A central characteristic of British postwar life was the emergence of various subcultures, which would use music, style and dress to express their attitudes and approach to life.
In the relative prosperity following the end of the 1950s, a new youth-oriented culture led to a retail and nightlife boom, bringing more people out on the streets to see and be seen. Streetstyle became the primary way to convey your music taste and as well as your values, and distinct fashion aesthetics emerged to reflect this between the 1960s-1990s. It remains an important tool through which young people are able to reassert notions of individual identity and respond to their social and political environment.
Jessica Hazel, former music journalist for NME, The Fly and Artrocker and founder and director of Smoking Gun Vintage has assembled these four outfits and reflected on the evolution of streetstyle across the decades and what this reveals about wider changes in society and youth culture.
The 1960s were a time of huge social change, where the dissolution of traditions saw a growing divide between the generations. London became a cultural hub for shifting fashion trends, methods of socialising and a new hedonism.
High impact colour ‘blocking’ often using primary colours and clean lines became the uniform of the Mods, short for the ‘Modernists’. Influenced by American Northern soul, R&B and Jazz from the Caribbean, the ‘Mod’ look first began as a trend in Soho in the late ‘50s, when men began strutting the streets in dark, slim-fit suits. British bands such as The Who, Small Faces, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones would become early Mod icons in the ubiquitous sharp black suit of the early 1960s.
For the first time, high fashion became affordable and boutiques such as Biba and Mary Quant opened up in places such as the Kings Road and Carnaby Street, attracting a young crowd with the highest income since the end of World War II, and bringing an optimistic and vibrant colour palette to the ‘Mod’ look.
As one of the most influential designers of the time, Quant had a vision for a new youth- oriented style of dressing, worlds away from how the previous generation lived or looked. Her ground-breaking new ‘Mini Skirt’, was perhaps the most iconic fashion moment of the decade, and a daring break away from the conservative longer hemlines of the past, signalling a new sexual freedom and empowerment for women who ‘dare to bare’. Quant claimed her intent was all about creating freedom through playfulness, practicality and movement. She would often subvert traditional conventions; using motifs from menswear, formal-wear and military uniform to question hierarchies and gender rules.
New synthetic fabrics were developed, opening up new possibilities for textures and prints that had never been seen before such as jersey, polyester, nylon and PVC. Models such as Twiggy, Jane Birkin, Jean Shrimpton and Pattie Boyd became pioneers of these new trends, showcasing what would become Quant’s ‘signature look’, as illustrated here- sporty, jersey minidresses, worn with matching schoolgirl berets, tights and shoes – giving a total top-to-toe block of colour.
Mod culture had a big resurgence in the late 1970s, influenced significantly by Paul Weller from The Jam- known as ‘The Modfather’. Today Mod fashion remains as cool and timeless as ever, often revisited by fashion houses and still seen regularly, in its various forms, on the streets of London. And the beret is most definitely- back!
Many trends burst forth in the culturally rich decade of the 1970s, but one enduring style, still very influential today, is that of the ‘hippie’, or bohemian look. The original inspiration came from the centre of the hippie movement in San Francisco, California, during the swell of countercultural activity in the late 1960s.
The emphasis was on individuality, often drawing inspiration from non-Western cultures such as this original Afghan sheepskin coat. Other popular ‘ethnic’ garments included Mexican ‘peasant’ blouses, Hungarian folk dresses, Native American buckskin moccasins and beaded or embroidered tems from India, where the ‘hippie trail’ was fast developing.
Fashion also became more gender-fluid with men adopting a newfound flamboyancy and freedom of expression; often sporting long hair, higher heels and clothes originally designed for women such as frilly blouses. An article from a 1970s edition of Vogue stated: ‘there are no rules in the fashion game now.’
Featured in this outfit is a brightly patterned jumpsuit, a garment originally designed for parachute jumpers (hence the name) but was popularised as a fashion statement in the 1970s by Elvis Presely and Cher in their extravagant stage performances. Purple and orange were popular colours in this decade and the print points to the ‘Flower Power’ slogan and movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which called for non-violent, peaceful protest against the Vietnam War.
The bright, swirling pattern of the jumpsuit’s print reflects the influence of the ubiquitous ‘psychedelic’ aesthetic of the time, coming from the experimentation of hallucinogenic drugs such as LCD. Many designers including Zandra Rhodes and Barbara Hulanicki of Biba, became known for their beautiful, colourful prints. The rejection of convention, and a desire to return to nature was also reflected in the choice of accessories, with traditional gold and silver jewellery being replaced by natural elements such as wood, shells, stones, feathers and leather.
In the 1980s, a huge cultural movement called ‘Punk’ was born, right here on the streets of London, and continues to reverberate around the world to this day. Punk was a reaction against the ‘passive’ hippie movement of the 1970s and also a rejection of the materialistic values that the 1980s brought about.
Punk had a DIY aesthetic at its core. Exemplified by these denim shorts, garments were customised by their owners with safety pins, buttons, patches and other music memorabilia, demonstrating their allegiance to a particular band or group. The distressed, customisation trend was popularised by British designer, Vivienne Wetwood who famously produced a T-Shirt with the Queen’s face on it and a safety pin through her nose, with the slogan ‘God Save The Queen’. Slogans and symbols written or painted on clothing were often used to communicate the political and social beliefs of Punks, which were often staunchly anti-establishment, anti-military and supportive of the environment.
Westwood is regarded as the mother of Punk. Together with her partner Malcolm McLaren they managed and styled a new British group called The Sex Pistols; and the look and sound of Punk was born. This innovation paved the way for other UK acts to emerge over the next decade, including The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, who played in Coronation Hall here in Kingston in 1978.
The music industry spotted street style trends in London and then began dressing their artists accordingly, which kick-started huge trends during the 1980s. The look shown here: fishnets, fingerless gloves and layered necklaces were all seen in Madonna’s ‘street urchin look’ during her ‘Like A Virgin’ era, and were subsequently adopted by the fashion-conscious masses. Underwear-like slips, bustiers and tulle became worn as outerwear, nodding to the sexual freedom of the time. Gloves and hats became a big trend, but were worn in ways which had never been seen before, breaking away from their historically formal styling connotations.
The 1980s silhouette was that of being oversized on top (often accentuated with shoulder pads) with big, curly, sometimes back-combed hair, and skinny on the bottom, with tight leggings, tube skirts and oh so much lycra! Power dressing – as it was called – referred to the use of this aesthetic to present a strong image of a woman climbing the ranks of the workforce.
The androgynous dressing of the 1970’s continued throughout the 1980’s, taken to new heights by David Bowie, who famously revealed his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ persona for the very first time at The Toby Jug in nearby Tolworth in 1972.
Out of punk came the ‘New Romantic’ movement which was developed by ‘The Blitz Kids’, a group of hipsters who frequented Club Blitz in London. Popularised by bands such as Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow, New Romantics began to move away from Punk, which was becoming associated with violence. New Romantics tried to bring back the love, embracing lace, frills, Regency-inspired vintage garments and high theatricality, as shown in this outfit.
In the 1990s ‘Grunge’ was another significant subculture that came over from the USA. A band called Nirvana released their first single called ‘Love Buzz’ in 1988, with lead singer Kurt Cobain deliberately ‘dressed down’ and wearing on stage the same things he would wear at home. Otherwise known as the ‘slacker style’ or the ‘slouch look’ the fashion was anti-fashion and anti-trend and kicked back against the flashy, consumeristic trends of the 1980s. Grunge kids skipped school, smoked pot, listened to music and dreamt of becoming rock stars.
The idea was that the less you spent on clothes the cooler you looked, so Grungers opted for thrift shopping in charity shops and jumble sales, often sporting worn out knitwear ripped jeans and second-hand checked lumberjack or flannel shirts.
Also seen regularly on Grunge kids were Dr. Marten boots, which were originally designed by doctor Klaus Marten who was in the German army in World War II. In 1960 the first pair of cherry red DMs arrived in the UK. Mods, punks and new wave musicians all wore them religiously in the 1970s, but when they became popular with violent, right wing groups, their appeal to the pacifistic, grunge movement dwindled. They still remain hugely popular today and are still designed in Camden.
Band T-shirts sold at gigs became not only a great way for bands to promote themselves but also as a uniform for publicly expressing your cultural identity. Brandishing a T-shirt from an exclusive, sold out, or legendary tour demonstrated a person’s commitment to their chosen idols and gave them kudos amongst other fans. Grunge band t-shirts you would have spotted in London in the 1990s include Radiohead, Garbage and The Cranberries.
Grunge music was angst-filled and introspective, often covering themes of self-doubt, abuse, neglect and betrayal. Kurt Cobain’s long unkempt hair which hid his face as he sang, reflected his introspective mental state and across the globe people began imitiating his style. Cobain’s former partner, Courtney Love, also became a grunge icon, coining the phrase ‘Kinderwhore’, for her trademark look of baby doll dresses, toughened up by leather boots, cropped peroxide blonde hair and heavy black eyeliner. Gender stereotypes continued to be subverted, with boys wearing their hair long and the girls cropping theirs short.
The mainstream world of fashion soon clocked onto the grunge trend and started mass producing expensive plaid shirts and ripped jeans, and what started as an anti-fashion statement soon became a highstreet cash cow, with Vogue even doing a spread called ‘Grunge & Glory’ in 1992. The following year, James Truman, editor of ‘Details’ said: “to me the thing about grunge is it’s not anti-fashion, it’s unfashion. Punk was anti-fashion. It made a statement. Grunge is about not making a statement, which is why it’s crazy for it to become a fashion statement.”