“People try to put us down, talking ’bout my generation, just because we get around” – “My Generation” The Who
The arrival of the Modernist movement, mod for short, also marked the arrival of what we now know as youth culture. While generally acknowledged as having its genesis in the late 50s, who this movements originators were, is disputed.
Some argue that it started in Soho where a small group of bohemians cultivated a Francophile lifestyle based on a shared love of existential thought, experimental jazz and espresso coffee. Others that it began in East London, where a coterie of youths began to dress in Italian suits and copy the hairstyles of the leading French male actors of the time.
Whoever was responsible, adopting this continental sophistication as a lifestyle choice provided an opportunity for self-expression and a way to rebel against the drabness of late 1950s Britain.
It was a look that was sleek, smart, smooth. One that was all about the details and which formed part of an all-encompassing lifestyle. One that gave this, the first youth generation with disposable income, the perfect opportunity to satisfy their acquisitiveness.
The male disciples of this clothes obsessed new religion dressed in tailor-made suits coupled with button down shirts and ties or fine knit polo shirts. Harrington golf jackets and slim line Sta Prest trousers also took hold. Footwear ranged from hand-made Italian shoes to Chelsea boots or Clarks desert boots. Hair was kept short in the classic French crop before morphing into a more tousled look as the decade progressed, think 90s icons Liam Gallagher and Ian Brown who mined the 60s stylistically as well as musically. A small number of male mods also experimented with makeup, making a statement designed to cause outrage in a mainstream society defined by its heteronormative patriarchy.
If Mod was a religion, its high priestess was Mary Quant who dressed a generation of fashion forward female modernists and whose legacy lives on to this day.
Tapping into the zeitgeist, she took inspiration from the emerging pop art movement and the nascent space programme in her use of bright bold colours and abstract shapes, the use of metallics and PVC. It was a fashion revolution of seismic scale, one which she presciently described as a youthquake.
Key to that revolution was the mini skirt. While many have claimed the design kudos it was Mary Quant who made them to sell from her Kings Road boutique and who named them after the Mini car, another iconic symbol of that decade. It was Quant who responded to feedback from her tribe of fledgling fashionistas, further shortening the hemlines and creating the skinny sweaters to accompany them and create that classic Quant silhouette. The mini skirt was accompanied by the mini-dress and her signature flower print and keyhole dresses which are equally synonymous with that decade. This new hem led hegemony was complimented by her gorgeous patterned and coloured tights and by patent knee or ankle boots.
Like their male counterparts, these female modernists demanded a hairstyle which complimented their wardrobe and lifestyle. This came courtesy of Vidal Sassoon’s asymmetric bob and geometric 5 point cut which were both inspired by the clean futuristic lines of Bauhaus architecture. These new styles exemplified the sense of empowerment a generation of young women, who refused to bow to prevailing societal norms, were feeling.
While mod as a fashion had died out by the late 60s, that modernist aesthetic of high-end high fashion looks and the complimentary lifestyle to accompany those garment choices lives on today, manifesting itself in the forensically curated Insta grids many use to portray the “perfect” version of themselves.
And of course, that Mary Quant style lives on, timeless while remaining achingly current. There won’t be many who don’t have a mini skirt, big floppy hat, ankle boots, a PVC mac, or possibly all of these items in their wardrobe. As I write this, a photo of a 2020 version of the classic 60s Mary Quant flower pattern mini-dress appears on my feed, evidence if any was needed of her enduring relevance. A relevance that continues to be channeled not just by the High Street but by some of our most celebrated designers.
Sixty years after Mod, London is at the centre of fashion and culture, a byword for streetstyle and lifestyle, the destination workplace for creatives from across the world. That’s testament to those modernists who created the London we know today.