Last January, it was fifty years exactly since the instant in which photographer Barry Lategan looked through his camera’s viewfinder and took the famous portrait of Twiggy in her first photo shoot as a model. He acknowledges having thought, at the moment of shooting, “I’ve seen an icon of the future”. And so it was: after half a century, the audacity of the image is still intact. A guy with a fifth sense, this Lategan, since he was also whom advised skinny Leslie Lawson to use the nickname Twiggy (that’s the way her boyfriend and manager, Justin de Villeneuve, used to call her sometimes).
If the Sociology pioneer Émile Durkheim alerts us that “…if in the way I dress I don’t take into account at all the uses accepted by my country and class, the laughter and the social estrangement I provoke produce the same results as a real punishment,” why did London’s youngsters from the 60s, known as “mods”, decided to dress, comb their hair and live against the tide?
“We can’t choose the shape of our houses, inasmuch as we can’t choose the shape of our garments,” Durkheim went on. Then, how can you explain an aesthetic revolution such as the 60s? What if that revolution was about that, precisely: demanding the power to choose, or rather, not asking for permission to do so?
The explosion of creativity that took place in London in that decade in the art, music, fashion and design fields has to do with the access to culture no longer exclusive to the elite. For the first time, young working-class Brits could attend British art schools (John Lennon studied at the Liverpool College of Art). As a consequence, there emerges a generation based on meritocracy and the appreciation of talent.
After years of austerity, England, and London in particular, felt a need to celebrate. And those who knew best how to celebrate were the young ones, who lead the change in mentality, chose idols that were closer to them, and made their voices be heard over that of their parents for the first time in history. Besides, young people from different classes and conditions mixed in the centre of London’s fashionable spots. The city became a multi-cultural metropolis in which the generation that was barely reaching adulthood shared a kind of common inspiration: “freedom, liberty and permission beyond the old politeness and restrictions”. The Land of Nevermore on Earth!
Often considered mere hedonists, mods (or modernists, protagonists of the phenomenon known as Swinging London) were capable of spending all their wages each weekend in leisure and entertainment activities. Carpe diem, life is short and youth is the best part. An article published on Time Magazine in April 1965, explains that “designer Barbara Hulanicki, owner of Biba [the most representative boutique of the times], estimates that a secretary or a shop assistant earns 31 pounds a week and spends 17 in clothes, what leaves them with money for just a cup of coffee for their lunch break, but happy.”
Cathy McGowan, presenter of music show Ready Steady Go!, was known as the “Queen of mods”. There was something transgressive in her because she didn’t come from the right family or had the right accent, but was the perfect example of what was deemed as street style, the fashion coming from the streets and not a brand. At only sixteen and with an androgynous physique, Twiggy, christened by the press on her first appearance as the “Cockney Kid”, resembled teenagers more than any other model. She breathed a juvenile freshness that current feminine referents, like Rita Hayworth or any other voluptuous sex symbols from their parents’ generation, didn’t have. Twiggy encapsulated the change society was undergoing: middle class people could be what they were, themselves.
For a 60s London young girl from the suburbs, it was unacceptable to adopt the classic pattern of the aloof, cold and aristocratic beauty that French bon goût imposed since Dior’s 1947 New Look. Instead, Twiggy was spontaneous, and her big eyes provoked the tenderness of a puppy, despite her being “too short, too skinny and too funny,” as Deirdre McSharry, the first fashion editor that used her, described her.
Young women no longer bought their clothes at department stores (Harrods or Liberty), devised for the wealthier classes and an invention of shabby 19th century aristocracy, but in independent designer shops located at Carnaby Street, Kensington Street or King’s Road (Bazaar, Biba, Granny Takes a Trip, Hung on You…). These boutiques were accessible, open, and inclusive, and in the background you could hear the last single by The Who: “I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)”.
The effects of fashion might seem more evident in the female half of this young community, but it wasn’t so: boys took what they wore as seriously, preoccupied by the way in which they constructed their mod image, often accompanied by an accessory such as a Vespa or Lambretta. For a mod, it was very important to dress “correctly”, Leslie Lawson, aka Twiggy, remembered in a recent interview. If for girls wearing a miniskirt by Mary Quant or André Courrèges (we’ll never know for sure who of the two invented it, probably because they both found inspiration in what was already being worn in the streets) was a must, for boys it was a Vespa and Paul Weller’s fringe.
The boldest guys (above all, pop stars) also had their favourite designer: John Stephen, an icon of British fashion known for his flashy designs. He opened up a chain of shops in London that quickly expanded internationally. Stephen won himself the nickname of king of the “peacock revolution” for his very ostentatious and avant-garde suits combined with fur coats and feathers. Among his clients were the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Small Faces and Jimi Hendrix.
But who really managed to get the most out of this cultural revolution were industry and capital. Individuals growing up during a decade of economic prosperity were a new market that could consume and wanted to consume, because through what they consumed (music and fashion, above all) they could express themselves. They wanted to make clear that they no longer listened to what their parents listened to, and they didn’t wear what they wore. According to graphic artist Nigel Waymouth, the success of Twiggy’s image had to do indeed with the fact that it didn’t look manufactured but at the same time had a high commercial potential: The muse’s happy contradiction.
Besides, the 60s generation did no longer think, like the parents did, that things could last a lifetime, be it clothes or relationships. The excitement that anything new provoked was more important than its quality. What they bought wasn’t seen as an investment, but as an ephimeral game. And if on top of that this attitude irritated the previous generation (of any social class), the better. During this decade, “patina” had lost its value: It was the antithesis of pop. If nothing was forever you could flirt with stridencies without remorse. For the first time in history, adults wished they were young again.
But the expression “Swinging London” would soon go from a way of referring to youth rebelliousness to a mere commercial tag defining a style. The industry swallowed and capitalised what youngsters had spontaneously started in the streets. Their shopping habits changed and something that still operates until today became popular: working class youngsters going shopping.
The vindicating power that Swinging London could have initially had was totally lost by the same ones that allowed it to grow under their flashes. It was the moment in which the movement was given a face, Twiggy’s, when this ceased to belong to any men and women. Maybe without trying to, who crystallised the movement also helps burying it.
If London could have swing, why couldn’t the rest of modern cities? Twiggy was a world ambassador for one of the first globalisation campaigns of a trend that the contemporary world has known: As with savage beasts at the zoo, it became possible to catch, package and distribute wholesale a revolution born in the streets. The reign of the mainstream was born.
Swinging London was the friendly, candid, sleepy and manipulated but at the same time a forerunner of what would be called counter-culture, more vindicating and compromised, that would soon emerge in the US. Twiggy’s face is to the Swinging London revolution what the portrait of Che Guevara to the Cuban one: pure mainstream marketing.
Nevertheless, London would survive as an epicentre of cultural and creative effervescence among the young. Its leadership when it comes to independent artistic experimentation (graphics, fashion, music, contemporary art…) hasn’t been given up to today to any other capital. The role of London as a teenage fashion trendsetter linked to music was validated again in the 80s through new wave and punk, and the in the mid 90s through britpop.
Did the young mods manage to alter traditional society making it freer or at least more permissive? Or, on the contrary, taking advantage of a wave of change that was already coming they could introduce their aesthetic and musical options much more easily? Be it as it were, for the first time, young people united as a collective force and acquired a common conscience that operated as am active subject in a social setting.