Louche, exotic, free-flowing, bohemian, ‘gypset’ – these are words we’ll be hearing a lot in fashion this year. The ‘70s boho-luxe look is already creeping up on us, and takes centre stage with the Spring/Summer 2015 collections. From Celine’s floral tunics and Louis Vuitton’s crushed-velvet flares to Saint Laurent’s maxi skirts and turbans – the haute-hippy 1970s are without a doubt back in a big way. British designer Bella Freud has even named a scent 1970, which is full of heady overtones of musk and patchouli.
The ‘70s ‘gypset’ look – combining ‘jet set’ with ‘gypsy’ – is globe-trotting, glamorous, luxurious, hedonistic, flamboyant: think floor cushions and incense, artists, rock stars and their entourages, or Talitha Getty posing in shimmering brocade jacket and harem pants on a rooftop in Marrakesh, probably the most quintessentially haute-hippy photograph ever taken. And a timely new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum, Thea Porter: 1970s Bohemian Chic, explores this exciting, creative era in fashion, and the role of fashion designer Thea Porter (who died in 2000). Now eminently collectable – contemporary devotees of hers include Kate Moss (who wore Porter’s Gypsy dress to her pre-wedding party), Julia Roberts, Nicole Richie and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
So what made this period such an influential era in fashion? “In the late 1960s people wanted change,” Dennis Nothdruft, head curator of the museum, tells BBC Culture. “Fashion became softer, more romantic, less aggressive, free-flowing. Other cultures – particularly North African and Middle Eastern – as well as nostalgia for the 1930s and the Victorian era were tapped into. And fashion became more in tune with music.” Barbara Hulanicki and Ossie Clark may be better known, but Thea Porter was at the vanguard, he says.
Hippy hippy chic
Porter spent most of her childhood in Jerusalem and Damascus, and was hugely influenced by Middle-Eastern aesthetics. Having moved to London initially as a painter, she soon turned to interior design and then fashion, opening a boutique in Soho’s Greek Street, which became a social hub for like-minded souls. The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix were all early visitors to the store, and frequently sported her menswear – fabulously louche chiffon shirts, brocade jackets and crushed-velvet flares. Elizabeth Taylor loved Porter’s voluminous kaftans, and these, along with her Chazara jackets, Sirwal skirts and brocade-panelled Gipsy dresses gained popularity fast. Meticulously crafted in luxurious fine chiffons and hand-woven, hand-embroidered textiles, they were masterworks of design.
Before long the designer expanded to Paris and Los Angeles. On the west coast she coincided fortuitously with the new counter-cultural wave, where the rich-hippy clientele of the trendy Giorgio store in Hollywood – Joan and Jackie Collins, Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway – snapped up her creations. Streisand even ordered a series of outfits, each one to coordinate with a different room of her palatial house.
“Thea Porter was the ne plus ultra of 1970s bohemian style,” says Nothdruft. “She had a different way of approaching life.” She and her circle of artist-and-writer friends (Edna O’Brien and Francis Bacon among them) gathered frequently in the legendary artists’ drinking club the Colony Rooms – or in Porter’s own home for her famous dinner parties. “Her mirrored dining room,” he says, “was a black-and-silver homage to Art Deco decadence blended with Middle-Eastern and African exoticism– complete with mother-of-pearl inlaid dining chairs.”
Bohemian like you
So why now for the haute-hippy comeback? It’s the “pendulum” of fashion, says Nothdruft. “We’ve had a tough, hard, modern, utilitarian approach in fashion for a few years, with a lot of digital prints. The 1970s bohemian look is the opposite, and it’s an easy approach to dressing.” It may also be that the ‘70s boho look chimes with our times in a broader sense, too. Yes, he says. “It feels more real, honest and human. In the current digital age people are valuing those qualities more – and also they are valuing experiences and travel. And the high street has reached saturation point – it’s why vintage has become so popular.”
The early 1970s was a time of idealism, radicalism, anti-consumerism, social upheaval and change, with racial and gender equality hitting mainstream thought. But of course bohemianism had been around long before the 1970s – as a philosophy and cultural sensibility it first emerged in the 19th and 20th Centuries, largely as a non-conformist rebellion against the rise of bourgeois rigidities. The Romantic poets, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, the Surrealists, the Bloomsbury set, the Beatniks – all of these cultural and artistic movements adhered to bohemian values. “From the outset,” writes philosopher Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety, “real Bohemians set themselves up as saboteurs of the economic meritocracy to which the early 19th Century gave birth.” It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s that bohemianism merged into counter-culturalism – and hippydom.
Needless to say, the whole notion of haute-hippy fashion and boho finery is a contradiction in terms, since bohemianism as an ethos was founded on anti-materialism. But in that regard, the new wave of boho-luxe fashion is no more of an absurd paradox than its earlier incarnation, according to author Laura McLaws Helms, who also guest-curated the exhibition. She argues in her book (co-written with the designer’s daughter Venetia Porter) Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic that pure hippy ideals gave way to fashion early on: “The hippie look started out as more of a political statement – a type of anti-fashion – but it soon became the fashion itself.”
Still, today’s designers are keen to connect with an authentic, free-spirited, 1970s mood, it seems. Italian fashion house Valentino chose veteran textile designer Celia Birtwell – with her impeccable ‘70s boho-chic credentials – to collaborate on its pre-fall 2015 collection. Featuring ethereal long-sleeved, lace-trimmed floral dresses, adorned with Birtwell’s romantic, floral embroideries and inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera, the collection has been widely acclaimed – and even worn by Vogue supremo Anna Wintour.
The early 1970s was an exciting moment, according to Celia Birtwell . “There was a naivity about it,” she tells BBC Culture. “When you see big fashion business now, you realise it was quite an innocent time.” She was at the time the wife and creative partner of the acclaimed designer Ossie Clark. His talent for creating glamorous new shapes, textures and silhouettes matched by Birtwell’s romantic, delicate prints made Ossie Clark one of the stand-out labels of the haute-hippy fashion movement.
Just like Thea Porter’s, the designs of Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell attracted a glittering clientele – and the couple were at the centre of artistic, bohemian life in London. Their friend David Hockney painted Birtwell frequently, and his portrait of the couple at home with their cat, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, remains one of the artist’s best-known works. “We didn’t worry about money,” recalls Birtwell. “There was a certain freedom then.”
“Bohemianism can be anywhere: it is not a place but an attitude of mind,” wrote author Arthur Ransome. The boho-luxe style takes the wearer perhaps to a simpler time – a heady place of ease, Romanticism, hedonism, liberation and confidence. It is a fantasy, of course, but that is part of the bohemian aesthetic’s larger-than-life power. As Thea Porter herself wrote: “Whatever else clothes may be about, I believe they must add to the enjoyment of life.” It’s a seductive look, occasionally absurd. But which fashion lover among us can honestly deny the joyful, transformative power of a sheer, diaphanous, jewelled kaftan or a pair of sleek, crushed-velvet flares? “I would have loved to have been there,” admits curator Dennis Nothdruft with a smile, “lounging around on the floor cushions with the stars.”
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