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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The Dressmaker’s Library: The One Hour Dress series

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The One Hour Dress by Mary Brooks Picken

In centuries past women not only wore corsets and fitted clothing.  They carried yards of fabric trailing after them or bustled up behind them.  The clothing actually wore a woman by  defining how she moved and shaping her body in ways nature never intended.  With the dawning of the 1910s, women in many Western countries began to move into clothing they could wear and move in with ease.  The development of the One Hour Dress by Mary Brooks Picken must have seemed astounding in one way.  In another way women may have looked at its simple shape and wondered why nobody had made such clothing for them before.

For this book review I’m using three of the many books Mary wrote about the One Hour Dress.  The books are all published by Bramcourt Publications.  The titles are:

The One Hour Dress 21 New Designs with Complete Instructions for Making

The One Hour Dress with 17 New Designs for 1924

The One Hour Dress with 17 New Designs with Detailed Instructions for Making

The pattern drafting instructions are very simple.  The measurements needed are the length from about the collarbone at the front going straight down to the waist or hip.  The measurement for the armhole is taken by measuring from front to back around the arm.  The only measurement for width is the hipline.  Using these measurements and following a detailed sequence of steps, the pattern is drawn onto the fabric and then cut.

As I studied the instructions I noted that there is no exact measurement for style ease or lowering the armhole for a comfortable fit.  These are adjustments that I think it is wise to make on a muslin.  Another factor for creating a muslin is to check if the finished width of the dress will be flattering on your figure.  It is important to remember that the hipline defines the width of the entire dress.  If one is pear shaped or larger in the middle, the fitting might not be the best without some adjustments.  For women with curvy figures the resulting tubular shape will also require some experimentation.  Once the fit and amount of width is agreeable you are free to use this basic block shape in many ways.

The creativity comes from the way in which skirts are created using gathers, fluttering insets or wide sashes.  Contrasting bands of color are sometimes added.  There are also many clever use of pleatings at the side seams to create walking room.  A very unusual feature is a horizontal dart made at the hip level.  This is supposed to achieve a degree of shaping.  I’ve tried it but find the hemline on a one piece dress goes off-grain.  I think this is because the intake of the horizontal dart requires lifting fabric up from the side seam and tapering to nothing near the hipbone.

The dresses all feature a form of a kimono sleeve which you can vary in length and depth once you get used to working with this technique.  There are also instructions in some books for creating long sleeves.  These are more rectangles sewn into the kimono type sleeve of the dress.  Overall I look at this dress as a series of rectangles that gain character and style based on the embellishments you add, the type of color or print, and the way you vary other elements such as pockets, bands and pleats.

The dresses slip over the head and are closed along one shoulder line using snaps.  Necklines are often finished with bias tape.  Hems for sleeves and skirts can be machine or hand stitched.

I have seen some good results of dresses other bloggers have created using Mary’s system.  The results are very creative.  Check out the pretty results at the Take a Length Blog posting The One Hour Dress.

Even if you don’t use Mary’s system it will help you when you draft a basic chemise dress for a 1920s inspired fashion.  You’ll get a good idea about where pockets, pleats, insets and sashes can be placed while at the same time using the more precise and proportional results a drafted pattern using modern techniques will achieve.