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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