One does not have to look very far back these days to see the enduring influence that fashions of the 1960s has on both high end and high street fashion collections. Whether it be Yves Saint Laurent’s S/S 2015 collection – which featured in its advertising campaign 1960s pop icon Joni Mitchell modelling a garment which draws heavily upon Mitchell’s own wardrobe of forty-five years previous – to high street fashion chains referencing the “Woodstock nation” in their own summer’s collections.
I am often asked what is it about the 1960s which makes fashion designers repeatedly return to it. Surely there is enough other historic material on which to draw inspiration? Indeed there is. But it is not the case that the fashions of the 1960s were inherently superior to other decades (one thinks of the magnificent bias cut gowns of the 1930s or the structured silhouette of the early 1950s “New Look” period), rather it is what it stands for in terms of social and cultural innovation which gives it its continued attraction.
There is no doubt that in western societies the general outlook from the beginning of the 1960s was one of optimism and reinvigoration. Britain in particular rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of Post-War Europe, which by the 1960s engaged wholly in the concept of restructuring itself into a post-modern society in all areas of design. In fashion design especially, a society which promoted newness, youth and vitality.
Whilst there were obviously a number of new fashion innovations in the 1960s such as the mini skirt or the use of new materials such as Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) the most seismic changes where in how fashion was sold and how trends were dictated. Couture house supremacy was overthrown and with much gratitude to London-based designers Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki. Fashion became a democracy whereby new design inspiration came from the majority youth population consumer and not from the couture houses dictating the dernier cri as an indulgence for an elite few.
Fashion designers of the 1960s were radical in that they explored new aesthetics in fashion design combining some truly anti-muliebrous figuration into a perfectly feminine presentation. A dress no longer required a defined waistline or décolleté to be considered feminine and the success of André Courrèges’ “Space Age” collection of 1964 proved this de facto (although it is widely considered that Mary Quant’s designs mobilised the minimalist linear silhouette and influenced Courrèges).
Fashion retailing was also revolutionised by ground-breaking new boutiques such as Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba which pioneered the communal changing room. Moreover, Hulanicki insisted on a self-service system, trusting her customers’ own instincts to make choices by allowing them free enjoyment of the store. Without the likes of Biba and other 1960s fashion stores there would be no TopShop nor a youth market which dictates its own rules. And this is where the superiority of the 1960s in fashion terms lies.