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What Was Swinging London? Mods, Miniskirts & Music In '60s England

Fads | May 22, 2019

Left: Michael Caine during the filming of 'Alfie,' a promotional image from the 2017 documentary 'My Generation.' Right: Pete Townshend of The Who sporting a Union Jack blazer in 1966. Sources: IMDB; Chris Morphet/Redferns/Getty

The Swinging Sixties in London was more than just The Beatles and people saying (in that Austin Powers voice), “groovy, baby.” Swinging London represented a change in attitude and art that brought England to the forefront of culture and fashion in the 20th century. After a decade of post-war austerity, the youth of London were ready to party, and party they did. The dress code was sharp and sexy for the models and rock stars who defined the scene, icons like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, The Who and the Small Faces. Throughout the ‘60s there was a cultural explosion - people got weird, the skirts got short, and music got loud.

The cultural domination of the ‘60s in London can’t be overstated. Everything that happened in this one English city rippled out across the western world and made the world cooler. By the mid-1960s, young people in other countries were wearing miniskirts and rocking the Union Jack, and British music was "invading" the four corners of the globe.

The Streets Of London Were A Runway

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When you think of the sharp fashion of the swinging '60s the first things that come to mind are mini skirts, go-go boots, thick eyeliner, and razor-thin suits in all manner of colors. If you lived in London you had to look good, and that meant wearing your best duds no matter where you were. The woman behind the most important look of the day -- the miniskirt -- was Mary Quant.

Quant designed fashion specifically for young people, and with her boutique on the King’s Road, Bazaar, she began selling mind-blowing outfits in groovy colors like sherbet orange and mint green. Her fashions were seen on the sharpest babes; Jean Shrimpton, an icon of the London scene, made the high-rise skirt a must-have after stopping traffic with its eye-popping length (or lack thereof).

At the same time, London was going gaga for the rail thin 16-year-old model Twiggy. Born Lesley Hornby, Twiggy was known as the “queen of the mod” and her girlish looks inspired women across the western world to crop their hair short and adopt a disaffected air. 

You Had To Go To Carnaby Street To Find The Most Chic Looks

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Carnaby Street was the center of the fashion world in the 1960s. It was the place to go whether you were looking for a skirt or to just gawk at all the swinging looks of the day. Packed into a small Soho block, the street was lined with boutiques, if you couldn’t find what you were looking for on Carnaby then it didn’t exist - or it wasn’t cool.

Rock stars like The Kinks and Jimi Hendrix were regularly seen in the area buying the latest threads, and it was one of the vibrant areas in a dour London cityscape. Thanks to shops like Lady Jane, Lord John, and The Mod Male, Carnaby was constantly packed with young people trying to pull off their best Pattie Boyd and Penelope Tree looks. 

Are You A Mod Or A Rocker?

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In the early and mid-'60s, British youth culture included two feuding tribes with distinct styles: the Mods and the Rockers. The Mods were moped-riding, fashion-forward extensions of the beatnik culture. They wore their hair with chopped off bangs, took amphetamines and grooved to R&B. Throughout the ‘60s the Mod scene took on a few permutations, with bands like The Small Faces and The Who cherry picking their favorite things about the culture and bringing them to the world stage.

Much of Mod culture, and certainly its fashion, was compatible with Swinging London and Carnaby Street -- the Mods representing an organic "street style" that followed and influenced Carnaby Street. Their rivals, the Rockers, were a different story. These young British toughs took inspiration from the recent past, particularly the greasers of 1950s America and the images of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and Elvis Presley. Their music of choice was rock and rockabilly, they rode motorcycles, and they wore leather jackets. They were like the Hells Angels if the Hells Angels had cockney accents. The rockers hated the mods, and throughout the ‘60s these two groups were famous for rumbling.

The Mods and Rockers actually went to “war” over the weekend of May 16, 1964, in the seaside town of Clacton, an episode that inspired The Who's 1979 film Quadrophenia. Nearly 1,000 young people descended on the outer towns of England to do battle, but there were only around a hundred arrests. Newspaper accounts fanned hysteria over the Mod-Rocker feud, but public perception of Mods as thugs is a major reason why Swinging London and Mod culture weren't quite the same thing. While "mod" was somewhat neutral when used as an adjective, identifying oneself as "a Mod" could carry a stigma.

The Beatles are an interesting case -- circa 1962, they sported a Rocker look in their black leather duds, and played rock music, including Chuck Berry covers and Lieber-Stoller compositions; by 1964, when they "invaded" the U.S. and the Ed Sullivan Show, they were in Mod mode, wearing matching tailored suits. They resisted identifying with either group -- when asked to choose Mod or Rocker in A Hard Day's Night (1964; arguably the first Swinging London movie), Ringo answers "Neither. We're mockers." 

It Wasn’t Called The “Swinging Sixties” For Nothing

Left: David Hemmings poised provocatively over model Veruschka in 'Blow-Up' (1966). Right: Christine Keeler in a famous portrait by Lewis Morley. Sources: IMDB; Los Angeles County Museum Of Art

While American hippies were taking part in a free love experiment on the west coast, young, hip Londoners were having their own social and sexual revolution. The ‘60s saw a liberation in the social mores of a once stodgy country. Young people began staying out all night, playing in bands, doing drugs, and having a lot of sex.

Model and showgirl Christine Keeler became a notorious icon of the new, promiscuous youth culture when the details of her multiple affairs with political figures emerged in the "Profumo Affair." Finding herself a daily tabloid figure, Keeler intended to make a film called "The Keeler Affair" (it never happened) and posed for publicity photos in 1963 that became emblematic of a perceived sexual permissiveness among young Londoners.

But it wasn’t just that young people were (thought to be) shagging left and right, their minds were opened to different kinds of lifestyles. In 1967, both abortion and homosexuality were decriminalized. It would be a long time before more strides were made in these areas, but people were slowly realizing that it was okay to have a good time. 

The Mini Roared Through Swinging London

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If you didn’t want to take the Tube or hitch a ride on your Mod friend’s moped, your best bet for getting around was The Mini. Ideal for city transportation (and parking), Minis were a truly cool way to get around. (Mary Quant named her miniskirt after them.) These cars were a sensation thanks to their change in design.

The Mini had rubber suspension and its wheels were only 10 inches. At a minuscule 10 feet in length, the car could still fit every member of The Beatles (sorry Yoko) without too much whining from Ringo. Supposedly, Aurelio Lampredi, the designer of the Ferrari, loved The Mini so much that he said, “If it wasn’t so ugly I would shoot myself.” The car was so popular that it even showed up in the cinematic classic The Italian Job

1966, The Year England Won The World Cup

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At the height of the swinging sixties something monumental occurred -- England won the World Cup while the tournament was being played in their backyard. At the time, English exceptionalism was at its peak. Londoners broke out the Union Jack, preferring it to the classic St. George Cross. The tournament happened from July 11-30; initially, Londoners seemed unconcerned with the games, but as the English team continued to sweep the world the fervor for a World Cup win grew to a fever pitch.

The final game in the tournament was played between England vs West Germany, a rematch of sorts of World War II. The game was tense, but in the end, England came out victorious with a 4 to 2 win in front of nearly 100,000 rabid football fans. One man said the atmosphere after the win was sensational:

I remember walking through Piccadilly Circus where everyone was partying. It was a fantastic night, the best night of my life I would say.

English Cinema Was Never Better Than In The ‘60s

David Hemmings on the job in 'Blow-Up;' DVD box art for 'Smashing Time.' Source: IMDB

The film community of England in the 1960s was a mix of weirdo creatives, comic geniuses, and ad-men who wanted to do something a little more satisfying than selling cars. The movies that came out of England in this most groovy of decades were stylish, and often lurid, which contributed to the crumbling of England's stodgy reputation.

With his performance as the titular ladies' man of Alfie (1966), Michael Caine became the biggest star associated with Swinging London, although Michael York, Oliver Reed, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook were also prominent. Julie Christie, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Marianne Faithfull, Joanna Lumley and others gracefully moved across the screen in films like The Knack... And How To Get It (1965), The Party's Over (1965), The Pleasure Girls (1965), Georgy Girl (1966), Smashing Time (1967), and I'll Never Forget What's'isname (1967). 

Fashion photographers were arguably the top dogs in the Swinging London scene -- thus Austin Powers' ridiculous dual occupation as spy/photographer -- and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), which is about a photographer who inadvertently captures evidence of a murder, is probably the quintessential Swinging London film. Protagonist David Hemmings lives in a technicolor-hued world of fashion, music, drugs and promiscuity, and shares the screen with Sarah Miles, Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Birkin and Veruschka.

The films of the era took concepts created in the French New Wave, like jump cuts, fake commercials, and the breaking of the fourth wall and cranked them up to 11. The swinging sixties made its way into every movie that came out of England - James Bond was never cooler than he was in Dr. No, and The Italian Job put the most far-out car of the era front and center. British Bond Girls and Hammer Horror actresses of the era were part of the in crowd, including Honor Blackman, Valerie Leon, and Diana Rigg -- who was a Swinging London style icon in her role as Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers.

Tags: Alfie | Austin Powers | Blow-Up | British Invasion | Carnaby Street | Jean Shrimpton | Julie Christie | London | Michael Caine | Mini | Mini Skirts | Mods | Swinging 60s | Swinging London | The Beatles | The Who | Twiggy | World Cup

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.