Welcome to the sixties, a decade of controversy, creativity and consumerism; effervescence, experimentation and excess; babes, boutiques and blasphemy.
At the dawn of the sixties, the economies of the US and Western Europe are booming and post-World War II austerity measures are a thing of the past. There’s an air of optimism, tempered by the ongoing Cold War, which comes to a head in October 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis – a close brush with full-scale nuclear war. But to every cloud, a silver lining, and for the movie industry the Cold War serves as inspiration for a string of films including The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr Strangelove (1964) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) – ironically, From Russia With Love (1963) is not really about the Cold War
During the sixties, the ideological battle extends way beyond the borders of the Western and Communist powers. In May 1961, in response to the Soviet Union’s rapidly advancing space programme, President John F Kennedy promises to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong makes good the promise. Together with “Buzz” Aldrin, he walks around for three hours, does some experiments, picks up bits of moon dirt and rocks, plants a US flag and leaves a sign. As if in anticipation, three sci-fi movies appear the previous year: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes and Barbarella.
Both the pioneering spirit and the technological advances of the space race fuel developments during the decade. The sixties see the launch of colour television, the audiocassette and quick-drying acrylic paint. Injection-moulded plastic becomes a material of choice, not least for furniture. And the introduction of pantyhose paves the way for the miniskirt. Novelty, instant gratification, disposability, living for the day are all in.
The sixties – the younger generation
Young people are better off than ever and ready to challenge their elders and betters. They feel a new sense of identity and they’re determined to express it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in London where, in 1963, the bowler-hatted establishment is embarrassed, humiliated and thrown into disarray when Secretary of War, John Profumo, is forced to admit that he has lied to the House of Commons about an affair with Christine Keeler, an alleged call-girl. Unfortunately for him, Ms Keeler is also involved with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché. Although Profumo assures the House that he hasn’t compromised national security, he is forced to resign and the scandal threatens to topple the Conservative government.
In 1964, Peter Laurie in an article in Vogue observes that:
London is a city of and for the young. Probably no other in the world offers us the opportunities that are here. Wherever enthusiasm, energy, iconoclasm or any kind of creative ability are needed, you’ll find people in their mid-twenties or younger.
The people making the headlines come from all sorts of backgrounds, not just from posh public schools. They include pop singers and pop artists, actors, models, hairdressers, photographers, interior decorators and designers. Think The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Hockney, Allen Jones, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Tom Stoppard, Vidal Sassoon, David Bailey, Terence Donovan, David Hicks, Alan Fletcher and Theo Crosby. All are concerned in one way or another with “image.” Private Eye refers to this group of talented, self-confident young people as “the new aristocracy”.
The sixties – new and not-so-new attitudes
If there’s a single theme that runs right through the sixties like letters through a stick of rock it’s challenge. Traditional notions of values and morality, style and taste are up for grabs.
Taboos around sex outside marriage, under threat since at least the 1940s, are further eroded by the introduction of the contraceptive pill, which opens the door for the permissive society. As the decade goes by, nudity features more and more regularly in magazines, on stage and on screen, to howls of outrage from the likes of Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association in the UK. They are fighting a losing battle – as demonstrated by, for example, the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967 and a rash of movies about sex and power that are released in the early seventies.
In the US, the civil rights and anti-war movements are gathering pace. The latter, in particular, is associated with alternative lifestyles. This is the age of communes and collectives, of yoga and mysticism, of rock and roll and recreational drugs, particularly marijuana. In 1967, Marianne Faithfull, convent-educated chanteuse, single mother and girlfriend of Mick Jagger (impossible to be closer to the epicentre of swinging London), is found wearing nothing more than a fur rug by police searching for drugs at Keith Richards’ house in Sussex. Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are subsequently sentenced to three and 12 months in prison respectively.
Reactions to the scandal reveal the extent to which underlying attitudes and prejudices have and haven’t changed. The liberals in the establishment are outraged and The Times publishes a leader titled Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”. Under pressure, the Lord Chief Justice quashes the jail terms, a decision that liberalises drug-enforcement policy going forward. But Marianne will later recall:
It destroyed me. To be a male drug addict and to act like that is always enhancing and glamorising. A woman in that situation becomes a slut and a bad mother.
The theme is referenced in Darling (1965), a British film about an ambitious girl played by Julie Christie, who is happy to sleep around, moving from one relationship to another to further her career only to get her come-uppance. It turns out that the ideal woman of the sixties is perhaps closer to her counterpart of the previous decades than would appear at first glance. As Betty Friedan observes in The Feminine Mystique (1963), the stereotype of the “ideal woman”…
…held that women could find fulfilment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. It denied women a career or any commitment outside the home and narrowed woman’s world down to the home, cut her role back to housewife.
Nevertheless, the counter-culture is in full swing, often taking its inspiration from advertising and fast-moving consumer goods. In London, Bridget Riley is at the forefront of the Op Art movement. In the US, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg shock and amaze audiences with their Pop Art creations. Psychedelic art emerges from the drug and music sub-cultures of London and San Francisco.
In Italy, a new generation of architects and designers such as Paolo Soleri, Ettore Sotsass, Joe Colombo and Archizoom favour a more personal, expressive, even light-hearted approach. Their utopian visions will find their ultimate expression in the summer of 1972 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Italy, The New Domestic Landscape.
In music the headline acts include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, but there are many, many others. What they all have in common is youthfulness and iconoclasm.
The sixties – from futuristic to nostalgic fashion
A new decade needs a new ideal of female beauty. Step forward Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey. She’s been brought up on a farm about 30 miles from London, he’s the son of a tailor’s cutter in the East End of London.
Bailey, together with partners-in-crime Brian Duffy and Terry Donovan, pioneers a new, raw, in-your-face, style of fashion photography characterized by strong contrasts, bold cropping and unsentimental poses. “The Black Trinity”, as Norman Parkinson, a photographer of the older generation dubs them, roam the streets of London shooting celebrities from all walks of life, most notoriously (in Bailey’s case) lethal gangsters the Kray Twins.
In fact, the photographers become celebrities in their own right, going out with actors, musicians and all manner of beautiful people. Nor is it just their photographic style that’s new. In the words of Duffy, “Before 1960, a fashion photographer was tall, thin and camp. But we three are different: short, fat and heterosexual!”
There’s no better introduction to their style, attitude and MO than Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Blow-Up (1966).
Bailey meets Jean Shrimpton in 1960 while he is shooting for Vogue and she is working with Duffy in a nearby studio. She says: “‘Bailey’ was how he introduced himself and that was all I ever called him. We were instantly attracted to each other.” He says: “What attracted me to her was that she genuinely didn’t care how she looked. She honestly never understood what all the fuss was about. That was very attractive to me.” How very sixties!
He books her for a string of shoots (as well as a four-year relationship) and over the next few years they produce a deluge of iconic images that appear in Vogue, the Sunday supplements and other magazines. Suddenly the aristocratic hauteur of fifties fashion shoots is so passé. In its place is something younger, more energetic, more accessible, more fun, above all more overtly sexy.
Unlike the voluptuous beauties of the fifties such as Monroe, Mansfield, Dors and Sabrina, “The Shrimp” is a fresh-faced, slender girl-next-door. In her wake come a procession of waifs such as Twiggy, Jill Kennington, Penelope Tree, Patti Boyd and, at the more exotic edge of the spectrum, Veruschka, Peggy Moffitt and Donyale Luna. While the skinny, androgynous, doll-faced model dominates the decade, she coexists with her more curvaceous sister, embodied in the likes of Sophia Loren and Raquel Welch.
London designers in particular are quick to respond, creating designs for the new generation rather than expecting them to ape their parents. Mary Quant, Barbara Hulanicki, Zandra Rhodes, Marion Foale, Sally Tuffin, Bill Gibb and Ossie Clark are the new kids on the block and they are not afraid to experiment with new materials – perspex, PVC, polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, even paper. Their fun, eye-catching, easy-care outfits are sold through boutiques. The most famous is Biba but many others cluster around Carnaby Street and the King’s Road.
Meanwhile, space-age fashion dominates the catwalks of Paris. André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin in particular put a bomb under traditional notions of couture with their emphasis on short skirts, white boots, chain mail – clothes that can be carried off only by the jeunesse dorée.
During the first half of the decade, the direction in which fashion is moving is pretty clear: skirts are getting shorter and silhouettes boxier, with an emphasis on new materials and bold colours. Then the pendulum begins to swing from futuristic towards nostalgic. In the search for something more romantic, styles proliferate. Towards the end of the decade three different looks coexist:
- Flower-power blossoms at San Francisco’s Summer of Love in 1967 and at Woodstock two years later.
- Its close cousin, the ethnic / peasant look, is built around items such as Afghan coats, Mexican blouses and ponchos, Indian pantaloons, floor-length gipsy skirts and head scarves.
- Finally there’s the ruffles-and-ringlets look – all velvet, lace, frills and beads, taking its cues from Louis Malle’s Viva Maria! (1965), a romp set somewhere in early-20th century Latin America, where Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau get involved in various high jinks with a bunch of revolutionaries.
Want to know more about the sixties?
I embarked on this piece as a showcase for some of the sixties photos in my collection. In order to provide some context for them, I’ve highlighted various themes, events and movies. Inevitably my choices have been subjective and partial. There’s no way that this collage of words, images and video clips can do justice to the sixties. But hopefully it will give you a flavour of the era and pique your interest to find out more.
Three books from my library inspired and informed this piece:
- Sixties Design by Philippe Garner
- Antonioni’s Blow-Up by Philippe Garner and David Mellor
- In Vogue: Sixty years of celebrities and fashion from British Vogue by Georgina Howell.
The Internet is full of information about the sixties including specialist websites about specific models and movie stars, directors and films, events and designers. Just google your interest.