London’s Fashion and Textile Museum has just opened an exhibition of the work of Thea Porter, a designer known mainly for her gypsy dresses and caftans, produced between the 1960s and early 80s. I went expecting Persian carpet-inspired textiles. Porter was brought up in Syria and began her professional life selling rugs and other imports from Syria.
While there was certainly a strong influence from traditional styles of Arabic dress, I was surprised to see a broader range of influences, including Renaissance velvet and brocades as well as some rather beautiful YSL-style monochrome black lace and gold (from 1977-79 Porter had a shop on the rue de Tournon in Paris’s 6e arrondissement).
There is certainly more to this show than oriental or bohemian styles, though it does speak eloquently of the strong nostalgic sentiment in the early 70s. Looking back to the Victorian age or the early twentieth century, it may have been tempting to regard these times as a ‘golden age’ away from the reality of oil price shocks, inflation and other economic troubles. It seems a strange irony that today’s European designers, faced with economic challenges of their own (at least in Europe) are referencing styles from the 1970s, but perhaps that’s the fickle nature of fashion.
The other thing that struck me, walking around this rather fascinating show, was that these garments are so distinctive and often so literal in expressing their source of influence that styling them effectively would require contrast with something entirely different – a military jacket, track pants etc, etc. Without the contrast item, the look risks becoming like theatre costume.
This may be a relatively modern perspective though. Many of the original pictures of the looks taken in the 60s and 70s show them were worn without styling, like costume. They would not be presented or worn in such a literal way today. What changed in the interim? As the patchouli-infused hippy gave way to the subverted and shredded punk and that in turn gave way to the New Romantic, perhaps we learnt how to respectfully disrespect codes of style.
*Diana Vreeland, internal memo to Vogue staff, January 13, 1969 (from “Memos: the Vogue Years” ed. Alexander Vreeland)