When London Ruled the World: Get Into the Swinging Sixties Vibe

Two 2019 exhibitions featuring Mary Quant set the scene for celebrating the capital's culture of Sixties fashion, music and culture scene.

It was an age of flower power, political awakening and sexual liberation – and London was at the centre of it all. So how did the Sixties changed the capital?

"TIME" magazine might have been late to the party when it christened London as The Swinging City in 1966, but the phrase came to define the Sixties. As Britain shook off post-war austerity, the capital became known for youthful creativity rising up against the conservative establishment. The decade was dominated by a haze of hedonistic, psychedelic glory.

From the Mods and Rockers to hippies and even skinheads, youth subculture ensured that Swinging London set the agenda for the rest of the world.

As designer Mary Quant famously said: “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini,” once said of her now iconic thigh-high skirts.”

Mary Quant and models at the Quant afoot footwear collection launch 1967, London UK
Mary Quant and models at the Quant Afoot footwear collection launch 1967, London UK © PA prints 2008

The Revolution Begins

Quant is understating her own contribution. As part of the "Chelsea Set," a radical group of designers, artists, musicians and socialites who lived, worked and partied in the Royal borough, Quant revolutionised fashion and the way people shopped. People copied her angular bob (cut by Vidal Sassoon) and when she and her husband Alexander Plunkett Greene opened Bazaar, a boutique on the King’s Road in 1955, people hadn’t seen anything like it before.

This is neatly encapsulated in an exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum. "Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution" (8 Feb—2 June, 2019) provides a window on the work of not only Quant, but also Terence Conran and Laura and Bernard Ashley. Quant’s simple ensembles sit along Conran’s first designs for Habitat (the contemporary homeware store he founded in 1964, now on Tottenham Court Road).

Model against the Houses of Parliament, Fashion and Textile Museum, London, UK
Photograph of a model against the Houses of Parliament, on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum. (©John Walcott. Image from Conran/Quant: Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution, published by ACC Art Books.)

“Quant virtually invented the modern boutique”, says curator Richard Chamberlain. “Shopping for clothes became a far more fun and inclusive experience, as opposed to the somewhat stuffy and traditional way women had bought clothes in the past.”

After Bazaar, the King’s Road and its surrounding streets became known for its hip boutiques such as Biba, Granny Takes a Trip and Mr Freedom. The area became a celebrity hangouts where screaming teens hoped to bump into their idols.

However, the cultural revolution wasn’t just confined to Chelsea.

Where Fashion and Music Collide

In Soho, Carnaby Street became a hub for London’s Mods who made pilgrimages to the numerous boutiques owned by ‘the King of Carnaby Street,’ John Stephen. Today, Carnaby remains a popular shopping destination and it’s still possible to find the Mod spirit at Lambretta, Sherry’s (63 Broadwick St) and The Face. And with the Mods came music, bands like Small Faces and The Who. People were now embracing a different sound and, with Pink Floyd and The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios, London was where it was happening.

Abbey Road Shop, London, UK
Shop for Beatles memorabilia like vinyl, clothing and artwork at the Abbey Road Shop, adjacent to the famous studios. (©Abbey Road Shop)

Sat behind the mixing desk at the time The Beatles were recording The Beatles (White Album) was engineer and producer Ken Scott. He remembers a band who were keen to push the boundaries and were experimental in their approach. “They always wanted ‘different,’ so that pushed us [the recording engineers] to expand our horizons and to try new things,” he says.

Abbey Road Studios run occasional tours, but you can visit its shop and recreate the cover of the Fab Four’s album, Abbey Road, on the hallowed zebra crossing.

While Beatlemania raged around world, the soundscape would be challenged once again with the arrival of Jimi Hendrix in London in 1966. The Jimi Hendrix Experience took the electric guitar to new heights with its own brand of psychedelic rock.

Jimi Hendrix at flat in London, UK
You can visit Jimi Hendrix's former London flat at Handel and Hendrix House. (©Barrie Wentzell)

You can appreciate their prowess at a special evening event at Handel & Hendrix in London (8 Feb, 2019), dedicated to the legendary performances given by The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1969. The very flat in which Hendrix lived while in the city hosts DJs, film projections and live music, plus a chance to explore areas usually closed to the public. Guided tours are also available every Friday from 3 pm.

Lovers of Sixties’ sounds should also check out "Rip It Up – The 60s", a musical extravaganza at the Garrick Theatre (7 Feb-4 June, 2019). Promising a journey through the decade via song, dance and acrobatics, the songs of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who will be brought to life like never before. Proof, if any was needed, of the lasting impact this transformative decade has had. London is still swinging.

And, if you want to see another exhibition about Mary Quant geared purely at her fashions and unique style, book for Mary Quant at the Victoria and Albert Museum (6 Apr-16 Feb 2020). To accompany that, expect plenty of celebrations on the King’s Road.

Mary Quant Beauty Bus at Mary Quant Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
All aboard! A photo of the 1971 Mary Quant Beauty Bus, on show at the V&A's exhibition. (©INTERFOTO Alamy Stock Photo.)