Spotlight

Swinging London: 1960s fashion photography

 

Often described as the most visually-exciting decade of the twentieth century, the ‘swinging 60s’ encouraged individuality, experimentation, and optimism. After more than a decade of post-war austerity and conservative dress during the 1950s, attitudes towards the body were gradually becoming more liberal. Hems of skirts rose, go-go boots stomped onto the scene, and bold shapes and patterns ruled the day. To celebrate the launch of London Fashion Week 2021, we take a look at 1960s British fashion from our historic Photography archive. 

The eruption of ‘youthquake’

In 1965, Vogue’s editor Diana Vreeland established London as the epicentre of the British ‘youthquake’. Newly empowered by music and pop culture, the ‘youthquake’ generation rejected the idealised femininity of the 1950s. The movement was spearheaded by influential London fashion designer Mary Quant who introduced youthful collections of casual-fitting clothes, tailored capri trousers, coloured tights, and daringly short mini skirts. For Quant, short skirts weren’t just desirably fashionable, they were practical: ‘I liked my skirts short because I wanted to run and catch the bus to get to work.’ Empowered to reinvent the landscape of the fashion industry, teenagers flocked in their droves to wear her bold new designs.

Vogue November 1965, by photographer Ronald Traegar, Condé Nast Publications Ltd., Fashion models, London, 1969 by MirrorpixVogue November 1965, by photographer Ronald Traegar, Condé Nast Publications Ltd., Fashion models, London, 1969 by Mirrorpix

Boxy designs and masculine silhouettes

Before the 1960s, when women were brave enough to create more ‘masculine’ silhouettes, they were often pejoratively labelled ‘cross dressers’. In the 1920s and 30s, American film stars Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn boldly challenged the boundaries of women’s fashion when they wore trousers, top hats, and bow ties on and off screen. Hepburn famously quipped that, ‘Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say, “Try one. Try a skirt.” However, despite her trailblazing efforts, it wasn’t until after the second world war – when women began to normalise trousers and shorts from within the workforce – that they became more socially acceptable.

Vogue February, 1967, by Ronald Traeger, Condé Nast Publications Ltd.Vogue February, 1967, by Ronald Traeger, Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

‘The 1960s was a time when ordinary people could do extraordinary things.’ – Twiggy

Restrictive, cinched waists were out and looser boxier cuts were in. Women began to embrace androgynous looks. The most recognisable supermodel of the 1960s, Twiggy – famed for her big eyes, long eyelashes, short hair and adolescent physique – defined the period as a ‘time when ordinary people could do extraordinary things.’

Bold new prints and patterns

As young people had more disposable incomes in the 1960s, they discovered a new sense of identity which they expressed boldly with their clothes. Loud prints and radical patterns became an act of rebellion against the prim and proper restrictions of suburban 1950s housewives. Striking geometric designs reflected a new age of uninhibited fun spurred on by the increased recreational use of psychedelic drugs. As trippy optical illusions, floral designs gestured towards newly discovered fantasy worlds. Colour-blocking (an aesthetic borrowed from early 20th-century abstract artist Piet Mondrian) and clashing colours like pink and orange or garish greens and yellows also aimed to catch the eye.

Two capsule lined felt helmets, and Patterned projection on a model, both by photographer John French, V&A. Two capsule lined felt helmets, and Patterned projection on a model, both by photographer John French, V&A.

‘There’s no need to dress like everyone else. It’s much more fun to create your own look.’ – Twiggy

Vogue, November 1965, by photographer Ronald Traeger, Condé Nast Publications Ltd.Vogue, November 1965, by photographer Ronald Traeger, Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

Synthetic pleasures and space age designs 

The rise of modernity in fashion was also fuelled by the ongoing space race. Designers opted for innovative synthetic materials that channelled scientific progress. Fabrics like nylon, acrylics, orlon, terylene, lurex, PVC, and spandex were promoted as cheap, easy to dry, and crease-resistant – material qualities that helped to democratise fashion. Now, more women than ever before could afford to experiment with fitted suits, plastic swing coats, bubble dresses, and futuristic headgear.

Vogue, April 1966, by Ronald Traeger, and Vogue January 1963, by Brian Duffy, Condé Nast Publications Ltd.Vogue, April 1966, by Ronald Traeger, and Vogue January 1963, by Brian Duffy, Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

Tatler, February and April 1964, (C) London Illustrated News Ltd.Tatler, February and April 1964, (C) London Illustrated News Ltd.

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