As with everything else, the 1960s turned the fashion industry on its head. How clothing was made, how it was presented to consumers, what was socially acceptable to wear—and even how women shopped—changed in this tumultuous decade, as youth rejected understated elegance and luxury in favor of fast, fun, cheaply made outfits.
When it comes to dresses, Modernist sensibilities hit the runway in the late '50s when Christian Dior showed A-line frocks with a triangular shape. After his death in 1958, his protégé, Yves Saint Laurent, followed in his footsteps with his heralded "Trapeze" line of tent-like dresses. In '57, both Dior and Hubert de Givenchy introduced prototypes for what would become known as the shift dress, a simple, straight, sleeveless frock. These sleek, streamlined originals were loose-fitting and sexless, hiding the curves of the body in favor of the clean lines of Modernism.
Both the A-line and the shift dress became sexier and more figure-hugging in the '60s. The shift, in particular, is now considered the classic dress cut of the 20th century, thanks to two of the decades' most elegant icons—Audrey Hepburn and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The sophisticated black shift Hepburn wore in 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's" became the standard "little black dress" wardrobe staple for women everywhere. The film's original dress, designed by de Givenchy, sold for £410,000 at a 2006 charity auction.
Meanwhile, Jackie, with the help of designer Oleg Cassini, created a look that projected not only an air of aristocratic grace and manners but also a youthful energy and innocence. During her years as First Lady between '61 and '63, she wore an endless assortment of solid-colored shifts in pretty pastels. She also favored the '50s "princess" style of dress, which has a fitted midriff, but unmarked waist, and a flared skirt. Women all around the world imitated Jackie's style.
It was British youth culture, however, that changed fashion, as we know it, forever. In the early '60s, anti-establishment innovators and icons in London like Mary Quant, Ossie Clark, Celia Birtwell, Jean Shrimpton, and Twiggy emerged—eventually they became even bigger influences in the fashion world than the top Paris couture houses.
For the first time since the war, middle-class teenagers and young adults had disposable income and free time to blow, giving them a new power they never had before. Suddenly, the youth in England were a cultural force to be reckoned with. Their parents, sobered by the trauma of World War II, appreciated the value of luxury and sought quiet, modestly successful suburban lives. The kids, on the other hand, rejected and rebelled against this buttoned-down and well-mannered society, which they viewed as oppressive.
These "mods" or "modernists" in the London of 1962 lead fast-paced, high-energy lives, and they were particularly drawn to bright colors and modern shapes. They rode around on It...
Naturally, the mods wanted their own style, too. Teenage girls and young women wanted to get a party outfit for the weekend, but for a minimum amount of cash. In response to this demand, designer Mary Quant, an art-school outsider to the fashion industry, opened her boutique, Bazaar, on Kings Road in London’s Chelsea section, selling whimsical waistless shift dresses, childlike pinafores, and frocks in "sludge" colors—gingery browns, purples, and grays. Soon little trendy mod boutiques sprang up all along mod hotspots like Kings Road and Carnaby Street.
Often, the clothes at these boutiques were not very well made, with buttons falling off in the dressing room, but that was part of their appeal. The mod youth felt entitled to cheap clothes they could toss with the changing fashions. Young women would go shopping for sport, and never feel the pressure to buy anything.
Mary Quant was the first to sell "mini" skirts and dresses, which mods brazenly and rebelliously wore on the streets of London, causing passers-by to stop and gawk. At the time, it was shocking and provocative for a woman to bare so much of her legs and thighs. Over the decade, as minis caught on in Britain, the rest of Europe, and the United States, skirts got shorter and shorter, until they barely covered the wearer's rear end.
Looking young became an obsession in early '60s "Swinging London," almost to the point of infantilizing women, as "baby doll" dresses came into fashion, billowing A-line shapes with lacy collars and bows made to resemble baby clothes. Childlike whimsy was also expressed in the psychedelic patterns and vivid colors of otherwise simple dresses like basic shifts, A-line frocks, and schoolgirl jumpers, all with those scandalously short skirts.
The mods were all about putting together a "look;" the art of expressing your individuality by coming up with the most flamboyant outfit possible. In Italy, minidresses in wild colors and zany prints were paired with matching tights. Even solid-color shifts could be individualized with patterned, lacy, or dotted leggings.
Designers experimented with making clothes out of all sorts of "unsuitable" materials—paper, plastics like shiny vinyl, leather, metals, and lurex metallic yarns. Paper dresses, usually printed with images inspired by Pop Art, are rare collectors' treasures today. Others looked to the Op Art movement, lead by painter Victor Vasarely, and used geometric patterns that trick the eye and appear to wave or move.
Besides Quant, the other art-school superstar of the mod fashion scene was designer Ossie Clark, who worked with his wife, textile artist Celia Birtwell, making designs for their famous Kings Road boutique, Quorum. Clark created elaborate, sensual bias-cut dresses with Birtwell's hand-painted silk chiffon. In 1965, he told “Vogue,” "I want to dress frilly people ... in colours that confuse the eye."
Art-school design duo Sally Tuffin and Marion Foale opened their boutique on Carnaby Street, determined "not to make elderly clothes." Along with Quant, they took to another daring innovation—cutting out shapes on dresses to reveal more skin. The pair also produced lovely, handmade cotton-lace minidresses, which are now highly collectible.
Another emerging talent, Barbara Hulanicki, launched her cheap and pretty Biba line as a mail-order fashion company. In 1964, she opened her own boutique in Kensington. Her dresses had a distinct cut—high shoulders, sometimes padded or topped with gathers, and straight, tight sleeves—and were made with prints influenced by Art Nouveau and Art Deco, as well as English country florals.
As these designers from the street became rising stars, so did the models who embodied their girlish aesthetic. Gamine blonde Jean Shrimpton, discovered by photographer David Bailey (he eventually became her boyfriend), was the most photographed model of the decade. But tiny waif-like Twiggy, perhaps because of her descriptive nickname, is even more ingrained in collective memory as an icon of the mod world.
John Bates, who designed for the Diana Rigg character in the hit TV show "The Avengers," helped bring mod to the mainstream. In 1965, he created a Dress of the Year winner, a scoop-necked flower-print slip made out of linen, with blue mesh baring the midriff. Jean Muir, on the other hand, made the simplest, but most flattering dress of matte jersey, sometimes mounted with soft gathers or pleats in the yoke.
While Quant had DIY roots, she didn't stay underground for long. She worked out a deal with a manufacturer named Steinberg's, run by Leon Rapkin, who helped her launch her famous "Ginger Group" line—characterized by terrycloth fabrics in candy colors like pink, yellow, and lime green. In 1965, the "Youthquake" tour brought Quant and other "Swinging London" designers to the United States. Quant was such a hit, JCPenney bought the rights to a whole spectrum of her looks, while American wholesaler Puritan launched its "London look” line under its youth division, Paraphernalia.
Working for this company, young designer Betsey Johnson came up with the vinyl "glue it yourself" dress. This see-through minidress cost just $15 at the store, and a pack of embellishments was $5. The shopper could choose between large foil scallops, wiggly strips, or stars to glue on the dress in her own design. Johnson soon quit Paraphernalia to open her own boutique on 53rd Street in New York City, where she sold T-shirt dresses, vinyl getups, and frocks resembling nighties and petticoats.
In response to the success of these grassroots designers, large British department stores opened their own boutique and boutique-fashion lines, including Way In at Harrods, Miss Selfridge at Selfridges; Dollrockers by Sambo; and Miss Polly by Polly Peck.
In the same way, Parisian couture houses scrambled to keep up. Since outrageous prints in a rainbow of colors were all the rage, Emilo Pucci, a.k.a. the "Prince of Prints," renowned for his gorgeous scarves, was a '60s star. His shifts came in ancient patterns like hieroglyphics, Sicilian carts, Doric columns, or heraldic devices from Siena's Palio horse races in vivid silk, cotton, or synthetic jersey. Through his imagery, he held on to his association with the aristocracy.
Designer Emanuel Ungaro, collaborating with textile artist Sonja Knapp, launched his own Paris fashion house in 1965 and began experimenting with materials and shapes, designing stretchy catsuits and dresses with breastplates.
Yves Saint Laurent, who had left Dior, introduced the wildly popular Mondrian dress in 1965. Inspired by the paintings of De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian, Saint Laurent made shift dresses printed with large black grids with blocks of primary colors. This look was widely copied, even by Bates for "The Avengers."
Taking his art-world inspiration even further, Saint Laurent launched his Pop Art line in '66, influenced by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. These dresses featured large faces or torsos appliquéd shoulder to hem. Saint Laurent established his own boutique on Paris' Left Bank in '66—he freely mixed patterns, paired blazers with dresses, and integrated African beads and shells into formal lattice work.
Other top couturiers took their Modernist inspiration from the space race. Pierre Cardin's mid-'60s collections played on the "scientific" feel of vinyl and plastic while adopting the racy cutout trend. Meanwhile, André Courrèges, the first haute-couture house to embrace the mini, conceptualized the "moon girl" in his '64 line, mostly silver-and-white futuristic minidresses, paired with white mid-shin-high boots.
In 1965, Braniff International Airline hired Pucci as a part of its "The End of the Plain Plane" advertising campaign. For Braniff, Pucci created sexy, mod astronaut-themed looks for flight attendants in perky pastels—the garments were designed to let the stewardesses "strip" by taking off layers. They used his fishbowl-style "Space Bubble" helmets to protect their coiffed hair from the rain, but only briefly—even style had its limits.
Paco Rabanne took these futuristic concepts to the extreme with his "jet-set" women in edgy avant-garde creations of perspex, metal, and plastic. In '66, he floored the fashion world with his chain-mail minidresses, made of brightly colored cubes or round metal plates linked together. These dresses are now extremely hard to find.
In California, Rudi Gernreich—who shocked the world with his 1966 "topless" bathing suit—brought "Op Art" and Mondrian looks to the United States. Another U.S. designer, Gus Tassell, took to the simpler solid-color shift dresses, while James Galanos made elegant bias-cut woolen dress in garish, mod color combinations and Anne Klein designed mod fashions for petites under the Junior Sophisicates label. At the same time, for more practical daywear, revolutionary techniques in knitted fabrics established double-knit jersey as the new staple of the American wardrobe. Geist & Geist used this material to make sleeveless sweaters and black miniskirts in line with London styles.
As Swinging London style exploded worldwide, the original mod movement essentially died in '66, when the English government acknowledged Quant's achievements by naming her an Officer of the British Empire. Throughout the decade, British design houses such as Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Creed, and John Cavanagh were determined to maintain more traditional Jackie O-style elegance for the rich and aristocratic.
By the late '60s, the anti-fashion hippie movement became the counterculture du jour, thanks to the Summer of Love and Woodstock. Flower children favored loose, billowing maxi dresses, in tie-dye, psychedelic, and ethnic prints, inspired by peasant styles from all over the world. Second-hand or repurposed clothes, once considered a shameful sign of poverty, became funky and fashionable.
Of course, high-end designers like Yves Saint Laurent quickly hijacked the hippie's ethnic-inspired bohemian style, which itself freely appropriated Mexican blouses, Eastern-style tunics, and African jewelry. The resulting "rich hippie" or “gypsy” couture look was characterized by bias-cut dresses with multiple layers in gauzy, diaphanous material, winged sleeves, diagonal hems, and flowing scarves. At the same time, edgy and adventurous designers like Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe and Kenzo Takade at Jap burst on the scene.
In the end, it was the hippies, with their rabid individualism and fashion hodgepodge of mismatched eras and ethnicities, that finally delivered a death knell to strict unwritten fashion rules, which, before, had dictated what was and was not appropriate wear in any given social situation. The ensuing fashion free-for-all lead to the "wear whatever you want" self-expression ethos of today. It has also made it that much more difficult to attach a particular "look" to clothing of the last four decades.