Upcoming Exhibit ‘Beautiful People’ Recalls the London Countercultural Fashion Revolution of the ’60s

The thing about the ’60s, you really didn’t want to show up for the revolution wearing the wrong outfit. Having the right sense of style was inextricably linked with kicking against the system, and the radical new uniforms served to assure everyone just what side of the fight you were on.

An upcoming exhibition at London’s Fashion & Textile Museum shines a light on a very specific scene – even a specific postcode, SW7 – from that distinctly revolutionary time. Indeed, Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture (opening October 1) looks back at the creative explosion that was taking place in and around the once infamous King’s Road, Chelsea. It must be stated that the ’60s were inarguably the coolest decade in all human history (with apologies to the Jazz Age), and London was the absolute center of that universe of cool.

The exhibit fittingly opens with a quote by Marianne Faithfull, proto “it” girl and consort to none other than Mick Jagger.

“We were young, rich and beautiful, and the tide – we thought – was turning in our favour. We were going to change everything, of course, but mostly we were going to change the rules”.

This was especially significant in Britain, where a culture of stiff upper lips and even stiffer suits had long ruled the social order. And the boutiques that were enacting a whole new “goodbye to all that” are immediately linked in the exhibit to the rock icons who wore their clothes: George Harrison in a Granny Takes a Trip jacket, Jimi Hendrix in a Sam Pig in Love floral crepe shirt.

But the show is actually quite clever conceptually, in that rather than just presenting a bunch of objects strung together by a curator’s subjective narrative, eight “sets” have been created, with each representing what it might have actually felt like to be shopping in one of those groundbreaking boutiques – minus, obviously, the consumption of illicits that may very well have been going on as a matter-of-fact sideshow. So visitors will take a walk through Hung On You, Granny Takes A Trip, Apple Boutique, Apple Tailoring, Mr Fish, Dandie Fashions, Quorum and perhaps the most legendary of them all, Biba, which Bowie and Jagger frequented, and where Anna Wintour was an early employee.

Speaking of the consumption of illicits, psychedelic culture played heavily into the overarching stylistic inclinations of ’60s London. And Beautiful People… recalls how two shops, Granny Takes A Trip and Hung On You, wed the aesthetic of the hallucinogenic with the new fashion for Eastern mysticism, offering jewel toned velvet dresses right alongside whimsical, Indian-inspired florals. Elsewhere, determined modernism was often contrasted with a capricious romanticization of English medievalism.

Most fascinating, surely, will be the recreation of The Beatles’ own Apple Boutique, where the fetishization of the historical also played a significant role. Indeed, their signature Regency-style brocade jacket was not only a staple of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr’s wardrobes, but was also a favorite of Hendrix, and The Who’s Keith Moon. Alas, by the chronological close of the exhibition, specifically 1975, the Fab Four were long broken up, Hendrix was years dead from an overdose, and wild man Moon would soon be encountering the same fate…while Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood‘s sneeringly provocational SEX shop had decisively replaced the boho idealism of the Swinging ’60s with a burgeoning punk cynicism (and, well, bondage pants).

Beautiful People… promises to be exhilarating in its depiction of a time when a new kind of cultural revolution was just beginning to blossom – when the thrill of the possible meant virtually anything could happen, and often did. With the crass corporatization of music, art and fashion having now become the order of the day, it may also inspire a bit of melancholy, in longing for a time when that most definitely wasn’t so.

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