The Dressmaker’s Library: The Biba Years 1963-1975

The Biba Years

The Biba Years 1963-1975 by Barbara Hulanicki and Martin Pel
Published by V&A Publishing, London

As part of my ongoing education, I am seeking out female designers of the last 50-75 years who have embraced what I define as the “retro glam factor” and worked at bringing it to the everyday woman.  Such female designers are replacing the male couturieres  who were once the sole source of my inspiration and vision.  While I admire their techniques and the innovations created by such male designers as Christian Dior,  I no longer feel a need or desire to connect with what they represent.  The same goes for female designers of haute couture.  The world which they worked in and designed for is not the world I live in nor was it the world in which the women I personally took inspiration from lived in.  At the start of 2017 I promised myself that a major realignment of design vision was necessary.  I am happy to tell that it is successfully underway.  Mary Quant* was the first designer who initiated this process.  Now I am experiencing another reorientation by studying the work of Barbara Hulanicki, the design genius behind Biba.

Like Mary Quant, Barbara’s success was not only a result of her sharp design sense and hard work.  Barbara’s  husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, believed in her talent and became the force behind running the business side of Biba.  The same was true for Mary Quant and her husband, too.  Another similarity with Mary is that Barbara was deeply in love with her husband and also a mother who loved her son very much.  Both women loved being mothers and never felt it took away from their design work or career.  The difference between Barbara and Mary in terms of their business focus lie in the targeted customer.  Mary’s designs were geared towards the more upscale customers in London as her price range was always higher.  Barbara, on the other hand, wanted her clothing to be manufactured at the most reasonable price possible so that she could sell very affordable clothing to the shop girl and the young working woman.

Barbara’s earliest influences were her Mom and her maternal Aunt.  The Hulanicki family was Polish and moved to Jerusalem in the late 1930s because that is where Barbara’s father first worked for the Polish government and then the British Mandate for Palestine.  He was murdered in 1948 an event that was to leave a deep impression on Barbara’s creative vision.  This is because in her retreat into the past Barbara found a sense of comfort and reassurance.  Barbara, her mother, and younger sister Biruta moved to England where Barbara’s maternal Aunt Sophie took the family into her care.

Aunt Sophie was a throwback to an earlier time when women dressed for dinner, wore gloves, sported ladylike dresses and reveled in all the baubles, accessories and expressions of femininity.  She had very definite ideas of what was lady-like and what was not.  In her presence Barbara was able to pick up a connection to the fashions of the past.  As she reached adolescence Barbara also looked back on her time in Jersualem with a sense of nostalgia and a vision of the exotic which life there had.  She also immersed her self in the world of movie stars and the cinema.  All this led to a fusion of the elements that exploded into the creative vision of Biba.

Biba started out as a mail order boutique but quickly grew into a popular location for the young once the first shop was opened on Abingdon Road in London in 1965.  The name Biba was a nickname for Barbara’s younger sister.  She liked the appeal it had and also the fact that the targeted customer was about the age of her younger sister.  At first Barbara’s styles followed the unfitted chemise which was very popular around 1963-1966.  Then something happened.  More success brought more financial means to expand the scope of Barbara’s design vision.  Soon she was creating styles that had a very fresh appeal yet harkened back to the past through such details as 1940s puffed and tucked sleeves, 1930s slinky cuts and 1920s tubular knits and cloche hats.  Barbara worked on creating unique design features like the Biba Dart, shorter shoulder lines and higher armholes.  This created the appearance of an almost doll like body on the wearer but also lent a degree of discomfort since the sleeves were too tight, a feature that Barbara said was essential to her look.

Biba continued to grow and expand into a full-fledged department store complete with roof-top garden in the 1970s.  The Recession of the 1970s caused financial difficulties which resulted in the store closing in 1975.  The legacy that Barbara left is one of bringing an element of elegance to the masses and proving that it can be done at an affordable price.  Some sources online say that there were sometimes problems not only with the fit but some of the textiles used.  Still the long success which Biba enjoyed proves that there is a need for affordable clothing for the everyday woman which does more than just clothe the body but links the woman to a spirit of femininity which combines the best of both the past and the present.  Some photos from the book which show Barbara’s development through the years follow.

*For my previous reflections on Mary Quant please visit:

The Dressmaker’s Library: “Mary Quant * Autobiography”

The Pink Gingham Dress by Biba, 1964

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Biba designs made into sewing patterns, mid-1960s

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Biba Designs, early to mid-1970s

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1930s Dress Completed! Meet Miss Norma N. Carol

Hello to all my WordPress friends and blog subscribers.  I am very happy to introduce you to Miss Norma Naomi Carol, the name I selected for the dress I’ve finally completed for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  I love selecting a name for an outfit I have completed.  I chose this name as a way to say thank you to the three WordPress bloggers who have seen me through this year long learning experience.  Norma started it with the challenge to sew a 1930s style using techniques appropriate to the period.   Carol generously provided material from her research which she posted at her blog and some which she emailed me during the early stages of the sew-along.  Naomi gave me ongoing support and encouragement as I worked my way through the stumbling blocks and challenges that come with going outside one’s usual repertoire of sewing techniques.  I hope you will accept this homage as my way of saying “Thank You Very Much!”

I will let the photos do the rest.  .  .

Accessories

I decided that since this is an interpretation of a Depression Era style, accessorization should be very simple and kept at a minimum.  For that reason I chose a simple pair of pearl earrings with a bow made of rhinestones that works with the orange-yellow buds in the print of the fabric.  The other accessory is a reinforced belt with fabric covered buckle and snap closure.  Thread loops were created in the color of the belt to downplay their presence on the dress.

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Here she is, Miss Norma Naomi Carol

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1930s Sew-along with Norma: Reinforced Belt

Introduction

Since I put so much hand sewing into my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma, I decided that the belt would be completely handmade.  It offered the opportunity for me to try fell stitching as well as get creative with the belt making process

Challenges

The fashion fabric is a very busy print consisting of tiny orange, red and yellow flowers and buds with spring green leaves and stems against a slightly cream colored background.  All details such as the darts, hand sewn bias bound neckline and sleeve finishings are not discernible.  It was important that the belt work with the print and provide a striking contrast.

With the help of RetroGlam readers I chose a lightweight silky fabric in a green that pulled the total look together.  The thin fabric needed some extra weight to support the belting material and the buckle.  This was challenge number 1:  selecting the kind of belting I wanted and the underlining for the silky fabric.

Traditional belting is too stiff to permit sewing snaps onto.  I decided to forego eyelets and a buckle with a prong because these would look too harsh with the dress whether they were in gold or silver.  I needed a buckle without a prong and a backing that was supple enough and lightweight enough to encircle the waist and permit sewing on of snaps.   So here was challenge number 2.

Challenge number 3 knocked all my plans into disarray when I found that the green fabric had numerous little spots that would not go away when I washed the fabric for a second time.  I can only think that these spots were caused by perfume I’d spritzed over myself while the fabric was air drying on a rack in the bath tub.  Lesson learned:  once fashion fabrics are no longer dripping move the drying rack out of the tub and into the entrance way.  Never spray perfume, hair spray, air freshener, etc. if clothing or fabric is hanging or drying nearby.  Since I live in a small apartment in a crowded urban setting there’s no way to air dry clothes outdoors or in a separate laundry room.

I’d only bought 1 yard of the green fabric and to my dismay it got spotted along both sides of the selvedges which was important since the selvedge would provide the finish for the underside of the belt.  I found a part of the fabric without any spots at all but it was all on the cross grain for about 12 inches in length.  This meant I’d be working against the instructions for making the belt and also have a less than satisfactory result.  I decided to accept what I had available and improvise the rest.  What you see in this tutorial is an example of making do.  Since this is a 1930s sew-along I like to think this is in the spirit of resourcefulness sewistas had to cultivate during the economic difficulties of The Great Depression.

Source of Instructions

I adapted the reinforced belt making instructions from page 250 of  Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing, Seventh Printing, July 1980.

Source for Belt Buckle

Another difficulty of working with the green fabric was that it did not take kindly to the fabric glue used in belt making kits for adhering the fabric to the buckle.  I was able to find an artisan on Etsy who makes various kinds of fabric covered belts and buckles.  Michelle Tan uses a special pressing machine that folds the fabric around the buckle in a way so that it is much stronger and well finished than buckles made from kits that use glue.  Please take a look at her cute buttons and other notions.

Non-traditional belting considerations

I wasn’t sure of which fabric to use.  I first bought a length of crinoline which provided body but not enough to be flexible around the waist.  I then tried a heavy linen type fabric but that was too soft.  I got the bright idea of using Ban-Roll waistbanding since it does not crush and hugs the waist just right–when used in a skirt.

I now had the makings of challenge number 4:  I learned why the product is called Ban-Roll.  It likes to roll and encircle the waist.  It requires a gentle steaming with a press cloth and iron after staying on the dress form for longer than a few minutes.

All these shortcomings aside–I love the new belt.  I have hopes that when I make the next one correctly it will far exceed what turned out this time.

Making a Reinforced Belt When Forced to Cut on the Crosswise Grain

The crosswise grain is weaker and does not favor waistbands with backing.  I think for a self-tie belt it will work ok.  I also learned that for Pussycat Bows you can use it as well, just so long as you don’t mind a bow that lacks the loft of a bias cut bow.

Basic measurements of the piece you will cut for belt fabric:

Width-2 times the width of the belt + 1/2″

Length-waist circumference + 8″

The extra 1/2″ should be measured up from the selvedge

For belting material:

Length of belting=Waist circumference + 7″

Pattern and belt making instructions I used as a starting point.

1a.  Supplies I used:  Banroll cut with a point at one end, hand sewing needles/#6 Betweens, micro tweezers to remove basting threads, mini scissor, dryer sheet as thread conditioner, cotton basting thread, poly/cotton sewing thread, glass head straight pins, artisan made fabric covered buckle; belt fabric and cotton/poly underlining.

1a.  The green fabric shredded which necessitated me pinking the edges.  As a result I had less than the 1/2″ extra that was needed for the belt.  I compensated by using lace hem tape to cover up the edge that would finish the belt on the inside.  This function is fulfilled when the fabric is cut on the lengthwise grain along the selvedge.

The underlining was pinned in place and secured to the fabric using small running stitches with a double strand of thread.  I had to do this to provide strength for the construction.

The lace was sewn over the edge using a double strand of sewing thread  I used tiny running stitches for the flexibility they offer.

The fabric was folded right sides together and stitched along the short side 1/2″ in from the edge.

I folded it to create the arrowhead shape shown in the photo.  Then this was turned right side out.  A press cloth was placed over the fabric before it was steam pressed.

2.  View of the wrong side of the belt before turning the point right side out.

3.   Belting or substitute is inserted into the fabric point matching the point of the belting to the point of the fabric.  The unfinished side (or side without selvedge) is pinned in place.  I then basted it in place since I do not like sewing with pins in the fabric.

4. After this the finished edge of the belt (or selvedge) is turned up and pinned over the unfinished edge.  The fabric proved slippery and I had to tweak the position of the seam and the folds before pinning.  Then this was basted into place.

To secure the edge into place I used a fell stitch which I ended up disliking but left in place.  I plan to use tiny catch stitches the next time.

5.  After the hand sewing is finished, the raw edge is wrapped around the buckle, folded once and slip stitched into place.

Then the upper part of the snap was sewn onto the belt near the point.

With the garment on the dress form, I next placed the belt on to find where I needed to place the snaps.  I rubbed some Tailor’s Chalk onto the snap and then pressed against the belt.  The white dot is a chalk mark that tells me where to sew the lower part of the snap.

6.  The lower part of the snap is pinned and sewn into place.

7.  My label and the size of the belt are sewn in near the buckle.  I like the way the catch stitch looks here.  Since a belt made from Ban-Roll loves to curl I found that the fabric had a tendency to look a little rippled afterwards.  I attribute this to the cross grain.

I made a thread loop to use so that the belt can be stored on a hanger when not in use.

The finished belt was pressed using a press cloth over it.  The iron was held above the press cloth and never placed directly on it.

8.  Belt was then hung up to dry after all that steam pressing.

 

9.  Close-ups of completed belt.

The dress and belt will be photographed next week.