Youth Culture & Fashion
London's role as the nation's capital of fashion was already centuries-old when the 20th century began. Fashionable dress, music and la mode behaviour traditionally took their cue from London's royal court and its aristocratic salons. During the 20th century London's position as the place where fashions were set remained the same but the pacemakers changed. Fashions were now led by the young. From the bright young things of the 1920s dancing the Charleston to hot jazz; through to the punks of the 1970s pogo-ing to The Damned, the young assumed a new cultural importance in 20th century London.
London's size and class make-up was, as always, a factor. London had the largest working class in Europe and the combination of 'East End boys and West End girls' was a particularly potent one in the age of democracy and permissiveness. The transport revolution had brought London's West End within reach of all and as the infrastructure of clubs and dancing venues took shape from the 1920s onwards, so too did the democratic mixing of wealthy and workers. In the 1930s a journalist observed the crowds of East End young in Leicester Square's cafes and cinemas. 'I imagined when I first saw them that these people, so magnificently colourful and glossy and self-assured, must be very important and wealthy indeed.... But I found out that they were really very poor; that they invaded the West End in their tens of thousands only twice a week or so; that they spent next to nothing.'
Most of London's 20th century youth 'scenes' led a syncopated life between the West End and the suburbs. Although jazz became a craze for the wealthy young of Mayfair, it also thrived in large suburban ballrooms, such as the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, or Streatham Locarno. During the 1960s some of the most famous rhythm and blues venues were not in central London but in the western suburbs. Here, the crumbling ballroom on Eel Pie Island, and the Railway Hotel in Richmond, otherwise known as the Crawdaddy Club, were key places on the music scene.
The venues at London's centre were, however, crucial. The new clubs and dancehalls that had appeared in and around Soho with the lifting of entertainment restrictions after the First World War became the infrastructure of all youth cultures to come. Rectors Club in the Tottenham Court Road was opened as a basement dancing club in the 1920s. In 1966 the space became UFO, London's leading psychedelic club with Pink Floyd as the house band. The Ham Bone club, which opened in 1920s in Ham Yard, in Soho, turned into Cy Laurie's skiffle club in the 1950s.
As the young began to assume a new confidence and cultural authority, so fashions in dress reflected the change. The 20th century saw London fashion become more closely entangled with the young than ever before, a change embodied by three of London's most creative fashion designers of the 20th century: Norman Hartnell, Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood.
Norman Hartnell emerged in the 1920s from the spirit of the jazz age rather than haute couture traditions. He had come to fashion through theatrical costume design and his playful, colourful dresses perfectly suited the hedonistic mood of London's young aristocrats. In the 1960s Mary Quant encapsulated swinging London through her bright colours and simple 'dolly bird' shapes. Most famously through the mini-skirt, Quant's clothes visibly expressed the new mood and optimism of the baby boom generation. Fifteen years later Vivenne Westwood also marked a new mood but drew her inspiration from a darker set of references. Her clothes resonated with echoes from London's more anti-establishment and disaffected youth cults, from teddy boys to punk rockers.
Fashion's alliance with youth also proved a powerful force in remaking the cultural topography of London. Areas that had once been dowdy turned into trendy. In the 1960s Carnaby Street, a narrow backwater in West Soho turned into the hottest shopping street in London. Biba set up shop in Kensington where the indoor market turned into another magnet for the young. Camden began to acquire an 'alternative' character as the UFO club moved its operations into the disused Victorian engine house, the Round house, in 1967. Most dramatic was the change in Notting Hill Gate which went from being run-down poor area to exceedingly hip within 15 years. Here, youth played a part in the transformation but the key factor was the presence of the West Indian community which gave the area a vibrancy and edge unmatched anywhere else in London.
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