Swinging London – A Lifestyle Revolution

8 February – 2 June 2019

Review

By Dieneke Ferguson

2 April 2019

Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution presents the fashion, design and art of the Chelsea Set: a group of radical young architects, designers, photographers and artists who were redefining the concept of youth and challenging the established order in 1950s London. At the forefront of this group were Mary Quant and Terence Conran.

Fashion and Textile Museum - Swinging London,  Mary Quant and Habitat
Fashion and Textile Museum – Swinging London, Mary Quant and Habitat

Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum, points out that Swinging London: “It’s really a show about a group of people who changed how people lived their lives. There was a real shift in how people wanted to live after the war – and a new generation came up with new ideas.”

While the solid, unemotional, functional design of the fifties was defined by the war years, the 60s looked forward to the future. Instead of ‘no experimenting’, the motto in the design world was now ‘everything is possible’. This optimism was driven by technological progress, economic recovery and a young, well-paid generation that longed not only for emotional, but also visual sensuality. Imaginative forms, bright colours and new materials in interior design were in demand, as were alternative lifestyles, hallucinogenic substances and pop music. Essentially, going against the establishment and its traditional taste was paramount.

For instance this Art Nouveau inspired Liberty Jacket designed by Mary Quant was worn by actress Jane Asher in the picture below in 1965 for the film Alfie.

Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London, 2019. Jacket worn by Jane Asher in 1965 film Alfie.
Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London, 2019. Jacket worn by Jane Asher in 1965 film Alfie.


People started to reject the structured tailoring of the fashion industry, and values such as stability and functionality no longer had a primary role to play.

The new synthetics made it possible to mass produce cheap products. People no longer decorated for the rest of their lives, but started following current fashions that designers gladly provided. The result was a real design boom, from which the Italian design manufacturers mostly benefited. The faith in the new synthetics remained unbroken as it was further emphasized in the space age look.

Fashion and Textilles Museum, Swinging London, 2019. Use of plastics by Mary Quant
Fashion and Textilles Museum, Swinging London, 2019. Use of plastics by Mary Quant

The Swinging Sixties was a youth-drive cultural revolution that took place in the United Kingdom during the mid-to-late 1960s, emphasising modernity and fun-loving hedonism, with Swinging London as its centre. It saw a flourishing in art, music and fashion, and was symbolised by the city’s “pop and fashion exports”.

This revolution was, in part, economic, with the advent of mass production, stylish homeware and clothing could become widely available and affordable to all. Quant embraced that. ‘snobbery has gone out of fashion’.

The Swinging London exhibition covers the period from 1952-1977 and it presents fashion, textiles, furniture, lighting, homewares, ceramics and ephemera. The exhibition does not only explore the style but also the socioeconomic importance of this period.

Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London 2019. Interior of a coffee bar 1954 by Terence Conran
Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London 2019. Interior of a coffee bar 1954 by Terence Conran

Mary Quant pioneered the mass market and trend-led clothing, particularly the mini skirt. The exhibition uses Mary Quant, and designer Terence Conran, as a way into looking at the “youth quake” that shook London in the late Fifties and early Sixties, which transformed the way we live.

Quant changed how the world looked. Her vision – her use of shape, and of colour; her choice of material, and of model – really did define an era. When someone says to you “Swinging Sixties”, you might hear The Beatles, but you see Quant. 

Mary Quant’s New York visit was important for more than her burgeoning profile, however: it was where Quant and Plunket Greene first learnt about mass production techniques that were accurate in a range of sizes. On their return to England they launched the ready-to-wear Ginger Group line. And then, they sold it back to America: Quant’s clothing took off there, picked up by chain store JC Penney and global domination beckoned.

Key pieces in the exhibition include rare and early examples of designs by Conran and Quant plus the avant-garde artists, designers and intellectuals who worked alongside them, such as designers Bernard and Laura Ashley, sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi and artist and photographer Nigel Henderson.

PVC Coats, OP Art and Space Age dresses by Mary Quant are seen alongside the early smocks, textile designs and dresses of Laura and Bernard Ashley and the modern wicker, steel and glass furniture of Terence Conran. The exhibition also includes the textiles, ceramics and furniture of Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson, who were founding members of the Independent Group and together created innovative designs under their company, Hammer Prints, set up in 1954.

Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London 2019. Habitat, Conran with Mary Quant clothes
Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London 2019. Habitat, Conran with Mary Quant clothes

The exhibition also explores the creation of trailblazing shopping experiences – from Mary Quant’s rebellious London boutique ‘Bazaar’ (opened in 1955) to Terence Conran’s Habitat (opened in 1964). These shops were not just about designing for a new youth generation, but also promoting a new way of shopping and living. With Bazaar, Quant irreversibly altered the traditional approach to fashion design and retailing and outraged the all-powerful French fashion establishment. With Habitat, Conran created a retail environment that was a total work of art; ‘a gesamntkunstwerk’, combining the theatre of the Chelsea Set’s London, with the relatively new phenomenon of ‘serve yourself’, supermarket-style shopping.

Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London 2019. Habitat, Conran  - new display of merchandise
Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London 2019. Habitat, Conran – new display of merchandise

The influence of France (Conran first visited in 1953) can be seen in Conran’s informal, light and bright styling, with merchandise piled high, reminiscent of the hustle and bustle of a colourful street market. Early designs by Quant for Bazaar are plain, unadorned and unstructured; simple pinafores with dropped waistlines often worn with colourful stockings. A remarkable cotton, red and white Broderie Anglaise lounging ensemble by Quant (1955/56) will be shown alongside an range of furniture, fabrics, enamelware and ephemera from the first days of Habitat.

Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London. Printed Textiles Design by Conran. First range of Conran Fabrics. 1957
Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London. Printed Textiles Design by Conran. First range of Conran Fabrics. 1957

In order to spotlight not just the fashion, but the lifestyle and design of the time, the exhibition is presented in the form of detailed tableaus. During the mid 50s, the increasing availability of inexpensive foreign package holidays and of films with exotic European settings inspired the eruption of coffee bars, bistros and other such distinctly continental establishments on British high streets.

Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London 2019. Habitat Publicity
Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London 2019. Habitat Publicity

Throughout the exhibition, individual sets are inspired by these new and exciting continental trends, utilising fashion, furniture, textiles, ceramics and more to highlight how changes in social attitude intertwined with new ways of shopping, to create the designs that are now synonymous with 60s lifestyle.

Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London 2019. Mary Quant Jewellery
Fashion and Textile Museum, Swinging London 2019. Mary Quant Jewellery

The exhibition also presents an off-overlooked insight into the lesser known early work of Laura and Bernard Ashley, whose ideas were influencing culture long before their iconic florals. Bernard Ashley’s textile design, Jazz Players, was probably the first example of a ‘Pop’ textile, whilst Laura’s simple hard-wearing striped smocks, aprons and the easy to wear basic dress, would go on to become design classics., The exhibition provides an extensive and provocative look at a truly innovative era in London’s history – exploring the origin of Pop culture and how fashion, music and art were used to demand and effect societal change in the years that followed

Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London 2019. Art Textiles and smocks by Laura Ashley
Fashion and Textiles Museum, Swinging London 2019. Art Textiles and smocks by Laura Ashley

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