The Swinging Sixties

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!’

So wrote the poet, William Wordsworth, about his arrival in Paris in 1790 when he was young, in love, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. But Wordsworth’s words could equally describe being young in the 1960s, a similarly heady period when the old social mores were chucked out, and a revolutionary, youth-led counter culture in fashion, ideas, music, and much else, swept in.

Swinging London; note the new Post Office tower – with a slowly-revolving restaurant at the top

The Museum of London is all about telling the story of ordinary Londoners, and its new 1960s display case on the ground floor has some evocative memorabilia of that era. Take the 60s brochures and posters above, advertising what to see and do in London: gone are the heavy, old fashioned typefaces in dowdy black, advertising is now in bold primary colours with a sans serif typeface; and the effect is both eye-catching and childlike. It’s fun!

Psychedelic designs created a new and vibrant look

‘Psychedelic’ was one of the buzz words of the age; originally, it referred to the use of mind-altering drugs, such as L.S.D., mescaline, and magic mushrooms which turned colours more vivid and images more surreal; and, in music, the use of new instruments, such as the sitar, that attuned the ear to different sounds and aural distortions. At the back of the photo above, the bright colours and swirling patterns of the Cream LP album, Disraeli Gears, 1968, designed by Martin Sharp, who also co-founded the magazine, Oz, vividly demonstrates the new psychedelic look.

Time Out, issue I in 1968, founded by Tony Elliott. The vivid orange strappy shoes underneath are typical of the 60s.

This exciting new age led to new ways of spreading the counter culture, such as Time Out, a weekly magazine on what was on in London, founded by Tony Elliott in 1968. Time Out wasn’t interested in what was on at Covent Garden or the Old Vic (though both were listed) but on what the various innovative fringe theatre companies were doing. What Charles Marowitz was showing at the Open Space Theatre, or what the Ken Campbell Road Show at the Pentameters Theatre was doing, together with many other fringe events, were listed, as well as lively new poetry and music venues.

Mary Quant dress, 1966 ‘The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone.’ Mary Quant.

New faces emerged, like the immensely talented design and retail pioneer, Mary Quant, an ex-art student, who set up her own boutique, Bazaar, in the King’s Road (the place to have a boutique in the 60s). The dress above has a super-high hemline; one of her hall marks – which also, surely, cocks a snook at the fashion establishment. (A Mary Quant exhibition is on at the V & A at the moment until 16th February, 2020.)

Mary Quant make-up, launched 1966

Mary Quant’s aim was to get away from the heavy old-style make-up, and, instead, to aim for a childishly young and naively unsophisticated look – like Twiggy, in fact. There is no doubt that 1960s fashion was for the young (and flat-chested); and it helped to have long, straight hair. Girls whose hair curled unfashionably were known to spread it out on the ironing board and iron it. If that meant split ends – so what?

Biba boutiques distinctive Biba logo symbolized their classy, slightly Celtic-looking, style perfectly. In front are some high-heeled green Biba shoes

Another fashion icon was Barbara Hulanicki, who was born in Poland and came to England as a child. She trained at Brighton Art College before becoming a fashion illustrator. She opened her postal fashion outlet, Biba, in 1963 and went on to become immensely successful.

Man’s outfit, late 1960s

This item has a typical 1960s provenance. It was bought by Peter Viti in a boutique on the King’s Road, and the bell bottom trousers came from a Chelsea Antique Market stall that specialized in dyeing sailors’ cotton trousers in outrageous colours. I’m tempted to call them, ‘shocking one’s parents’ trousers.

The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night L.P., 1964

This, the Beatles’ third LP, contained all thirteen of the songs from the film of the same name, all of which were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and they showcased their developing talent for song-writing.

Beatles’ shift dress, 1964, worn by Pauline Richey

As you look round the 1960s case in the Museum of London, you realize that all the clothes on display have a story, and the Beatles shift dress is no exception. The dress’s design is taken from the A Hard Day’s Night record cover, and it was worn by Pauline Richey, who sold programmes at the film’s premiere at the London Pavilion cinema, Leicester Square, in 1964.

Dress from ‘The Fool’ fashion collective boutique in Baker Street, 1967

The lucky owner of the above dress was 25-year-old Dilys Marie Parsons, an office worker, who walked past The Fool boutique every day. The dress was designed by Dutch designer, Marijke Koger, and The Fool boutique was set up with the Beatles’ financial backing. It became a hang-out place for hippies but, alas, it didn’t make enough money and, eventually, closed down.

Winklepicker shoes, c. 1964

The change in fashion for men was equally extreme. Men grew their hair longer – the Beatles’ mops, although, well cut, tidy and clean, originally came in for much disapproval. But worse was to come with hair lengths that hadn’t been seen since the Cavaliers love locks of the 17th century; not to mention brightly coloured shirts and winklepicker shoes with toes so long and pointed that men wearing them had to go up and down stairs sideways.

Mary Quant: transparent telephone

I have chosen to look only at the items in the Museum of London’s display case. But the 1960s wasn’t just about ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out’, as Timothy Leary put it in 1967, there was another, much more serious side to that decade. It is only fair to point out the immense contribution the 1960s made towards ameliorating many social evils which, hitherto, had scarcely been noticed. The 1960s saw the setting up of such charities as: Release; Shelter; Crisis; the Child Poverty Action Group; Help the Aged; the Women’s Aid Federation, and dozens more.

Photos by Elizabeth Hawksley

Elizabeth Hawksley

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10 thoughts on “The Swinging Sixties”

  1. Oh, these all take me back.

    Incidentally, I never had to iron my hair (it does NOT curl ever) and I still got split ends!

    Thanks for posting

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the trip down Memory Lane, Jan. Split ends seem to have been a constant concern in the 1960s. Why, I wonder. Perhaps it was something to do with all that back-combing at the beginning of the decade, which can’t have been good for one’s hair.

  2. I remember it all well and it was indeed a fun time to be young after the drab greyness of the 1950s. I came back to Montreal after a visit to London with one one of the first mini dresses to be seen there. I remember that people were quite shocked. I also loved the Biba look which as more romantic and I had several dresses of their’s. As for the Post Office Tower, it was exciting to dine there and look out at the changing scene of London over the evening as it revolved but my main memory was of stepping into the central core to visit the loo and being unable to find my table when I came back. It had moved inexorably on.

    1. I do so agree with you about the drabness of the 1950s, Pauline. I remember being in the countryside in France wearing a mini skirt, and a young lad of about fourteen circling round and round me on his bike shouting, what sounded like ‘Olay! La mini-jupe!’

      Lucky you, dining at the top of the Post Office Tower. I loved your story of getting lost coming back from the loo!

  3. How I love this post, Elizabeth! It feels like you’ve captured the essence of that urgent, vivid, time when everything was possible, nothing was out of bounds, and the air sang with colour and creativity. I was a child then, filled with deep envy for my lucky older siblings who revelled in joys of the Sixties Thank you!

    1. Ah, yes, Prem. To me, it felt like coming out into bright sunshine after the dreary 1950s. Naively, I thought that this was what being grown up was like – little did I know what the 1970s had in store.

  4. Your post made me smile, Elizabeth. I was too young to join in all the fun my older cousins seemed to be having but by the end of the decade I was wearing mini skirts with the best of them. I ironed my hair too and maybe because I put a sheet of brown paper over it first I didn’t get split ends. Luckily it was very long so I didn’t burn myself in the process, which happened to a friend of mine who had shorter hair!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Gail, which made me smile. This longing for straight hair seems to be one of the marks of the 1960s; interesting because in most other decades females have done their best to acquire curls, not get rid of them! Think of those Victorian curl papers, not to mention mid 20th century rollers and, later, curling tongs.

  5. Memory lane for me indeed. Loved Biba. Had some of that Quant makeup. Didn’t iron my hair but had it straightened at Vidal Sassoon. They did it twice, free he second time because my hair was soooo curly they were not satisfied with the first lot. Hell to keep up, combing and drying every strand. I was pathetic at it. Miniskirts were de rigueur and I didn’t have Twiggy’s straight up and down look so constant battle. 70s fashion suited my gypsy bohemian soul so much better.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I liked the 70s Bohemian fashions, too – more romantic; they certainly suited my long wavy hair better. But that is another story.

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