Question: what connects Elton John’s waistcoat, rock ‘n’ roll curtains, and a table with Mickey Mouse legs? Answer: they’re all examples of Pop design – which, according to the Fashion and Textile Museum, is the most important cultural phenomenon of the last century.
Pop wasn’t a movement; it was more of an attitude. Pop blurred the boundaries between music, fashion and design. It was fun, mass-market and throwaway. It was fuelled by the consumer culture of two industrialised nations, Britain and America, and influenced by the likes of Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton.
The show takes us on a two-decade romp from 1956 to 1976. From the rock ‘n’ roll of the '50s, to swinging London, via psychedelia, proto-postmodernism and punk. There’s eye-watering op art, sharp mod suits, kaftans, and bondage; no surprises there. What’s fascinating is how the materials used speak volumes about each different phase of Pop, and each little chunk of design history.
So from the '50s, there’s a felt skirt appliquéd with musical notes and a cheap wooden “Viceroy Skiffle board”, suggesting carefree jiving and bedroom jamming sessions. Quant and Biba’s shiny '60s monochrome vinyl, and a metallic blue dress by Jean Muir scream “the future’s here!”. And Audrey Hepburn’s kohl-rimmed eye gazes out from the ultimate in disposable consumer fashion, a 1967 Harry Gordon paper dress.
The more politically engaged hippy movement of the late '60s and early '70s took a dim view of such frivolity. Elton John’s waistcoat, embroidered with trees, grazing cows and a white seal pup is an exquisite example of folksy West Coast denim art. Contrast this earthy idealism with a pair of Terry de Havilland platform shoes in metallic red and silver snakeskin – the epitome of superficial, brash camp. A fragile Vivienne Westwood cheesecloth bondage shirt, stencilled with a disintegrating Union Jack, is designed to self-destruct in iconoclastic punk style.
These objects weren’t meant to hang around for long. Fashion was and is ephemeral and ever changing, which is why looking at these pieces can be poignant. You might not be surprised by some of the things you see in this show, and there’s a thin line between ‘iconic’ and ‘cliché’. But the intelligent and clear narrative in the exhibition is a real strength. If you love vintage, go just to drool. But even if you don’t, this is a well-crafted display of design history.
Pop! Design, Culture, Fashion runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 27 October. Entrance £7/£5.
By Rachel Giles