Well, while we’re talking about Biba and the late 1960s/early-ish 1970s by way of a re-imagining of the 1920s/1930s and a touch of a kind of classy, moll-ish but also independently minded, noir influenced fashion and aesthetic…
Ms Madeline Smith herself.
When I first saw one of the photographs of Madeline Smith in the one of the Biba mailorder catalogues my mind had a “Is that…? It can’t be…? Blimey!” kind of moments.
If you are an appreciator of certain elements of very British culture from the 1970s, well Ms Madeline Smith (along with Ms Valerie Leon) are generally considered around these parts to be two of the finest exponents of those elements.
I find these photographs interesting in part as I do tend to very much associate Ms Madeline Smith with the 1970s and its more loosely louche culture whereas these seem very firmly rooted in a late 1960s Swinging London sharp high fashion culture.
At this point I think I might have to use the phrase classy dolly birds.
Now, I know a phrase like dolly birds might well put the hackles up on certain readers but is a phrase that is not used in a derogatory manner – it’s written with nothing but respect and an appreciation of how such actresses and that phrase have come to represent a very particular time, aesthetic and glamour in British and British cultural history.
PS The above spread at the top of the post can be found reproduced and bound via here.
PPS Ms Madeline Smith can be seen foregrounding a particular binding of British tales from late at night glamour here.
Now, as you may well gather, around these parts I have something of a soft-spot variously for a touch of noir-ish aesthetics and a certain kind of 1970s grit (intermingled with a dash of 1970s glamour in various forms) and a reimagining of the past in the creation of worlds unto themselves (a Soho of the mind, as it were).
In this post are a couple of my favourite photographs from the somewhat famous 1960s/1970s fashion label and boutique Biba’s mailorder catalogues.
They seem to perfectly capture the late 1960s/early-ish 1970s interest in 1920s/1930s fashion, art deco and the like while intermingling that with fashion styling by the way of China Town, all reimagined and recreated via accessible avant-garde fashion as part of the Biba aesthetics and world – a world created unto itself if ever there was one.
Below are the photographs in their natural home – a spread from one of the Biba catalogues.
This photograph/image of Bettie Page for a long time was something of a favourite. It’s Ms Page at her finest, feisty attitude-ness.
Back a fair few years before vintage and retro were mainstream cultural reference points and when the zeros and ones easy access of the internet was still in its infancy, I bought a photographic grade reproduction of the cover from a, well, vintage clothing stall.
For a long time I didn’t know any more about it other than the image itself – what the magazine was etc and due to the relative scarcity of cultural distribution at the time, that’s the way it stayed.
As an aside and now, due to the nolonger infancy of the internet I know that it’s the cover to a particularly scare 72 page magazine on Ms Page from 1963 (ah that year again, just as change began to gather pace).
Apparently printed in only 1500 copies, it seems to be one of the higher priced Bettie Page items out in the world. I expect you’d need to pay around £300-500 for a copy nowadays. Blimey indeed.
Due in part to that scarcity it seemed like a rare and precious thing but looking at it now, it seems to be a particularly iconic picture of a particularly iconic model – a distilling or honing down of the bad girl side of Bettie Page’s often wholesome cheesecake pinup image, though without moving into her more overly and overtly defined festishistic imagery.
Yes, it’s off its age but it hasn’t gained an almost harmless twee-ness that some pinup imagery from the time has.
In fact, looking at it again recently, this seems like a world away from the girl next door depiction of Bettie Page – this is a much more harsh, fierce beauty and sexuality that seems to reverberate and even have some kind of transgressive or subversive underground quality to it even all these years later.
It is curious how from all the models who were working at that time, Bettie Page and the imagery created with/by her seems to be something of an island of such things.
Mad Men may well have been a form of mod/modernism for grown-ups – this was a world of childhood toys for grown-ups.
Essentially, a whole mini-cultural genre of sharply styled, populuxe-esque Barbie dolls and home made (but far from home made looking) accessories.
I don’t know if this was before, after or a similar time to when I was discovering David Levinthal’s diorama and Barbie based work but it put me in mind of such things but arriving from a more homespun, less fine art base.
One of my early discoveries was the “official” side of such things – the Joan Harris of Mad Men Barbie doll released by Mattel (and hence an overt connection otherly than purely aesthetic ones to the series) that can be seen at the top of this post but soon wandered into this world of handcrafted objects that summoned forth a Mad Man-esque world and its ambience.
Lovely stuff. Much of the furniture, fixtures and fittings that populate this place and the accompanying outfits are often one of a kind (or ooak in modern abbreviated searching and seeking parlance). Even many of the dolls have been modified from the “official” releases.
The image below of such work intrigues me. It’s part of the same series but in its style seems to harbinger the later series of Mad Men, when the sharp 1960s styling began to meet looser late 1960s/early 1970s style.
Stylistically Mad Men ended at a liminal point – there had not yet been a transition from one era to another’s style.
It is something that I would have been interested to see how that aspect would have developed if the series had continued through the years.
There could be seen to be a connection between the affluence and opulence of populuxe styling and that of say affluent 1970s glamour but the former is intrinsically connected to a corseted (uptight?), ideal nuclear family, genre division of home and work roles way of being or philosophy while the latter is founded more in a sense of decadence, (over?) indulgence and the like – the perfect housewife becomes the perfect playmate.
One of the big draws for me was the ambience of the world that it created and projected – that populuxe, sharp very late 1950s/1960s American styling, which was a kind of grown-up Mod thing but from over the other side of the sea.
(A form of mod with a few more sheckels in it’s pocket of course – more than for a tailor made suit or two and a cup of that new fangled Italian style coffee down Soho way.)
It was that ambience and its richness, the lushness, a vintage recreation/reimagining without grit or grain – Erwin Olaf’s Grief, Hope, Rain series of photographs brought to smoothly flickering, storytelling life – that stayed with me after the series.
In honour of those aesthetics, here I gather a few of my favourite promotional related images that to my mind and eye seemed to summon up that world particularly well.
And why not a touch of Roger Sterling channelling Harry Palmer?
As a postscript: Mainstream. Hmmm. It’s interesting how these things work. Mad Men conquered the world while Magic City, which shared some not dissimilar aesthetics was seen by relatively but a few. Visit tales of Magic City around these parts here.continue reading
In an interconnected manner, during that film, in a meta fictional/blurring of the boundaries between fiction and faction manner, is a scene where a poster for the then banned documentary West End Jungle can be seen.
It is part of a loose film cycle largely by director/producer Arnold Miller that would lead to future salacious sometimes partly-non-documentaries such as London In The Raw and Primitive London, both of which have been rescued / rehabilitated and gained an air of academic respectability by their relatively recently release, brush and scrub up by the BFI.
This rescue and rehibilitation is something that as I type is a process that is also being undergone by the Soho shennanigan film cycle titles Expresso Bongo and Beat Girl, as part of the BFI’s Flipside film release on DVD/Bluray and latterly internet label.
The Flipside is described by the BFI as:
“BFI Flipside is dedicated to rediscovering cult British films, reclaiming a space for forgotten British films and filmmakers who would otherwise be in danger of disappearing from our screens forever.”
When it was first inaugurated London In The Raw and Primitive London were two of their first releases and it felt like the label had been set up just for me; a sort of classy trawling of the underbelly and neglected undercurrents of film.
If you were to imagine a very selectively done Something Weird Video with institutional status, public funding, a tendency to wander towards an almost Derek Jarman-esque/arthouse take on what constitutes mondo film, a touch more prudish or possibly jurisprudent take on such things than say Something Weird, high end reproduction and releasing, well you could well be heading in the right direction.
PS Is it just me or does the publicity photograph of Gillian Hills from Beat Girl above seem like something of a predecessor to Mr Vince Ray’s Death Of The Teenage Death Song work?
I was recently nattering about The World Ten Times Over, which seems to be part of a loose cycle of British films from around the late 1950s to about 1963 (or, as I’m fond of saying around these parts, just pre-Swinging London); tales of life lived but a few steps away from the gutter in London’s Soho and heart of the town nightlife, often set in and around hostess bars / clip joints and the shennanigans, ducking and diving that such ways of life can involve.
As with The World Ten Times Over these are all films that could each be described as “a curiousity, a snapshot of a particular way of life and a transitional point in life and culture – post-war auserity about to make way for the colour, spark and vitality of first Swinging London and pop-art mod(ernisms) and later the evolutions and looseness of psychedelia and what has come to be labelled hippie-dom.”
This is a film cycle that could well include the surprising Soho Johnny of Expresso Bongo, the almost Arthur Seaton down-to-earth night out but in Soho-isms of Saturday Night Out, in a more teenage-kicks Bohemian coffee bar manner Beat Girl, the slightly earlier tabloid-esque scares of The Flesh Is Weak, the quota quickie feeling Jungle Girl, the blonde bombshell from over the seas Too Hot To Handle and for myself the somewhat fine grandfather of them all The Small World Of Sammy Lee.
I could possibly include the pre-Steptoe Harry H. Corbett featuring Cover Girl Killer. Released in 1959, it feels like it belongs to a much earlier era. It also has that quota quickie feel but also that curiously clipped older British film sense to it – a past far, far away from modern mores and modes.
Or the also slightly later 1964 Harry H. Corbett featuring Rattle Of A Simple Man, where he plays a Northern innocent lost in Soho who meets a hostess, spends the night with but not in the manner which might be expected.
And in a further over the seas the imagined / reimagined Soho of Das Phantom Von Soho could well belong loosely to this cycle.
One thing that is curious about many of these films is that despite their tabloid friendly subject matter, this can sometimes mask much more human stories than their subject matter and setting might imply and they are not always or just salacious exploitation films; The World Ten Times Over is a gritty realist film with a sense of the consideration of the futilities of life, Rattle Of A Simple Man is actually quite a sweet, touching story of romance rather than times in “London’s sin-filled strip” and The Small World Of Sammy Lee is, well, just mighty fine cinema that takes in realism, thriller, love and loss in this particular heart of London.