Wednesday 31 August 2011

Brighton Mod Weekender

My lovely hometown, Brighton, has always been strongly associated with Mod subculture (well, at least since 1964 - a year of famous Mods vs.Rockers clashes during May Bank holiday weekend). It is only appropriate that New Untouchables - a promotion company from London specializing in Mod/Soul/Psych clubnights, chose Brighton for their Mod weekender - a 3 day event which usually includes clubnights, gigs, record fair, vintage clothing fair and an exhibition. Since 2006, every August Bank holiday, the Mods from all over the country come to Brighton to dance to their favorite music, show off their suits, scooters, etc. This community of 1960's obsessives  recently had been a subject of the photo book by Horst A. Friedrichs titled I'm One - 21st Century Mods. It is a good account of a contemporary Mod/Psych scene focused around New Untouchables and other London clubnights such as Mousetrap.

This year's weekender was the first one ever to sell out, which can only mean that the popularity of the scene is growing. Daytime events at the Volks - popular seafront venue in Brighton, consisted of mini vintage clothing fair, and live performances by  60's Garage revival bands such as  Thee Vicars and The Higher State. The evening events at the Komedia saw top 60's scene dj's spinning their precious vinyl records. In theory , the two rooms of the Komedia were supposed to be Psychedelic/Garage room and Northern Soul room. However, the Psych room usually was turning into second Northern Soul room after about 2 hours. I would say that about 75% of music played  during those 3 days was Northern Soul. Which, in my modest opinion, is a bit unfair to the Psych/ Garage fans such as myself. My Other criticism would again concern certain dj's and their annoying tendency of talking over the microphone between  songs. When you are feeling all excited by hearing your favorite obscure soul/psych/garage song in the club, you just want a dj to play the next number - not give you a 45 second - long history of the band that recorded the song.

Typical 60's Mod look - in the best tradition of Steve Marriott

And Clothes? Well, what can I say? I was very impressed by the ladies. Be it Mary Quant look, Grace Slick look or space-age Barbarella-style look, the female part of the crowd got it right to the last detail. Looking at the ladies, you could really feel like you stepped into 1967 or 1968.
I was slightly less impressed by men. Unfortunately, the majority of them were middle-aged Paul Weller lookalikes. Not to say, that they did not make an effort - some of them were dressed in the most amazing tailor-made suits, but they tended to look more like late 1970's revivalists, rather than original 1960's Mods. Perhaps , it is just my personal taste - I absolutely loathe late 70's/80's mod revival and all its crimes - bad haircuts ( the combination of short fringe, spiked top and long-ish back), checkered shoes, target t-shirts and dreadful bands such as The Lambrettas or the Purple Hearts.
I am also not suggesting that there weren't any young people there - there was plenty of them, and it is great to see that 1960's music and fashion continues to acquire so many young enthusiasts. I myself had a great weekend,  and I encourage anybody who is passionate  about 1960's music and fashion to come to future New Untouchables events.
I took some photos, but unfortunately they do not do justice to the clubnight. Most of them turned out to be unusable.It is hard to have a good time and take good photos at the same time.

One of the few passable photos. Me and my girlfriend in our psychedelic attires.

For better photos and  information about future events, visit

Thursday 25 August 2011

Smashing Time - The Ultimate Swinging London Film

I remember watching a documentary about Performance in which Anita Pallenberg said that there was a whole genre of so-called 'Swinging London films', in the late sixties and they were all dreadful!. It is true. A lot of films had been made that tried to repeat the success of Blow-Up, Alfie or Georgy Girl. The most memorable of those films would include Up The Junction (Hollywood - financed attempt at the kitchen-sink genre, lacking both, the edge and a depth of Tony Richardson or John Shlesinger), rather brilliant Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1967) and Smashing Time (1967).

Poster for "Smashing Time" (1967)

Smashing Time was described by many as "Carry On Swinging London", although such description is not entirely accurate. It flopped at the time of its cinematic release in 1967 , and to this day it has not been released on dvd in Britain (a region 1 dvd will set you back £35 on Amazon). Not so long ago, it emerged on YouTube in 12 parts, only to be taken down after few months.It is there where I finally saw this film , about which I have heard so much. I must admit, that it is not a great film - but there are some interesting things in it. Amazing costumes are certainly a reason to watch this film. A footage of Carnaby Street at its height is another.And a scene in which an outfit destroyed in a pie fight prompts a young 'peacock' to commit suicide is priceless.

The film features Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave at the height of their fame, but their great abilities as  comic actresses, so well presented in their earlier films, The Knack..And How To Get It (Tushingham), and Georgy Girl (Redgrave) is lost here between really tacky slapstick humor. The film was scripted by George Melly - jazz musician, raconteur, Swinging London scenester, and above all, an author of Revolt Into Style - a great analysis of Sixties London scene.  His script was an attempt to document and satirize 'Swinging London' at the same time. Perhaps this too obvious attempt to document an era is a main fault - the film captures the spirit of the time and it hits a viewer over the head with it, to the point where its neither funny nor interesting. The film follows a story of two hapless Northern 'lasses' who come to London , having read all the stories about swinging scene. They quickly get lost in a world of dodgy bedsits and even dodgier strip clubs. Lynn Redgrave's character eventually makes it big as a pop singer and dates a David Bailey-esque photographer (Michael York, in his first ever role), but she realizes that fame and fortune are not what she thought they would be. Hardly an original story, but the film has certain kind of charm. 

Readers of this blog should find one scene interesting. At one point in the film, Rita Tushingham's character finds a job in a uber-hip boutique called Too Much.

 This fictional place is obviously inspired by places such as Granny Takes a Trip or Hung On You. In one scene, the owner of Too Much visits a run down second hand clothing shop in search for an inspiration (which is what Sheila Cohen and John Pearse from Granny Takes a Trip were doing). In other, she disappears, leaving poor Rita Tushingham (whom she hired only five minutes earlier)  in charge of the shop. She gets irritated when posh and trendy friends of the owner come to the shop to hang out, without intention of buying anything (which was a common practice in Granny Takes a Trip). This brilliant scene, luckily is still on You Tube:

Note a brilliant cameo from Murray Melvin (reunited with Rita Tushingham after A Taste Of Honey). Rita Tushingham's scream about the sort of people who want something for nothing is poignant, and shows a class division in Sixties London, which George Melly later pointed out in Revolt Into Style.

It was already mentioned that the film was neither a commercial nor critical  success. Lynn Redgrave said: "We thought as we were making it, this will be just right. But the minute it came out people said, 'It's over. Swinging London is over' " (Shawn Levy, Ready! Steady! Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, Doubleday edition, p 300).
It is possible that making of the film was quite chaotic. One of my tutors at University told me that he once interviewed Rita Tushingham on the subject of costumes in Smashing Time. Apparently she could not remember any details whatsoever about the production , apart from the general feeling of chaos.

Smashing Time might not be the greatest film about 1960's London, but it can be described as 'Interesting Failure' .Hopefully BFI will release it on dvd at some point, or maybe the film will reappear on YouTube again. Here's the original trailer to give you a little taste of Smashing Time.


The New Psychedelics - a Revival That Never Was?

It is generally known that 1979 was a year of Mod revival. However, it turns out that apparently it was not the only subculture from the sixties that was revived that year. Ted Polhemus, in his highly influential book Street Style (chapter titled Swinging London and Psychedelics),claims that Psychedelic/Peacock style coincided with Mod revival in late seventies and early eighties. Sadly, the only proof of the existence of that revival in Polhemus's book is this photo:

New Psychedelics in 1994 edition of  Ted Polhemus' Street Style

The caption under the photo reads: "New Psychedelics outside the Regal clothing shop, which was located on Newburgh Street one block over from Carnaby Street and served as a focus for this revival".

Further traces of the revival can be found in Amy De La Haye's book Surfers, Soulies, Skinheads and Skaters: A Subcultural style from Forties to the Nineties. This book immortalized first ever fashion exhibition in V&A entirely devoted to the subcultural style - Street Style from 1994. In the book, we find a section devoted to 'Psychedelic Revival UK 1979'.

The text reads: "Worn by Clive Sutherland, who was a regular client of Andrew Yiannakou's shop in Kensington Market. He created an authentic Psychedelic Revival look by combining Yiannakou's pieces with period pieces, such as the 1960s Turnbull & Asser crepe de chine shirt illustrated . This suit was made to order.

Yiannakou started to make psychedelic clothes from the late 1960s and was at the forefront of the late 70s/early 80s revival. He used original 60s patterns and fabrics to create a purist revival style. At the end of 1979 he opened the Regal in Kensington Market." 
Here's the picture of the suit, which is still in V&A collection:

Unfortunately, those brief mentions in Polhemus' and De La Haye's books are the only traces of 1980's psychedelic revival. I would love to find out more about the Regal. If anybody has any photographs or original clothes from that boutique, please do share it!


Wednesday 17 August 2011

Vince - Small Boutique That Initiated Big Changes

In my last post, I looked at the career of John Stephen - a true revolutionary of male fashion in the 1960's. Now, I would like to devote a little space to Bill Green and his boutique called Vince (1954 - 1969). Bill Green pre-dated John Stephen (who was also his one-time employee) few years, and the height of his career was in the late 1950's - however, his designs were an inspiration for many designers who would revolutionize male fashion in 1960's.

Bill Green started his career in the late 1940's from being a photographer specializing in taking photos of semi-naked wrestlers and musclemen. His models were wearing provocative bikini-style posing briefs, designed by Green himself, who, in the absence of  readily made garments decided to start his own line of briefs. He began to sell them through the mail order catalogue in 1950. His homoerotic designs appealed initially almost exclusively to gay customers. After holiday in France and Italy in 1952, Green, impressed by young Frenchmen who were sporting 'existentialist' look - black sweaters worn with lack jeans - started his own line of such clothes. He was the first one to introduce this look to British men. His mail order business flourished, and  in 1954 he opened Vince's Men Shop in Newburgh Street. This choice of location was not accidental -in 1950's, this part of Soho was an epicentre of gay underworld. Marshall Street Public Baths - a popular cruising area for gay men was just around the corner.However, the clientele of Vince quickly expanded beyond gay community. His unconventional designs appealed to young West End actors and Chelsea bohemians. Green was using fabrics which were unusual at the time - velvet, silk, bed-ticking for hipster trousers and pre-faded denims. is window displays were also quite shocking at the time - the mannequins dressed in briefs, or pink hipster trousers.

Typical magazine ad for Vince from 1962.

One of the shoppers at Vince's recalls his visit in the mid-1950's: "The only person (I) saw was tall, well-dressed young Negro who bought a pair of coloured denim hipster trousers. The Negro was obviously homosexual and I realized that homosexuals had been buying this stuff for years. they were the only people with the nerve to wear it" (Jeremy Reed, The King Of Carnaby Street, p 8). But the fact that, by late 1950's, it was not just homosexuals who had the nerve to wear it, proves that there was a shift in taste among young Londoners. The clientele of Vince included such names as actor Peter Sellers, jazz musician George Melly (who joked: "I went into Vince's to buy a new tie and they measured my inside leg" (Reed, p 9).) Pablo Picasso (who bought a pair of suede trousers), The King of Denmark, and young model-soon-to-turn-actor Sean Connery. Bill Green's designs did not influence street style or youth fashion directly as teenagers generally could not afford to shop there. However, the impact of Vince is difficult to underestimate. For the first time it was acceptable for heterosexual men to wear clothes previously only worn by homosexuals. It was also the first time when leisure were became chic - jeans and sweater could  be worn for an evening out from now on. This was a step towards informality, ambivalence and flamboyance - and it led grounds for a revolution in male fashion that happened in 1960's.  The young man largely responsible for this revolution worked briefly as a sales assistant at Vince's. Bill Green had sensed is ambition: "Not much good" - he said of his work as sales assistant - "Always dreaming of the bigger things" (Nik Cohn, Today There Are No Gentlemen, p 64). The young man himself also seemed dissatisfied: "I was just standing there taking money. Suddenly I thought, if this guy (Green) can do it, so can I..." (Reed, p 19). The young man was, of course, John Stephen. He had learnt a lot at Vince's and his own early designs and shop fronts owed a lot to Bill Green. However, the rise of John Stephen as a designer marked the downfall of Bill Green's. Stephen was much more in touch with the youth culture. Bill Green could not keep up with rapid changes in fashion which were happening from early 1960's onwards. By mid-1960's, his shop became un -chic. Financial problems forced him to move Vince's Men Shop from Newburgh Street to cheaper location in North London. In 1969, he closed his shop for good.  Bill Green might have been one of the initiators of the revolution in fashion, but he quickly fallen behind the times. In 1971, Green (by then a manager of a restaurant in Soho) said to Nik Cohn: "If I was to go into male fashion again today, I wouldn't even know where to start" (Cohn, p 51).

Outfits from Vince's Men Shop from mid-1960's in Victoria and Albert Museum.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

John Stephen - A Forgotten Fashion Revolutionary?

John Stephen and Mary Quant, 1966.

It seems today, that John Stephen is a slightly forgotten figure. Much has been said about the impact of  1960's fashion designers such as Mary Quant or Barbara Hulanicki on female fashion, but John Stephen who was just as revolutionary in a field of male fashion, is usually being omitted from Fashion History. It was particularly visible during last year's exhibition Carnaby Street - 50 years of fashion and music (curated by Amy De La Haye and Judith Clark) which took place in a pop up shop on Carnaby Street. The role of John Stephen in making Carnaby Street a epicentre of Swinging London, seemed to have been downplayed by the authors of the exhibition. Out of original garments displayed, nearly all were female garments, and none of them was by John Stephen.It seems highly innacurate, considering that Carnaby Street was associated largely with male fashion - thanks to John Stephen , who, by late 1966 owned 14 boutiques on Carnaby Street.
Luckilly, the most recent publications about 1960's  fashion such as magnificent Day Of The Peacock by Geoffrey Aquilina Ross and Boutique London by Richard Lester give John Stephen the credit he deserves. And, of course there was a new biography of John Stephen by Jeremy Reed (on which I will focus later).
In order to fully understand John Stephen's role as one of the 'architects' of Swinging London, it is worth to take a brief look at his fascinating life.

John Stephen was born in Glasgow in 1934. He came to London at the age of 18. Interested in fashion, young John took up a job at Moss Bross in Covent Garden, a well-known tailoring establishment, which specialized in evening suits. Stephen had learnt to cut in the military department of Moss Bross and was gaining experience as a salesman on a shop floor for a salary of £6 per week. he was not comfortable with a formal atmosphere of Moss Bross and he spotted the absence of outlets selling modern clothes for youth in London. He observed the explosion of Teddy Boy fashion and he had seen it for what it was - a beginning of an era where teenagers  would search for their own identity which they could express through clothing (unlike most of his contemporaries, who had seen it merely as a brief fad). Desperate to open his own shop, Stephen worked double shifts to save enough money. In addition to his day job at Moss Bross, he worked as a night waiter at Forte's - a West End restaurant. in 1956, he started working at Vince - an avant-garde, and then uber-cool boutique situated in Newburgh Street ,which specialized in  selling quirky clothes to bohemians, homosexuals, and West End actors. The owner, Bill Green, felt that, Stephen's enthusiasm, good looks and impeccable style would make him popular with customers. However, ambitious Stephen had seen Vince merely as a stepping stone in his own career. In 1957, with a help from his new business associate, Bill Franks, Stephen managed to open his own shop at 19 Beak Street. His early designs were not million miles away from those of Bill Green - they included hipster trousers, multi-coloured denim, as well as tab-collar shirts in colours such as peacock blue, foggy-gray or pink. He appropriated some of the advertising tactics used at Vince's - drawings of musclemen, casually dressed James Dean lookalikes, etc. Before his shop at Beak Street started breaking even, he managed to open another one thanks to courtesy of his landlord. The second shop was located at 5 Carnaby Street. At that time, in 1958, Carnaby Street was just a gray back street of Soho - a home to a few tobacco shops and Central Electricity Board building. Within the next six years, thanks to Stephen, it would become an epicentre of London's fashion world.

Carnaby street in 1966 - at the height of Stephen's career.

Stephen's biographer, Jeremy Reed writes that: "Stephen had a mission that was compounded into youthful genes, not only to change the way men looked forever, but o make clothes and the compatible awareness of self-image into necessary lifestyle. Nobody before or afterwards was to provide the individual with such a rapid update of detail-obsessed fashion, to the extent that styles were deleted every week" (Jeremy Reed, John Stephen - The King of Carnaby Street, p 24). Stephen was also the first designer to understand the dynamics of street style. He observed mod subculture, which was rapidly growing in the late 1950's, and was aiming his designs at these fashion-conscious young men. Knowing that buttons featured prominently in the mod iconography, he was using them in an innovative way, by arranging them in double or triple groupings on the shirt fronts. He introduced patterns such as paisley and polka dot to the designs of his shirts and ties. He was designing collarless suits as early as 1958, few years before they were popularized by the Beatles. The popularity of his designs was growing, and, in 1959, he opened third boutique at 49/51 Carnaby Street. Apart from the originality of his designs, the key to his success might have been relatively low prices. His jackets were priced between £7 - £10, trousers and shirts £3 - £5 (the average weekly wage of a teenager in early 1960's was about £16). Nik Cohn writes: " Every time you walked past a John Stephen window, there was something new and loud in it, and when you counted out your money, you found you could afford it" (Nik Cohn, Today There Are No Gentlemen, p 66). Nearly all fashion writers analyzing John Stephen's impact (Nik Cohn, Alistair O'Neill, Jeremy Reed) indicate his young age as a key factor in his success. Being a part of 'youth' himself made him understand youth fashion better than his contemporaries - like, for example, Bill Green, who was in his forties in he late 1950's. Stephen understood the intentions of Mods - they wanted to look well, but not necessarily to attract he opposite sex - that was a secondary reason for dressing up. It was their longing to be seen , to be the Face (slang term for a fashion leader) that really mattered. Jeremy Reed writes that the attitude of Mods "was one of remaining unattainable, and their exclusively male coterie invited mental homosexuality and gossip as a substitute for intimacy with girls. While Mods were their own, and not John Stephen's creation, their sexual ambiguity ideally suited his equally ambivalent clothes" (Reed, p 67). this phenomenon has its origins in Regency dandyism. George Walden, in his essay  Who Is a Dandy? which analyzes the impact of Beau Brummell on early 19th century male fashion, wrote: that sexuality is an adjunct, rather than at the centre of dandy's creed (George Walden, Who Is a Dandy?, p 32).

By 1966, John Stephen owned fourteen boutiques on Carnaby Street, as well as branches on Regent Street, in Brighton and Loughton. Apart from his boutiques for men (called 'His Clothes') he also owned 'His 'N' Hers' and 'Tre Camp' for girls, and his own tailoring shop.

Male West One - one of John Stephen's boutiques on Carnaby Street, 1966.

Stephen's Domino Male and Trecamp on Carnaby Street, 1966.

Apart from the fore mentioned affordable prices, the success of John Stephen was assured by the fact that Pop stars were his frequent customers. Rock n'  Roll idols Cliff Richard and Billy Fury were shopping at John Stephen's as early as 1960. Billy Walker of Walker Brothers was modelling for him in 1962, and by 1966, nearly every group in London - most notably The Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces and The Kinks, were sporting John Stephen's clothes.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards shopping at John Stephen's, 1965. 

Towards the end of 1960's Stephen's designs moved on with the fashion once again  - in 1967 he started incorporating oriental elements in a spirit of hippie fashion. He was designing colourful kaftans, decorated with beads, tunics and foppish dandy outfits , inspired by Regency fashions. The Peacock Revolution was a result of a momentum started in the late fifties by John Stephen.

Suit by John Stephen from 1970 displayed in Victoria and Albert Museum.

Stephen's star as a designer started fading in the late sixties. By 1970 he was generally seen as terribly demode. In 1975 he sold his company, which, by then was struggling with financial problems. After another takeover the company finally ceased to exist in 1986. Stephen himself disappeared from public eye ( although he was still involved in fashion, working for the small bespoke tailoring company). He died in 2004. A year later a plaque with his name was unveiled on Carnaby Street in recognition to his outstanding contribution to British Fashion.

Suit  by John Stephen from 1968 (University of North Texas collection)

Shirt by John Stephen with typical for mid-1960's round collar. Found on E-bay.

Tie by John Stephen bought in Carnaby Street around 1967 (courtesy of Mr. Peter Lowe

Eastern-influenced hippie menswear by John Stephen (circa 1968)

Crochet tops and striped cotton skirt and trousers by John Stephen, 1965

John Stephen's groovy wigs, modelled by the man himself, 1968

John Stephen dressing one of his models. 1967

In a late 2010, a biography of John Stephen written by Jeremy Reed was published. Unfortunately, the book does not do John Stephen justice. Although large parts of it are interesting, it has a lot of considerable drawbacks. Bizarrely, it only covers Stephen's life until 1969, so we don't find out anything about the downfall of his empire. There is very little about Stephen's private life - his lifelong struggle with bi-polarity disorder is hardly mentioned. Also, the images are black and white (which seems strange in a book about the designer who was famous for introducing colour into male clothing) and there is no name index or bibliography at the end. 

It is good that a book about John Stephen has been written, but unfortunately,one can't help but have an impression that Jeremy Reed's effort is a wasted opportunity.