Female curves prove a real crowd pleaser

Ossie Clarke 1965-1974 - Boutique

January 9, 2004

Fashion is enormously creative and can become great art, but it shouldn't set out to be art. It's a reflection of the times and is aimed at a market. It's a business."

This pronouncement, used as an epigraph to conclude the second of these two books, indicates certain problems with the way in which fashion is still perceived and, more pertinently, still configured within certain texts.

For those of us who wish the still-young discipline of fashion studies to be treated within the academy as a subject worthy of serious attention, and for those of us who seek to theorise fashion, much of the literature on the subject is counterproductive. Too many of books found on the library shelves, and those that roll off the presses, are reminiscent of the "old" art history, with its canon of the great and the good, and the necessary reverential prose to describe the genius of the individual artist.

Neither of these two books - although they provide interesting starting points for students and a wealth of valuable visual material - links fashion to sociocultural studies quite as closely as they might.

The first, by Judith Watt, sets out to describe the work of the late Ossie Clarke during his most innovative years, when he was the darling of the King's Road. It is meticulously researched and beautifully presented, and the quality of the illustrations, photographs and overall production are of the standard one would expect from V&A Publications.

Sonnet Stanfill's introduction reminds us that "Clarke's most productive years coincided with London's most optimistic rule-breaking period, when fashion, photography, music and the cult of personality converged". The book moves chronologically through his life: his boyhood in Lancashire, his work at the Royal College of Art, his partnership with Celia Birtwell and, finally, the years when women flocked to Quorum, the King's Road boutique for which Clarke and Birtwell designed.

Anna Sui's comment that "he dressed the woman we all wanted to be - the rock star's girlfriend", encapsulates his particular style: sexy and artistic, exclusive and expensive. Although Watt tells us that Clarke later worked with the Radley label to provide affordable clothes for more ordinary young women, this was not really his choice.

He was, indeed, a genuine innovator, one of the first to put women in smoking jackets - Yves St Laurent arguably copied his work - and men in skirts; he designed many of Mick Jagger's stage clothes and was credited erroneously with Jagger's white suit for the Hyde Park concert of 1969, which was in fact bought off the peg from Michael Fish. Yet there is a hint of elitism in his work; as one of those interviewed stresses, "you had to look right - you had to be skinny and you had to be pretty".

All the interviewees - journalists, models, clients and friends - emphasise his ability to make women look their best through his revival and reinterpretation of the bias cut. This move, at a time when fashionable clothes were angular and carefully avoided the female form, was not only flattering but fascinating.

The book, however, might have delved more deeply into why Clarke embraced nostalgia, with such success, at the most forward-looking moment in British fashion history.

The second book, Boutique , by Marnie Fogg, could also perhaps have been more analytical - in its treatment of gender, say, and of the growing countercultural movement, where the political background is indicated only very briefly. Nevertheless, the author uses carefully sourced, truly original primary material and the book is highly readable. Students will love it, although they may be confused by its habit of switching backwards and forwards in time.

The introduction explains how the evolution of the boutiques "changed the nature of shopping in a radical manner, entirely coherent with the social upheaval of the times", but it is slightly too cursory about the causes of that "upheaval".

Certainly, shopping became, as she explains, a "means of self-expression" for teenagers in the 1960s; but not until much later in the text does she stress the fact that "the democratisation of style was bound up with the revolution in music" - this should surely have been developed in the introduction.

But I am cavilling. The chapter on the provinces is a welcome inclusion in a book of this nature, as is the section on home dressmaking, the only way for many young girls to participate in and partake of the new, swiftly obsolete fashions.

Pamela Church Gibson is senior lecturer in cultural studies, London College of Fashion.

Ossie Clarke 1965-1974

Author - Judith Watt
Publisher - V&A Publications
Pages - 128
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 1 85177 407 6

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