It was 50 years ago today

Fifty years ago today the Beatles’ first album was released in Britain – a moment many consider pivotal in the history of 1960s popular culture.

The Cylinder Jacket by Pierre Cardin, 1960

The Cylinder Jacket by Pierre Cardin, 1960

A few months earlier, in December 1962, the Beatles were being toffed up for publicity shots in the wake of the moderate success of their first UK song release ‘Love Me Do’. Douglas (Dougie) Millings, an established Compton Street tailor who had already created looks for other rising music stars, was hired to polish the rocker look off the Liverpool four. Millings created a suit with a collarless jacket that looked very similar to the ‘Cylinder’ jacket Pierre Cardin had shown in corduroy for his first menswear collection in 1960. Cardin’s avant-garde look created a tapered shape that ‘suited’ the younger male physique. Although the suit was not a popular seller, the style opened the door to the influence of trend over tradition in menswear.

The Beatles with Dougie Millings, December 1962

The Beatles with Dougie Millings, December 1962

Although Dougie Millings never admitted to copying Cardin, his suits for the Beatles were essentially restyled versions of the Cylinder suit. Some of the finishing details were altered – three buttons instead of 5,  and the application of contrast edging (typically used in Austrian clothes.) But Millings biggest and most successful change was in making the suits from Italian sharkskin mohair for that touch of ‘La Dolce Vita’. The result was a flashy, youthful, mod style that was uniquely English and popular with the fad-oriented mod culture. However, in typical mod fashion, the style was short lived. By the time of their first American appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964, the Beatles were already wearing their next look consisting of V-neck jackets with narrow black velvet collars.

Mad about the 60s

Sneak peak from season 5

Autumn feels incomplete this year because Mad Men is missing from my television schedule. However, like waiting to eat that leftover piece of pie until after dinner, I know I will appreciate the return of the series even more in spring. When Mad Men returns in March it will begin presumably in either late 1965 or early 1966 – just when the Mod 60’s really takes off, leaving Don and Betty Draper as older middle-aged examples of the establishment. Don will not be donning winkle-pickers and a mop top and Betty won’t be adopting a Sassoon cut and vinyl mini. The schism between youth and adulthood descends in fashion in the late 60s and that should become very apparent in the coming seasons of Mad Men.

1966 fashions for secretaries

Fortunately, my fall-winter schedule is very full this year so I don’t have time to worry about missing my favourite show because coincidentally, I will be working on my next book about fashion in the 1960s. There is a lot to consider as the 1960s is not a straight-forward era to delineate. There are three distinct styles within the decade, from the streamlined lady-like fashions of the Jacqueline Kennedy era (which has its origins in the late 1950s,) through the conspicuously self-conscious young and mod era of mini-skirts, plastics and space travel, to the ‘back-to-nature’ and ethnic styles of the Hippy generation that go on to influence the fashions of the 1970s.

1966 Italian fashion

On top of these mainstream styles there are different interpretations and origins of the prevailing mode including: Parisian haute couture in the modernist clothes of Courreges and Cardin; English Carnaby street-inspired fashions; Italian knitwear and fashion design with its own unique sense of colour, pattern, and humour; a growing Spanish influence in design, especially in leather goods; and the continuing rise of American sportswear and 7th Avenue and California fashions. Throw into the mix social unrest, peace protests, race riots, summers of love, psychedelic hallucination-inducing drug use, student sit-ins, a new form of popular art, a growing women’s movement, black movement, and gay movement, and you end up with a decade that has a lot to say.

English fashions, 1966

Although I am a mad follower of Mad Men and am having difficulty waiting patiently for its return, I am not blind to its inaccuracies. The show is a fictional story set in a real world but not all the history is perfect. Despite Roger Sterling’s comment in Season 2, that takes place during 1962, that ‘BBDO hired a coloured kid’, the real BBDO hired their first black copywriter in 1952, ten years earlier, and in the early 1960s had both a black accounts executive and art director. As for Peggy, she seems to represent a singular achievement for women in the field of advertising, however there were already many women working in the field of advertising including a female vice president of BBDO from 1946 to 1963.

Helen Gurley Brown, c. 1964

Most famously, Helen Gurley Brown, who penned the best selling novel Sex and the Single Girl in 1962 and became the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965, began her career as a secretary in an advertising firm and moved up the ladder to become one of the highest paid copywriters on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s.

Trousers for women, 1966

I know how difficult it can be for films to achieve period perfection when the costumers, prop buyers and set decorators are working with time constraints and limited budgets, which sometimes leads to inaccuracies. There have been dresses and hats, and styling issues that I have noticed in the Mad Men series, but they get it right more often than wrong and you can tell the goal is to get it right, whenever possible.

Catalogue fashions, spring 1966

I hope the upcoming season has fun with the more modernist styles of the late 1960s – secretaries can start wearing bubble hairdos and false eyelashes, and skirt lengths can begin to climb up the thigh. And who knows, maybe not this season, but next season Sally will run away from home and begin wearing jeans and patchouli – there are a lot of interesting  directions the series, the characters, and the styling can take over the next two or three seasons of Mad Men. And who knows, maybe we will even see another woman or black executive at Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce.

Mod Men and women – February 1964 snippet

(Originally blogged October 18, 2010)

Cover of the English magazine 'The Mod's Monthly', April 1964

I ran across a fading photocopy I took years (probably decades) ago of a newspaper article from February 1964 that has a lot of interesting info, so I thought I would transcribe the contents before the copy fades away completely. This is from a Vancouver, British Columbia newspaper, but the title of the paper is missing, as is the day of publication:

“Over in England they have a Queen Mod… I saw her the other day when she was flown to New York for a TV show… The queen’s followers were also known as ‘mod’ and if they became enthusiastic about anything it was described as ‘fab’ (meaning fabulous). Cathy McGowan is the real name of the Queen Mod and she earned her title when she was chosen from 1,000 applicants to be the teen age interviewer on a British record and dance program called ‘Ready, Steady, Go” Said one reporter ‘What she wears is Mod law” … her female followers never wore lipstick, hair was to be worn straight, and shoes were to be ‘granny’. I presume this means something like grandmother wore, heavy shoes with thick heels. The mod girls change their fashions quite frequently but are currently employing ankle length skirts for street wear, which may be an indicator of what we’ll be seeing soon in this part of the colonies when the fashions spread from Mod Queen’s Court. Some dissidents among the English feminine set are attempting to keep up a white stocking fad after the Queen Mod had gone into darker hues. When one store in Chelsea offered a free pair of white knee socks with every purchase there was a mob scene.

The dispatches indicate that there is a restlessness among the stylists and the clothes wearers and that fads, fab or not, are apt to change quickly. While long dresses are now a must, they could whip up to mid-calf or knee in the twinkling of a beaded eyelash.

In the Kingdom of Mod (or Mod dom) the young men are the peacocks of the land. When one of the leaders married recently, on TV of course on the Ready, Steady, Go show, he wore a tail coat with deep velvet cuffs, deep white collar and a narrow-brimmed ‘Blue Beat’ hat.

Some youth clothes shops with such titles as ‘The Mod Male’ where the boys hang around whistling at the girl Mods as they sturggle by in their long skirts and ‘Granny’ shoes. The boys wear long, slightly fitted jackets, Cuban heel cowboy boots(*) and straight from the knee slim pants… And this should take what’s left of your breath away, some of the Mod boys are experimenting with a bit of eye makeup.

The dances, I have found through checking, are similar to the ones here. The boys and girls disdain any form of contact on the floor and got hrough a variety of convulsions, vibrations and undulations by themselves… The titles of the dances are also similar. The Popeye, The Bird, The Dog, The Watusi, and the The Hitchhiker. The Mod group has several “pop” magazines – The Big Beat, the Top Boys, and The Fab. They all report they are catering to a Mod Mod Mod world…”

(*) – Obviously the writer is not familiar with Beatle Boots but these are certainly what he is referring to, not cowboy boots – they look similar from the ankle down.

If it’s Wednesday then this must be Carnaby Street…

(Originally blogged March 17, 2009)

I am a bit behind in my blogging because I took on teaching a fashion history course at Ryerson University. I have never formally taught a course before, so its a learning experience both ways. Pulling together a 3 hour weekly lecture can be daunting; I worry I will forget something or perpetuate a fashion myth and set another generation on the wrong path. But then I remember that universitys’ most important task is to instill in its graduates the tools to learn and to carry on learning throughout life.

In keeping with that goal, I try to pass on enthusiasm as a hugely important tool for learning. So to keep boredom at bay I like to show my students clips from films that bring the era we are studying to life – especially when its about an era they can’t remember, even if I can! This week’s topic is the influence of youth on fashion from 1965 – 1995 and I was fortunate enough to find these two really interesting clips from the late 1960s about Swinging London and Rudi Gernreich.