Fashions from the 1970s and 1980s | The Fashion Museum

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Fashions from the 1970s and 1980s

What were the fashion looks of the 1970s and 1980s? Who were the designers making the fashion headlines and setting the trends? Here at the Fashion Museum we aim to build a collection that charts the twists and turns of the fashion industry, from the 1700s to the present day.

7 September 2020

There are always more stories to be discovered and work to be done to build a broader picture of fashion and style during this fascinating time of dress history; but we are sharing a handful of pieces from some of the names in British fashion in the 1970s and 1980s in our new image gallery. These pieces feature in the Fashion Museum’s collection of historic and contemporary dress.

Bill Gibb (1943-1988) is often cited as the fashion designer’s fashion designer. Christopher Bailey, previously creative director at Burberry said: “He was somebody who understood all the components of real fashion design - drape, fabric, texture, cut, knitwear, and even branding with that little bee”.  With his flamboyant flair for decoration, Scottish designer Gibb’s romantic and Renaissance inspired dresses frequently incorporated his trademark bee motif, either embroidered or printed on garments, or just glimpsed on an enamelled button. The Fashion Museum collection includes over 40 garments designed by Bill Gibb, many donated by those who worked closely with the designer.

An innovative group of designers worked in London in the early 1970s, and Bill Gibb was great friends with John Bates (b.1938), who designed under the name Jean Varon. The label produced ready to wear clothing, combining style and innovation with a slick marketing and distribution network. It has been said that John Bates had a prodigious talent for being able to make women look attractive, whatever their budget. The French pronunciation of the invented name ‘Jean Varon’ added a fashion cachet, as John Bates explains: “We wanted something very simple and stylish; as the French influence dominated the London fashion scene [at the time] it seemed to us that we stood a better chance of getting publicity and attracting shop buyers if we at least looked French”. The Jean Varon and John Bates collection at the Fashion Museum numbers over 600 pieces, a collection donated over many years by Richard Lester, and by the designer himself.

Set up at the beginning of the 1970s by Anita Woodhead and Belinda O’Hanlon, the AnnaBelinda shop in Oxford became a much-loved destination with a loyal clientele, where for over 40 years the team designed, hand-made, and retailed, bridal wear and pretty dresses, many featuring Liberty’s fabrics. The Fashion Museum collection includes 26 AnnaBelinda ensembles, many belonging to one client who wore them throughout the 1970s and 1980s before generously donating them to the museum.

Part of the same 1970s romantic tradition, Catherine Buckley re-purposed vintage fabrics. The story goes that Buckley rescued manufacturing samples from an abandoned textile factory in Scotland, and transformed them into distinctive patchworked garments, which retailed at Liberty’s and Harrods in London. As such the designer was part of the key 1970s fashion trend of looking back to the past to gain inspiration for a modern look.

Which brings us to Laura Ashley (1925-1985) who, drawing on the past for inspiration, gave the world the chaste full-length cotton dress in earth-hewn, natural-coloured, distinctive printed designs inspired by the past. These dresses set a fashion trend, coining a new phrase, the ‘Laura Ashley look’. A look that fashion editor Felicity Green, writing in the Daily Mirror on 1 January 1970, characterised as ‘soft core femininity’ and ‘Victorian type demureness’. There are over 100 Laura Ashley pieces in the Fashion Museum collection, and most were generously donated to us by women who wore and treasured their Laura Ashley dresses in the 1970s and 1980s, and were happy to share with us their individual stories and precious memories.

A different approach to fabric, but still working within the same nostalgic aesthetic, Gina Fratini (1931-2017) used flowing fabrics, often printed diaphanous silk gauzes, to make fairy tale and fantasy style dresses. The Fashion Museum collection includes over 40 pieces by Gina Fratini, a mixture of long flowing dresses and other evening and daywear, many donated by the designer herself.

The Emanuels, David (b. 1952) and Elizabeth (b. 1953), then a husband and wife design team, were best known for creating the wedding dress worn by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1981. The Emanuels’ signature romantic look, ballgowns with puffed sleeves and bouffant skirts, came to define a moment in time; and the Fashion Museum collection includes 15 Emanuel dresses or ensembles.

Bruce Oldfield (b. 1950) began making occasion couture wear in the mid-1970s, working from premises in Beauchamp Place in London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district. The designer writes about his start in the business: "I was getting a lot of editorial, as in lots of pages in Vogue, but it's far more important to get your dresses on the back of a famous person. Charlotte Rampling in Bruce Oldfield. That sells”. Across a career spanning more than 40 years Oldfield has dressed many international celebrities and A-listers, from Diana Ross and Barbara Streisand to Rihanna and Taylor Swift. Bruce Oldfield also continues to design occasion wear for members of the British Royal family, including Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. The Fashion Museum collection includes over 30 ensembles by Bruce Oldfield.

Another London couture house with a star-studded client list is Bellville Sassoon, originally founded in 1951 by Belinda Bellville, becoming Bellville Sassoon when David Sassoon’s name was added to the masthead in 1970. Sassoon first joined the house in 1958, straight from the Royal College of Art, where he trained as a fashion designer. Bellville Sassoon designed many dresses for Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1980s, including the peach coloured dress and bolero jacket ensemble that she wore as a ‘going-away’ ensemble, on her wedding day in 1981.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s couturier Victor Edelstein (b.1946) designed and created luxurious custom-made clothing from his workroom in Stanhope Mews West in London. The designer worked previously for Christian Dior London. Edelstein too dressed Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1980s; perhaps the most famous dress was the midnight blue velvet dress that the princess wore to dance with actor John Travolta at the White House in 1985.

These eminent British fashion designers, David Sassoon and Victor Edelstein, have chosen to gift their extensive archives – from garments and fashion drawings to photographs and publicity material - to the Fashion Museum.

This period is a strong area of the collection, with some 14,000 objects from the 1970s and 1980s currently listed on the museum database. The Fashion Museum has sizeable collections of work by British designers, including Wendy Dagworthy and Jean Muir, as well as Jan Vanvelden and Janice Wainwright. The collection also includes fashions from a wide variety of makers and manufacturers, showcasing wearers’ tastes and retailers’ practise.

But there are always more 1970s and 1980s fashion stories to discover! What we are sharing in this image gallery is just a taster. If you have any queries, or special requests, please get in touch, either via social media or by e-mail at [email protected]