Groovy, baby

Britain's oldest recording town is reliving the 1960s in a new exhibition.

Steven Russell

Britain's oldest recording town is reliving the 1960s in a new exhibition. Child-of-the-sixties Steven Russell donned his kaftan, placed a flower in his hair, and went for a look

GOODNESS knows what any lingering ghosts of Roman Essex or Norman East Anglia will make of it: peculiar wailing wafting through Colchester Castle, gaudy clothing made from materials strange to the touch, and kaleidoscopic patterns on the walls. But, then, the 1960s were pretty odd times for many folk who lived through them, too . . . Changes in fashion, music and art splashed colour over Britain's monotone complexion and shifts in society ushered in a brave new world. They were exciting or disturbing years, depending on your point of view. Some of the energy and vibrancy is captured in a new exhibition in the castle called The Sixties Seen: Art, Music and Fashion.

Dresses, denim suits, coats, kaftans and other clothes dreamed up by designers and fashion houses such as Biba and Mary Quant show how much innovative ideas shaped everyday life. There are examples of Op art - abstract creations making use of optical illusions - by trendsetters like Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely, who influenced textile design. And there's pop, with album covers, posters and fan magazines reminding us of the way icons such as Jimi Hendrix and The Who took the music establishment by the scruff of the neck and gave it a violent shaking.

The exhibition was the idea of display officer Darren Stevens and has been a team effort by museum staff. Danielle Sprecher, costume curator with Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, says: “The decade has been so influential. Looking at what's been in fashion in the last three or four years, for example, there are takes on Mary Quant, Biba's just relaunched the label, and Barbara Hulanicki - who founded and designed for Biba - has done a collection for Topshop.”

Danielle says they've sought to examine Colchester's experience of the sixties. Museum staff thought it might prove a challenge getting hold of objects to tell the story of the 1960s, but media appeals happily brought a wave of offers. “The majority of things in the exhibition are actually loans from private individuals. A reasonable number have come from Norwich (museums service) and Ipswich, but most - especially the music objects - are from private lenders.”

Most Read

We're talking in the museum office, as works starts on installing the exhibition in the nearby castle. Propped against the wall is a board with swatches of fabric common in the 1960s - green fur, polyester, nylon, acrylic and so on - that visitors will be able to feel.

There are packets of false eyelashes on Danielle's desk, along with old 45rpm records bought from a charity shop that, by the time this appears in print, will be mounted on the walls of the exhibition room. “Younger people might be surprised to see vinyl.” (For the record - ha ha - they're Lulu's To Sir, with Love; Till the End of the Day by The Kinks; and the Animals' The House of the Rising Sun.)

A party of dressed mannequins waits to be summoned.

“These two pieces here - and her husband's John Stephens suit as well - are from a woman I met in Laxfield, during a museum visit,” says Danielle, indicating a blue, stripy, cotton mini-dress from Biba. “She actually bought it from their mail order catalogue - and we've got copies of the catalogue, as well, for the dress and this corduroy coat - in 1967 or '68. The catalogue was so successful that they had to close it down because they couldn't cope with the volume (of inquiries).”

The corduroy coat's been paired with a hat and a red-and-beige mini-dress bought in London and loaned by a lady from Mersea who described herself as a bit of a Mod 40 years ago.

Biba, an iconic store, had made it possible for folk outside London to get their hands on clothes they'd seen in newspapers and on TV shows such as Ready Steady Go!

“Cathy McGowan, the host of Ready Steady Go!, was known for her fashion sense and being a Mod. She wore Biba on the show, and the work of other designers, and people would want to get hold of them.

“People think about Mary Quant as an incredibly important designer, and she was, but her clothing was actually quite expensive for the time. For a shop girl who was only earning �17 a week, to go and spend �8 or �10 on a dress from Mary Quant, that's a lot - whereas you could go and buy a Biba dress for only a couple of pounds. They really did try to provide high street fashion the way we think of high street fashion today: you could buy something, wear it a few times before it fell to pieces, and go and buy a new one.

“We've got a couple of examples of that which were taken to an extreme - what were called paper dresses. People will be able to touch and feel them. It's not actually paper. They were made from various fibres, but they're not woven; they're pressed together rather like felt.”

Danielle produces a gaudy multi-coloured version. “This is one made by the chemical company DuPont and called Reemay. It's actually a spun-bonded polyester.” And feels like it, I say. “Totally!”

Not that consumers minded. Man-made fibres were cheap to produce and so the price of fashionable clothes came down. The shape of clothes became less elaborate, too. “People would run up a dress the night before they were due to go out - because the shapes were simple, and because you could.”

Economic changes meant folk in the UK were also enjoying more disposable income. Significantly, young people also had greater spending power.

“This is something I hope people will take from the exhibition,” says Danielle. “Young people had more money and also wanted to be different from their parents - radically different - and so they created this whole contrasting culture of music, of fashion - and those two things influenced the art of the period.

“So those are the three things we're looking at in the exhibition. It doesn't look at social change in a wider sense, though it's implied by the sorts of things on display.”

That change was everywhere, and not just in the way things looked. The Establishment was under pressure from (generally) younger people who believed in meritocracy and not the old boy network.

There were demonstrations against the Vietnam war and nuclear weapons, student protests (including sit-ins at Essex), and the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's role as censor of plays. We witnessed the Profumo affair, the spread of the contraceptive pill, and the legalisation of abortion.

Fashion reflected the changing world. “Before the 1960s, for example, women did wear trousers, but it wasn't acceptable in the office or, really, out and about. But after the sixties, that became more acceptable.

“Tights and shorter skirts meant there was a different way of looking at the body. So I think it did usher in quite radical changes - some of them really quite shocking at the time but which now we take for granted. Even in the 1920s, skirts were at or below knee-length. Never above the knee! You didn't see women's knees until the '60s, really, in the way we're used to today!”

She says of this pivotal decade: “People were wanting something different - that's something that's strongly come across - and feeling that things could be different. You could make a protest and change the world. There was an optimism about that, and that's something you can see in the clothes - a sense of fun and just doing things differently, taking risks, because you could.”

The Sixties Seen: Art, Music and Fashion runs until November 1. Entry is included in the normal admission fee to Colchester Castle Museum, which is open seven days a week (Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm; Sundays 11am-5pm). Contact 01206 282939 or

THE Colchester exhibition certainly gives a flavour of Britain four decades ago. There's a trailer playing for the 1966 film Blowup, which features actresses such as Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles and Jane Birkin. The story was about a Mod photographer in swinging London and his world of fashion models, pop music and - ahem - drugs and sex.

There are excerpts, too, from last year's BBC documentary Pop Britannia, looking at the importance and influence of the British music scene during the sixties.

Album covers became much more “designed” and visually effective during that era. “Bands were seen as leaders of fashion at the time,” says Danielle Sprecher. “They were doing exotic things. People like Jimi Hendrix were mixing up military uniform with crazy colours and doing quite whacky things.”

A woman from Chelmsford has lent a lovely collection of bubblegum cards of The Beatles, mounted in a frame. “She said it took quite a lot of effort - lots of swapping with people at school!”

Ciara Canning, the museum service's curator of community history, has recorded memories of local people. “For example, the stripy jacket over there was worn by a guy from Tiptree who was a Mod and had scooters,” says Danielle. “He customised I think his second scooter - got it painted this bright, bright yellow, with chrome, and a leopard-skin cover for the seat. He was really into the whole thing.”