The brand still exists in different contexts but nothing will match its heyday. The classic years must be 1965-69 when Biba on Kensington Church Street in West London was the mecca for with-it (as we said then) teens and twenties looking for cutting-edge fashion at a price nearly everyone could afford.
As Biba’s founder Barbara Hulanicki said, ‘The worst economic freeze does not touch the pockets of secretaries.’ Those were the days.
The shop itself was part of the allure. Its exterior like an old apothecary shop with highly polished wooden window frames. The interior was dark, exotic, glittering, an Aladdin’s cave of promise an possibility.
Twenty potted palms and plants were placed in the corners and at the bottom of the stairs. Twenty-nine old-fashioned wooden hatstands were scattered through the shop and from them hung dresses, hats, feather boas. By the end of the day most of the clothes would be on the floor, a testament to the frenzied trying-on and buying.
Secretaries and shop girls rubbed shoulders (and often a lot more – the space was jam-packed every weekend) with 60s’ luminaries such asTwiggy, Cathy McGowan, Cilla Black. It was claimed that Julie Christie was so impatient for a changing space that she stripped off in the middle of the floor.
Schoolgirls, working girls, aristos, actresses, students all flocked to Kensington for their fix of clothes more up to date than tomorrow. The clothes were democratic. The Biba look was there for the taking.
And what a look it was. The signature look had high tight shoulders and armholes, puffed sleeves, fitted tops flaring out into short skirts. The materials were crepe and jersey, soft and malleable. There were little round collars and self-covered buttons. The sleeves were designed to cover most of your hands.
The colours were revolutionary – all sludgy and muted, granny colours for young-as-you-like clothes. They were shades of mulberry, rust, bitter chocolate, grey, plum, bilberry. The styles were skimpily cut, often on the bias, reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s.
But the clothes were small, very small. They were designed for girls who had grown up on an austere post-war diet but sadly many of that demographic did not display the tiny frame and the flat-chested, spindly-legged physique on which the clothes hung best.
Those of us whose gym slips strained over our chests and whose legs were built for walking and whose muscular arms toted books and satchels could not achieve the total look. The ideal Biba body, straight and square-shouldered, was not for us.
Not many of us had the ideal Biba face, a perfect oval on a swanlike neck. Eyes were doe-like, rimmed with Kohl and laden with false eyelashes. There was a stance, a pose that completed the look. It was pigeon-toed and colt-like, giving an impression of youth and awkwardness. This effect of submissiveness hid an attitude which Hulanicki described as ‘hard as nails’.
It was during this era that I first read Hamlet and I saw Ophelia as, in some ways, a Biba Girl. In the ‘nunnery scene’ Hamlet spits out to Ophelia his disgust at women’s behaviour. He is repelled by feminine artifice. He says that women, including Ophelia, ‘jig’ and ‘amble’.
His focus on affected body posturing brings to mind the Biba pose, all toes turned in and winsome expressions concealing toughness and aggression.
Ophelia was Marianne Faithful singing As Tears Go By, demure appearance and deadpan expresion masking the inner rock chick. The difference is that Ophelia’s presentation of innocence and naivety may or may not be genuine. She may ‘jig’ and ‘amble’. We don’t know, because we always see her through the lens of others.
Marianne did play Ophelia in 1969, opposite Nicol Williamson’s Hamlet. Here, she had the more flower-child, Pre-Raphaelite appearance of the later Biba Girl, when the shop moved to Kensington High Street and the look became more gentle and dreamy, with flowing hair and ringlets and more subdued eye make-up. Again, the appearance was deceptive; this Ophelia was wayward and provocative.
Ophelia as beautiful passive victim is epitomised in the painting by John Everett Millais, showing her laden with flowers, drifting down the river to her death. The muse for hundreds of paintings, songs and books, she is associated with flowing hair, dishevelled appearance, a white dress, flowers, a deranged and pitiful expression.
She is the canvas on which artists of all kinds can express their imaginative visions. She hangs out on Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row. She has inspired Nick Cave.
Small consolation, though. Poor Ophelia. She was controlled by men until she went to her watery grave. And she might have had the pose, but she never had the pleasure of a crepe dress, a floppy picture hat and over-the-knee suede boots, all for under a fiver.