With the V&A’s Golden Age Of Couture exhibition set to close this weekend, we felt it timely to feature this extract which didn’t appear in THE LOOK. It examines Christian Dior’s extraordinary post-war achievements and how they in turn sparked Mary Quant’s founding of the world’s first independent fashion boutique.
Aristocratic aesthetes and East End dandies; modernists reacting against the goofy trad boom and the homogenisation of rock ‘n’ roll; Mary Quant and her mini-skirt; Anello & Davide and their Chelsea boots – all these and many more played their part in the pop and fashion revolution which became Swinging London.
And revolution it was, as the snooty fashion business was rocked on its heels just as the global entertainment industry had been by Beatlemania and the British Invasion.
Yet the seeds had been sewn a decade before Vogue editor Diana Vreeland uttered the words in the Telegraph Weekend magazine in the spring of 1965 which gave name to the phenomenon: “London is the most swinging city in the world at the moment.”
By the mid 50s the traditional fashion trade had assimilated the effects of the upheaval wrought in the immediate post-war years by Christian Dior and the hour-glass silhouette of his New Look for such clients as Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth.
Launched in 1947, the New Look celebrated the female form after the long years of the Second World War. However, it didn’t so much liberate women as set them back on the pre-war pedastal.
Dior’s innovation was not just in design; in business terms he shook up the fashion trade by going head-to-head with the ancien regime of Paris couture, which had consisted for more than a century of tiny ateliers supplying private clients.
Backed by the deep pockets of entrepreneur Marcel Boussac, Dior’s luxuriant new style appealed first to war-torn France and then the rest of the western world. It is said King George V forbade his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret from wearing the New Look because it would set a bad example during rationing.
With 85 employees, Dior snapped up huge US accounts for his diverse range which extended beyond clothing into fragrances and hosiery. All the while he made bold statements such as naming a suit after philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (though it should be noted that this didn’t sell).
By the mid-50s, Dior accounted for 50% of France’s international couture sales, and he and the rest of the French fashion new wave – such as his former assistant Pierre Cardin, Pierre Balmain, Cristobal Balenciaga, Gabrielle Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent – constituted a new fashion hierarchy ripe for overthrow. Apart from Dior, who launched his Young Collection in the US in 1957, the fashion rulers had by and large failed to address the needs of the booming – and popular music-infused – teenage market.
There were, however, some forward thinkers. In 1955, the year after Jacques Fath’s death, his couture house opened a boutique on the ground floor of its premises.
“Gallerie Lafayette’s top fashion buyer Catherine de Poulignac was brought in to give the business a revamp,” says Vanessa Denza, who worked at the Fath boutique as a salesgirl for a spell.
“We only had one fitting per day in contrast to the couture house where it was all about fittings. There everyone had to queue up and the press would be fighting to find out what was new as the manufacturers paid for the privilege of attending shows.”
The interior of the Jacques Fath boutique was not painted in the usual creamy hues of the ateliers, but grey with modern lighting fixtures illuminating off-the-peg separates. Yet Fath’s store was a lone voice in Paris, and, by the time of Dior’s sudden death in 1957 – suffering a fatal heart attack after choking on a fishbone at a health spa – there was a grass-roots rebellion already being nurtured across the English Channel in, of all places, down-at-heel, Bohemian Chelsea.
Here a colourful group of upper class dandies emerged from the ashes of what had been dubbed “The Chelsea Set”: bright young things who descended on London from colleges at Oxford and Cambridge in pursuit of pleasure.
The Chelsea Set’s highest-profile couple were Mary Quant and her husband Alexander Plunket Green. They met in the early 50s at Goldsmith’s College Of Art in south east London, where Plunket (as he was known) became notorious for his style of dress: shantung pyjama tops and his mother’s slim-fit trousers. In her book Quant by Quant, the designer recalls how she would dress in an equally sensational fashion: a very short gingham skirt, black poplin shirt, knee socks and sandals. So outlandish was their dress sense that they would provoke cries in the streets of: “God this modern youth!”.
With their lawyer partner Archie McNair, the pair opened what is reckoned to be the world’s first independent boutique, Bazaar, at 138a King’s Road, in November 1955. On the ground floor of the premises next door to the Markham, with their jazz club/restaurant Alexander’s in the basement, the shop became an immediate hit, selling out its initial run of stock within a matter of days.
“Mary Quant would give the New Workers their cockney-Chanel non-uniform uniform at a price the suddenly eager shoppers thronging the high street couldn’t resist,” wrote one-time Quant assistant Andrew Loog Oldham.
Quant was open to new ideas and used unusual methods of window dressing, included long-legged mannequins in gawky poses, while the shop assistants, including George Melly’s wife Diana, were glamorous and liberated young females. Another employee of Quant’s was Kiki Byrne, who went on to open the influential Glass & Black along the King’s Road, selling simple black shift dresses.
“We wanted to shock people,” said Quant. “The King’s Road is different, and we wanted Bazaar to become a sort of Chelsea establishment. We wanted everyone to like the shop…and appeal to husbands and boyfriends, as well as to the birds.”
Yet there was purpose behind the frippery. “For the first time fashion came from below,” said Quant years later. “Stylish, sharp and disposable, to show that you earned it all yourself.”
In 1958 Quant raised the hemline of her skirts above the knee, continuing the trend initiated by Balenciaga seven years earlier, when the Spanish iconoclast had created the semi-fitted free-form dress by loosening the waist. In 1955 he came up with a looser tunic and in 1957 with the so-called “sack”. It was a masterstroke: by allowing the dress to fall loosely from the shoulder, hemlines could be raised without affecting the proportion of the line.
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