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



Biba Designs, early to mid-1970s




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

mary-3“Mary Quant * Autobiography”.  Published by Headline Publishing Group, 2012.

Much has been written about how Christian Dior revolutionized fashion with the New Look of 1947.  But modern fashion historians are thinking twice about the designation of “revolutionary” when applied to the actual elements of the 1947 New Look.  The concepts behind the fashions were a throwback to the early 20th century when wealthy women dressed several times a day for different events.  The importance was on conforming to the external standards of beauty which meant heavy corseting to achieve the so called ideal shape.

At the time Dior’s New Look came into vogue a young English girl with a keen eye for color was reaching adolescence.  Her name was Mary Quant and she had the sensibility of an artist even during the WWII years when the family lived way out in the countryside to escape the dangers that existed closer to, and in, the big cities.  Mary’s autobiography breathes with life in each short chapter that captures a part of her development and her progress towards becoming a real revolutionary designer, one who freed women from all trappings of the past and introduced a brash and bold sense of movement to clothing.


A little black dress with slightly flared flounces on the sleeves and an innocent Peter Pan collar in white by Mary.

Mary retells her story in a way that makes her total personality emerge.  She was passionate about changing fashion but did not live in the world with blinders on.  The first love and constant love in her life was her husband and business partner Alexander Plunkett Green.  She also loves her son Orlando.  Mary writes openly about the challenges of  getting over the loss of  a daughter and another baby due to miscarriage, her husband’s infidelities and the need of getting a good nanny for Orlando.  In doing  so she shows us the other side of her life, the one behind the praise of the press and the glitter of being at so many fashionable parties each week.

You will not get any sewing details or patternmaking insights from Mary’s autobiography but you will get inside the way her mind works.  As such, you’ll get some cues as to where she drew inspiration from and how she developed it into realized form.  Mary loves color from all sources in life.  She can see a black dress and think that white topstitching will help the design catch more attention.  The commonplace Peter Pan collar took on a new aspect when combined with her mini dresses that followed a fit and flatter princess line.  In Mary’s vision, a simple tubular dress becomes elegant with the addition of circular collar and circular flounces on the sleeves.


This dress was named “Daddy’s Girl” by Mary.  It was one of the popular styles in her early years as a designer.  The dress is distinguished by the circular flounces used for the collar and cuffs of the sleeves.  Modelled by Jean Shrimpton.

One insight and source of inspiration reveals how the seeds of the mini skirt developed inside Mary’s mind over many, many years.  As a young girl taking dance lessons, she saw a ‘tween age girl in the room where tap dancing practice was  in progress.  The ‘tween was wearing textured tights and white ankle socks along with patent leather Mary Jane styled tap shoes.  With this the little girl wore a very short pleated skirt.  Mary remembered that this expressed all the concepts she wanted to bring into real fashions for young women.  Something evocative of the freedom of movement and spontaneity young girls have.  If you look at the popular styles of the 1960s you will see how this vision came to fruition as women took to short skirts, ribbed knit poor boy sweaters, textured tights and stockings and flat shoes.

Mary thought that haute courture resulted in sad clothing for sad women.  The clothing was not used and worn and exposed.  It was measured, restrained and available only to a few.  The restrictive elements of couture clothing reduced women to elegant clothes hangers for the garment.  Mary wanted to make clothing affordable and available to the masses.  It is true her first customers were the Chelsea girls in London, but Mary’s positive outlook did not make her turn away American retailers who offered mass marketed clothing like J.C. Penney.

Where Dior was a revolutionary was in the way he developed his brand into many different product lines and entered into licensing agreements.  On the business side of fashion that was a forward development.  In terms of style he was inspired by looking backward.  Mary too looked to  her own past but brought it out in a way nobody had before.  She developed pantyhose which freed women from the use of girdles and garter belts.  Her loose fitting clothing did away with the need for restrictive under garments.

For these reasons I think this book is a good addition to any dressmaker’s library.  It’s not just sewing techniques that help boost your skills.  It’s also learning to look at the world creatively, like Mary did, and then let the magic flow forth.

The Dressmaker’s Library: Young Originals – Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate, Part 1

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Review of Young Originals Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate
by Rebecca Jumper Matheson. 
Published by Texas Tech University Press, 2015.

Fashion did not focus on the needs of girls in the late stages of their ‘tween years and early teenage years in the first 40 years of the 20th century.  Girls in this age group were considered little ladies in waiting.  The needs of their developing figures were not catered to in any way by designers and manufacturers.  Clothing for this demographic was cut slightly larger and sold in the children’s department.  The concept of a young consumer with specific needs and developing preferences was not treated seriously until a designer named Emily Wilkens went to California to work as a designer for child star Ann Todd.

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Early 1960s sketch by Erica Perl Merkling depicting Wilken’s ideal teenage girl.  A healthy body weight was the basis of good health, an integral part of Wilken’s concept of beauty.

As her reputation for catering to the needs and preferences of child and early teenage stars grew, Emily became more and more aware of the special needs of the teenage girl.  Keeping in mind her own younger sister Barbara, Emily began to envision the ideal weight, shape, appearance and figure flattering clothes necessary to help a ‘tween and young teenage girl develop a sense of style that anticipated her blossoming into young womanhood with charm and grace.

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Emily Wilkens Young Originals dress from 1944.  Each design was patented to prevent piracy.

In 1941 Emily Wilkens was back in New York.  This time as a costume designer for the Broadway play Junior Miss.  She designed the costumes under the auspices of Best Department Store so her name does not appear in the credits.  Nonetheless, the teenage characters in the play were attired in such a way to show their transition towards becoming stylish teenagers.  This was achieved by dressing the teenage actresses in somewhat sloppy looking sweaters and skirts at the start of the play.  Later, the girls wear pretty blouses and neat jumpers.  The jumpers and blouses were the forerunners of Emily’s own line where the emphasis was on perfect fit and figure flattering details meant to accommodate the changes in a girl’s figure.

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The model in this photo is Tee Matthews.  She wears an Emily Wilkens Young Originals summer dress.  Tee was very popular model with GIs during WWII because she embodied what we now call the “girl next door” look.  Advertisements where Tee modeled shorts and swimwear were cut out and used as pin-ups by the soldiers.  Tee’s appeal exemplified Wilkens belief that shiny hair, a clear complexion, exercise, diet and a positive outlook were much more important than drop dead glamour for a girl to be attractive.

Emily entered into a partnership with a clothing manufacturer that enabled her to design under her own name.  By the age of 26 she was on her way to winning awards for her contributions to the growing teen fashion market.  Some of her preferred construction details used to create a flattering silhouette for the growing teenage girl were:  double or triple French darts on the bodice, smocking across the abdomen or chest; and intricate trimming or embroidery on the skirt of the dress.

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Emily used details from 19th century fashions to add a special touch to her teen sophisticate dresses.  The dress worn by the teenage model was inspired by a late 19th century children’s dress trimmed with lace inset with ribbon.

Emily’s peak designing years saw her receive greater recognition in the press and the fashion industry.  Yet when she got married in 1947 social pressures caused her to end her career.  She became the wife of Irving Levey, a New York State Supreme Court judge and soon the mother of a boy and girl.  Emily returned to fashion in the 1950s but her styles were geared towards the older teen ready to go to college.  Emily was known to appear and disappear from the fashion scene throughout the decade.  She remained active when possible by designing for pattern companies.  These projects kept her name and influence going.

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This model embodies the healthy, natural look Emily considered the basis for success in cultivating and expressing one’s style and presence.

In the 1960s Emily taught a workshop at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  By the end of the decade she changed her focus and remained relevant throughout the late 1980s.  Emily taught women through speaking engagements, radio appearances, and the books she wrote.  She distilled the essence of her experience at health and beauty spas into programs anyone could adapt for personal use at home.  In this way Emily reached a wide audience at a time when the mainstream American culture began to appreciate the relationship between diet, exercise, and skin care as integral parts of cultivating one’s attractiveness.  Emily was diagnosed with dementia and entered a home in the 1990s.  She passed away in 2000.

Thanks to Emily Wilkens the modern teenager, as well as the woman with a youthful figure who can wear a junior size, have access to flattering clothes in sizes geared to their body proportions.  It isn’t necessary for teens to shop in the children’s department nor for a junior size woman to buy a Misses size and have it altered.  On a personal note, I am so grateful for Wilkens and her contemporaries for breaking this ground.  As a mature woman who can still wear junior sized 7 clothing I have to say that they fit me so much better than a Misses size 6.  I’m sure others with the same figure type will recognize something of themselves in the sketches and models who embodied the look Wilkens promoted.

Note:  The purpose of a two part book review consists of using part 1 to introduce Emily Wilkens to my blog readers and subscribers.  In part 2 I will use a Q&A format to review the book and explain why I think it is a valuable addition to a dressmaker’s library.





The Dressmaker’s Library: My very own style council via these books

I’m following a year long practice of daily reflections from a book called “Simple Abundance” by Sarah Ban Breathnach.  A few weeks back one of the entries mentioned an exercise from a book published during the Great Depression.  It was one of the very first self-help books that showed readers how to think positively and through discipline and effort work one’s way to a more abundant, prospering and successful life.  The book was called “Think & Grow Rich” by Naploeon Hill.  Sarah provided her version of an exercise from Hill’s book which led me to a wonderful discovery that has been waiting for me to get around to admitting it into my life.

The exercise is to think in a quiet place each night or morning about 4 influential people you are inspired by and who you seek advice from.  This is not a replacement for prayer or putting these people above God.  They are to be looked upon as role models you resonate with.  Once you have four people you spend some time with them by envisioning a conversation with them after you put a question to them.  If the answer doesn’t come during your quiet time, await the results by going about the rest of the day or evening.  An answer will come forth.

So what I did was sit down and ask myself which designers really, really move me?  Why do I feel hopeless whenever I admire the French Haute Couture creations too often?  Who do I really think were true revolutionaries of fashion for women?  The first few times I did this all I got was Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Calvin Klein and Vionnet.  I didn’t like the results because I felt like I had this enormous weight upon my chest.  It felt hopeless to converse with these legends.  I put off the exercise for a week.

And then one after another I was led to consider designers I’d learned about in passing from conversations with my Mom or maternal Grandmother.  I began googling and found used books by each designer.  Without hesitation or a preoccupation with couture I realized I had found designers who made clothes that woman wore.  These clothes worked with the woman and did not restrain her or turn her into a clothes hanger.

And to futher amaze me each of my favorite decades was represented.  So–drumroll–here is the result of my soul searching and book shopping:

“Young Originals” by Rebecca Jumper Matheson
A bio of 1940s ready to wear American designer Emily Ann Wilkens.

“What Shall I Wear?”
A book about cultivating one’s unique sense of style by American designer Clair McCardell.  The illustrations and photos focus on 1950s fashions.

“Mary Quant Autobiography”
I was so very, very excited when Mary came to mind.  Mary Quant is for me the real revolutionary not Dior.  In the mid 1950s Mary created a New Look that brought freedom of movement to a woman’s body.  Dior was harking back to the old look of the pre-WWII era when women wore corsets and crinolines, big hats and fancy accessories.  The world outside of the U.K. received Mary’s influence and styles as the 1960s began.

“The Biba Years 1963-1975”
The story of Barbara Hulanicki and the Biba boutique.  I learned about Biba during the early 1970s.  Barbara was the first ready to wear designer that I saw mix retro glam influences into modern styles.  This will be the first time I study her life and designs in any depth.  Barbara lived and worked in the U.K.

I’m about 1/3 of the way through the Emily Ann Wilkens bio.  There are many insights I’m gaining into the development of junior clothing.  Emily Ann also had a very healthy muse for her inspiration.  Her girl was of average height and healthy body proportions.  After I finish each book I will share a review, details and what influences I find each designer has upon me.

If anyone is interested in the complete scope of “Think & Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, a free downloadable PDF is available at

When reading Hill’s book please keep in mind it was written in 1930s and the successful people featured are all men.  I read it with a mind to extract the principles and exercises.  I think there is room to be creative and update the techniques to suit one’s own needs.

I have worked on the photos of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma dress and should be posting about it next week.  The bias binding finish worked out very well.  I have enough photos to provide ideas to others who want to try such a finish out.



Dressmaker’s Library: “Draping Art and Craftsmanship in Fashion Design”

“Draping Art and Craftsmanship in Fashion Design” by Annette Duburg and Rixt van der Tol is a superb book to own if you want to take your draping skills to a whole new level. I have had this book since Christmas 2014 and have learned so much just reading it and studying the photos of the garments in all stages of the draping process.

Each step of the draping process is accompanied by photos which have very clearly marked grain lines and seam lines. The technical drawings are very clear, as well. Even so, it is a book that beginners may find a little difficult to learn from since there are certain details that are very sophisticated. Although I had two years of draping instruction in a classroom, the technique we learned came right out of “Draping for Fashion Design” by Hilda Jaffe and Nurie Relis. Jaffe and Relis’ book would be easier for a sewista to learn from because the construction details used are familiar to anyone who drafts their own patterns or uses commercial patterns.

Duburg and van der Tol create basic bodices and skirts that are used in slightly different ways. For example, the basic bodice does not end at the waist but is extended to the hipline.

Using this longer basic, fitted bodice as the basis of a two piece dress results in a different approach. It seems that the longer basic bodice is used as a support over which the other components of a design are attached. In the photo above for an empire waist dress, the higher waistline is marked off on the basic fitted bodice. The skirt portion is draped on top of that with the bodice remaining in one piece. There are no instructions given to cut the bodice along the higher waistline. The same is true for a two piece dress using a pencil skirt for the lower half. The longer fitted bodice is left as shown in the photo above. I’m not sure what the construction would be like in such a dress in terms of closures. I would think zippers could be slightly bulkier.

A strapless bodice is created from the same fitted bodice extended to the hipline. The entire bodice is draped and then style tape is used to mark the style lines of the strapless design. Jaffe and Relis do not drape their version of a strapless bodice like this. Instead they mark the strapless design onto the dress form and the muslin is then draped to follow the style lines.

A key area of difficulty for me would be draping the set-in sleeves shown for some of the styles created in the book. There is the assumption that the reader knows what a good armhole depth would be and no specific measurement is given. In Nurie and Relis’ book instructions are always more detailed instructing the draper to lower the armhole so many inches down.

These differences, though, do not detract from the value this book adds to the Dressmaker’s Library. By studying the styles and following the photographs one can get ideas of how to simplify the designs and adapt their own techniques to create them.

Two Christian Dior New Look designs from the early 1950s are included in the book with complete instructions for creating the draped pattern. The only drawback is that no construction details are given for things like closures, underlining and interfacing.

There is great value in the study of the designs such as these. The photos showing how the dress form was prepared for draping the style reveal what types of petticoats and shaping are needed if you want to create an exact replica of the look. Tulle and hip padding are two important elements of each design.

The other design element are higher armholes and a slightly sloping shoulder line.

After serious consideration of these silhouettes I do not think many women today would want to wear an exact replica since the hip padding has the effect of making the woman look slightly heavy in the mid-section. For a woman of average height (5’4″ to 5’6″) this could end of making her look dumpy and frumpy. If, however, these styles are used as catalysts to get your own imagination working then the study and outlay for the book will prove worthwhile. The silhouettes can be updated to work in a manner that would be much more flattering to the modern woman. Personally I do not care at all for the hip padding and unusual shapes around the abdomen some of the Dior suits of this era used.

I plan at some point to return to draping using the technique I learned at school using Hilda Jaffe and Nurie Relis’ technique. I do plan to take the ideas in “Draping Art and Craftsmanship in Fashion Design” by Annette Duburg and Rixt van der Tol into consideration and use them as a starting point. I’m very excited to see how things will develop.