Beautiful People: the boutique in 1960s counterculture
Fashion and Textile Museum, London
October 01, 2021 – March 13, 2022
Opening 1 October 2021, Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture explores how, in the mid-1960s, a handful of Chelsea boutiques sparked a fashion revolution. Presenting over one hundred ensembles across three galleries, the Fashion and Textile Museum invites visitors to enjoy an immersive exploration of one of the most dramatic and best-loved periods in British design history. For the Chelsea boutiques of the mid-1960s, individuality was the order of the day. Changing attitudes towards gender and sexuality, framed by the socio-political climate of the time, inspired new ideas, freedom of expression and opposition to establishment values. Fuelled by this creative exploration, a generation of radical young designers emerged, catering to an elite group of artists, aristocrats and musicians: The Beautiful People. Opening with a quote from singer and 60’s ‘it girl’ Marianne Faithful, Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture wastes no time in welcoming visitors to the heady, star-studded world of Chelsea’s counterculture: “We were young, rich and beautiful, and the tide – we thought – was turning in our favour. We were going to change everything, of course, but mostly we were going to change the rules”.
As visitors enter the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Grand Gallery, the boutiques of 1960’s Chelsea are brought back to life before them. Eight of the decade’s most influential stores – Hung On You, Granny Takes A Trip, Biba, Apple Boutique, Apple Tailoring, Mr Fish, Dandie Fashions and Quorum – are recreated in colourful, graphic sets. First, the influence of Art Nouveau and Eastern mysticism, alongside the prominence of psychedelic graphics, are introduced via Hung On You and Granny Takes a Trip. In these boutiques, androgyny, individuality and flamboyance ruled. Dagger-collared shirts and jewel-toned velvet dresses sit alongside Indian-inspired florals and striking pastel tailoring. Key pieces include gold and blue striped suit featuring oversized lapels, designed by Michael Rainey for his Aubrey Beardsley- inspired Cale Street location, Hung On You. A Granny Takes A Trip mini dress from 1967 features a gold braid detail and high crossover bodice, reflecting the penchant of the time for medievalism and the romantic paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Moving through the Grand Gallery, visitors will next discover Barbara Hulanicki’s iconic Biba, complete with replica wallpaper and famous chequered floors. Among nine psychedelic ensembles, a 1967 Art Nouveau-inspired skirt suit stands out. The dramatic jacket and mini skirt feature a kaleidoscopic print in shocking orange, blue and purple. Perhaps most notorious of the boutiques of the 1960s was The Beatles’ short-lived venture, Apple Boutique. During its brief but highly influential six months in business, the store’s garments, interiors and three-story exterior mural were created by Dutch design collective, The Fool. The Apple Boutique set is bought to life by The Fool’s colourful illustrations and filled with nine of their most opulent and theatrical designs. Highlights include a high-collared, bell-sleeved smock jacket and matching trouser set, created in tapestry upholstery fabric – another design worn by George Harrison. The Beatles’ influence continues to be seen in the following set, a recreation of Kings Road’s Dandie Fashions. Here key pieces include two Regency-style brocade jackets, one popular with both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and the other with Keith Moon of The Who. The boutique itself, bought by The Beatles and renamed Apple Tailoring in 1968, was a favourite of both Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones.
The final set transports visitors to one of the legendary fashion shows of Quorum boutique. The combined vision of designers Ossie Clark, Alice Pollock and Celia Birtwell, this Quorum ‘happening’ took place at Mayfair’s Revolution Club. Films and photographs of the time, alongside fifteen dramatic looks, allow visitors to experience the artists’ salon where the cream of London’s creative talent socialised and networked. As visitors move to the Mezzanine Gallery, the exhibition adopts a thematic approach. Edging towards the 1970s, six displays explore the rise of vintage, the popularity of patchwork and the search for individual style. Block printed in Indian silk, a Thea Porter dress with a metallic embroidered bodice panel and velvet ribbon trim, illustrates the popularity of techniques borrowed from the artisans of The Middle East. Men’s shirts of the 1930s highlight the rise of second-hand shopping and garments from Kensington Market display how the artisanal techniques of smocking, quilting and leatherwork were appropriated and reinterpreted, in the search for the ‘Hippie Deluxe’ look. The exhibition’s final three displays explore the dawning of the 1970s, a time associated with the commercialisation of psychedelia, the revival of art deco and the rise of both glam and punk. As visitors make their way around the Mezzanine Gallery, a three-piece Biba suit, created in a 1930s-inspired chevron print and edged in faux fur, highlights this return of vintage chic. A leopard-printed, shark’s fin collar jacket – a Biba design worn by The New York Dolls’ Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane in 1973 – signals the arrival of proto-punk, and a red velvet dress by Mr Freedom, bearing a green Aladdin Sane-Esque lightning bolt, marks the approaching glitter, lurex and lamé of glam.
As the exhibition reaches its conclusion, visitors will discover how, by 1975, Big Biba had closed, and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique had replaced Hung On You at 430 Kings Road. Safety pins had superseded psychedelia as the era of The Beautiful People came to an end. The exhibition’s final garment, an iconic Westwood top bearing a pornographic image of two cowboys, features the designer’s archetypal visible seems and rough edges – patchwork, velvet and flares were now well and truly ‘out’. As Quant and Conran’s Swinging London was to The Beautiful People, now they were to punk. Their aristocratic hippie ideologies had become passé, and Kings Road was now the stomping ground of a new generation of counterculture trendsetters. However, Chelsea’s boutiques had irreversibly changed the future of fashion, creating a ‘rich bohemian hippie chic’, which is now synonymous with the style of the 1960s and 70s and which continues to enjoy revivals to this day.