertheless, despite initial problems with production, the PVC ‘wetlook’ became one of Quant’s signature styles, its bright colours and shinytexture a symbol of 1960s London’s urban renewal, vibrant youth culture and’Pop Art’ stylings.  It was in1967 that the social revolution of the Sixties reached its peak. It was theyear of ‘flower power’ with the ‘summer of love’. The hippie movement later inthe decade also exerted a strong influence on ladies clothing styles, includingbell bottom jeans, tie dye, batik fabrics, as well as the well-known flower andpaisley prints and the stylised daisy – an adaptation of Mary Quant’s logo-became the universal emblem of the new look. While focusing on colours andtones, accessories were less of an importance during the Sixties. People weredressing in psychedelic prints, vibrant, eye catching colours and mismatchedpatterns.  Youngpeople around the world erupted in rebellion in 1967.

The effect on fashion wasimmediate and powerful. At the time thousands of young people flocked to San Franciscoto 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, wherethe hippie movement originated from. Many of the same people who had been mods becamehippies, who’s hair was long and wild, used drugs, favoured exotic, colourfuland psychedelic styles. Their anarchic patchwork of clothing also boasted ofjourneys to Morocco and India.

 Whenflower powers first became a theme in fashion, the flowers themselves initiallyintended to be pop in style. Flat, bright, geometric daisies (Mary Quant) werevery much in favour. Brightly coloured plastic shoes with a daisy on each toerepresent a typical example of the transitional look, but soon there was anemphasis on natural fibres, plastic wad definitely out of style.