Fifty years ago, London was The Swinging City

From pop music to miniskirts to Academy Award-winning films, a cultural revolution was brewing in England – for a while

TORONTO, Ont. August 1, 2016/ Troy Media/ – You have to hand it to the English. From Brexit to the latest Royal happenings, they seem to be permanently in the news. Fifty years ago, the story was all about an apparent revolution in popular culture.

Although the vibe had been brewing for a while, Time magazine gave it the official North American imprimatur with its April 15, 1966, cover story. The message was simple. As the strip across the top left corner put it, “London: The Swinging City.”

The beginnings of the narrative can, of course, be traced to the Beatles’ musical conquest of North America a couple of years earlier. But the scope went far beyond that.

It was as if England in general, and London in particular, had suddenly become the popular culture capital of the western world, supplanting Hollywood and New York as the font of everything hip with respect to clothes, music, movies and even hairstyles.

The miniskirt, for example, became a fashion craze that changed the way young women dressed and caused consternation for personnel departments (as they were then called) everywhere. What length of skirt was appropriate for the office and how distracting would it be when young women fetched files from low cabinets? These were important questions in 1966.

Ascertaining the precise origins of the miniskirt is a fool’s errand, but three young English women played a major role in its propagation: Mary Quant, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy.

Quant (born 1934) was a fashion designer who opened her first store on London’s King’s Road in 1955. Her design specialty was “easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move,” and her young customers apparently wanted them “shorter, shorter.”

Shrimpton (born 1942) was reputedly the world’s most famous fashion model. Described as “the symbol of Swinging London,” perhaps her biggest contribution to the miniskirt’s popularity came from a late 1965 working visit to Australia, during which she turned up at a famous horse race in a white shift dress four inches or so above the knee. The photos immediately went what we’d now call viral.

Twiggy (born Lesley Hornby in 1949) became an instant modelling sensation after London’s Daily Express dubbed her “the face of 66.” Stick-thin and sporting a short, boyish haircut, she projected a waif-like, androgynous look that bore no resemblance to Shrimpton or other glamorous predecessors. And various manifestations of the mini completed the Twiggy image.

Then there was the music.

Big-name English bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominated the 1966 airwaves, but it was Londoner Ray Davies’s sarcastically, tongue-in-cheek Dedicated Follower of Fashion that perfectly caught the intersection between pop music and fashion. Lyrically evoking the cadence of The Scarlet Pimpernel – “They seek him here, they seek him there” – the song followed a young London dandy as he darted hither and thither in search of the perfect outfits for the various discotheques and parties that formed the fulcrum of his existence.

However, the cultural fascination with England wasn’t just about fashion and pop music. Films also came into it. After playing a poor second fiddle to Hollywood for decades, English movies were suddenly trendy, being deemed to have a style, irreverence and authenticity that Hollywood couldn’t match.

At the April 18, 1966, Academy Awards ceremony, Julie Christie won the Best Actress award for her portrayal of the morally vacant Diana Scott in the unremittingly cynical Darling. British audiences may have been relatively indifferent to the film, but North Americans of a sophisticated bent were taken by its aura of nihilistic “realism.”

And Darling wasn’t the only English movie that North Americans liked in 1966. There was the gritty Alfie, with the young Michael Caine; Georgy Girl with Lynn Redgrave as a young woman in Swinging London; the eccentric comedy Morgan; and the Oscar-winning adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More.

The wheel, however, turns remorselessly and within a few short years, the popular images of England morphed from Carnaby Street fashion to endless strikes, power outages and economic turmoil. Chronologically, the journey from Julie Christie to Margaret Thatcher was a relatively short one.

Always and ever, reality bites.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. Pat is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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