Biba and Me…
On the eve of an exhibition to celebrate the trail-blazing Sixties fashion label, devoted fan Ruth Ling recalls the thrill of buying her first grown-up jacket. It’s still with her four decades later
Even my big sister, whom I'd coerced to go to the concert with me, recognised my true worth that night. In my Biba jacket, I was the coolest girl in Leeds. Sixteen years old, I was looking forward to going to a sixth-form college in September. While my friends would be wearing school uniform, bought from the quaintly old-fashioned Marshall & Snelgrove, I would spend my days in jeans, kaftans, embroidered waistcoats – and Biba. While they were buying their Saturday-night gear from Chelsea Girl and C&A, I was getting mine from London's most talked-about boutique.
Twiggy, Bowie, Sonny and Cher and the Stones all shopped at Biba. And so did I. My jacket, from the summer 1969 catalogue, is made of the finest baby needlecord in a warm gingery brown. It was also available in pale salmon pink or vanilla and had a big 'baker boy' hat and jeans to match. But I was too hard-pressed on my £1-a-week clothing allowance to afford the £4.10s for the jacket, never mind the rest. It has the sweetest little rounded collar, puff shoulders and self-covered buttons down the front, the bottom one on an inset waistband at hip level – a feature typical of the late Sixties. I still love that jacket so much that it (and my other Biba garment, a brown herringbone tweed pinafore dress) has survived more than four decades. When the time comes, I'd like it buried with me, please.
The story of my jacket is included in the 'Book Of Memories' about Biba clothes in a forthcoming exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Biba And Beyond examines the history of the pioneering label that changed the look of street fashion in the Sixties and 1970s – and the career of Barbara Hulanicki, its founder and designer, and now one of the most respected interior designers in the United States.
Biba's ranges encompassed romantic, Victorian-inspired dresses, fun cotton summer dresses and shorts, boho Russian-style greatcoats, maxi-skirts and Cossack shirts and, most of all, an Art Deco 1930s vibe – with leopardskin (fake fur and prints) a Biba trademark.
Starting out as a mail-order business in 1964, Biba opened a small boutique in Kensington that September, moving to larger premises nearby in 1966, and again in 1969 – nally, in September 1973, taking over the old Derry & Toms store in Kensington High Street. Its sultry interiors where ordinary working girls mingled with celebrities, created a distinctive, rather louche, Biba lifestyle.
With items loaned by major collectors and diehard fans, and pieces from the museum's own collection, the exhibition features photographs, illustrations, film, music, garments and the stories of those who wore them, including the four fans (see right) who tell us why their treasured Biba clothes remain so special to them.
Biba And Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton BN1 1EE, from 22 September until 14 April 2013; 03000- 290900; www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk
Ruth Ling writes a vintage fashion blog: http://metroretroo ondon.wordpress.com/
We loved it too...
Sue Groves, 61, of Hove
'I was working at Biba, as PA to Barbara Hulanicki's husband Fitz, in 1973. They used to sell off the samples cheaply to the staff, and I bought a threepiece – a dress with spaghetti straps, trousers and jacket – for 30p. My daughter Emily wore the dress and jacket when she got married in Florence four years ago, because she knew the outfit was very special to me. Biba was incredibly well priced and became a whole lifestyle. I wanted everything in the store; it struck a real chord with me.'
Jackie Jackson-Smith, 62, of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex
An early convert to Biba, Jackie and her school friends would visit London from Cambridge specifically to shop at the boutique. 'I had dresses, a purple pinstripe maxiskirt suit and several Tshirts – which I still have,' she says. So when she got married in 1971 and asked her fiancé to choose her outfit, he picked out this twotone satinlook bra top and flared trousers. 'It was very daring and my grandmother said I looked like "one of those", but we expected to shock the older generation in those days.'
Daphne Mair, 63, of Peterborough
While a student at Manchester University, Daphne bought a fulllength peach satin gown for a May Ball in 1968. 'I also wore it to the following year's ball and to a Kidderminster Golf Club dinner dance. It was reasonably priced and a welcome alternative to the frumpy, expensive evening wear of the time. But I later saw it described in a magazine as a nightdress and negligée!'
Kelvin MacDonald, 65, of Brighton
'In 1973, I was a year out of university and in my first job, and for the first time had some spare money. I've always liked sharp tailoring, so I went to Biba and bought a suit. I lived in the trousers, wearing them to work with a bow tie – though the waistcoat and jacket were for special occasions. When I wore the whole getup to a Sixties party a few years ago, people were amazed by it and asked where I'd hired it from.'
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942