Biba Essay by Amber Butchart Intro
"We were not interested in high society but in people on the streets."
A Re-examination of the Biba Myth and the Power of the Personal
[IMAGE 1] The author wearing the Biba dress owned by her mother in 2005 As every experienced oral historian knows... the simple assertion and counter-assertion that oral history sources are reliable or not, true or false... obscures the really interesting questions. The nature of memory brings many traps for the unwary... Yet they also bring unexpected rewards to a historian who is prepared to appreciate the complexity with which reality and myth, ‘objective' and ‘subjective,' are inextricably mixed in all human perception of the world.
(Thompson 2000: 156-157)
These are the personal stories, you know, the ones that aren't in the history books.
Jo Goode, Radio Presenter, speaking about Biba, BBC Radio London, 26/06/04
The Biba boutique existed in various guises from 1964 until its well documented and lamented demise in 1975. In just over a decade, Hulanicki and Fitz-Simon - its creators - succeeded in embedding their shop firmly within the hearts and memories of a generation of consumers. That these customers were living through a period of unprecedented growth and diversity in retail experience ensures that the allegiance people continue to show to the store through both testimony and writing is exceptional; at a time when fashion was allegedly ‘democratised' by the phenomenon of ‘Swinging London,' Biba is perpetually cited as the most significant milestone (Imlah 1993; Fogg 2003; Levy 2002; Wilson 1985; V&A 1960s fashion notes). The mythologizing of Biba feeds into, and from, the surrounding myths of the sixties themselves, yet my purpose is not to evaluate the impact of the ‘youthquake' on the cultural and economic climate, or to assess the place of boutique culture within the newly egalitarian retail spaces, arguments which have been endlessly enacted to become themselves part of the mythologizing process. Instead I intend to take one garment - a Biba dress owned by my mother - and locate it within the Biba myth as propounded by consumers who consistently personalise their shopping experience as a highly emotive and poignant area of self expression. I wish to identify the key myths to the Biba story and re-examine the validity of such concepts as ‘affordable street-fashion,' and the designer lifestyle, whilst simultaneously introducing areas such as technology and marketing into the equation, themes which are predominantly silenced through the Biba rhetoric of emotion and ‘soul' as promoted by Hulanicki herself. I will also explore the notion of cultural capital with relation to dissemination of style through fashion spreads in Nova magazine, questioning the autonomy of what became known as the ‘Biba look.' But essentially, drawing on disciplines and methodologies of material culture, garment history, social theory and oral testimony, I will assess the substance of fashion as an embodied and sensual experience that resonates within individual memories as an area of particular passion and magnitude.
The story of the Biba dress is one that is personal to me as well as my mother. The dress lingered in the background of my childhood as a reminder of my mother's exotic life before I was born; its extravagance mimicked the contents of our dressing up box, yet this was far too precious to be considered a plaything. The heaviness of the soft towelling complimented the rich emerald green colour, and the luxurious medieval sleeves and gathered shoulders exemplify the historical decadence that Hulanicki's designs were famed for in the late sixties and early seventies. The dress has a varied history of being worn by many people, evidence of which is present in its construction. As friends of my mother's borrowed it, they have taken it up and sewn down the front "where modesty prevailed," as my mother claimed, a point that she never had issue with herself. The ardour with which my mother discusses her Biba experiences and the items she bought is mirrored in many similar accounts, most recently in the 40th anniversary article that appeared in the Telegraph Magazine (26/06/04), in which various celebrities discuss their memories of the store. That the enthusiasm surrounding Biba is steeped in longevity was also illustrated by the ‘Bring Out Your Biba' campaign launched in 1993, as preliminary research for an exhibition created by Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle entitled ‘Biba: The label, the lifestyle, the look.' Over 600 people responded with loans of clothing or information and opinions regarding the much-cherished store (see exhibition catalogue; Tyne and Wear Museums, 1993). This was nearly twenty years after its close, in a city that would only have had access to Biba products by mail order, or a lengthy journey down to the capitol. Within the catalogue for this exhibition, I found what both my mother and myself believe to be her dress (see image 2). It was dated at 1972, which my mother initially disputed, but the period in which the dress was acquired can be narrowed down to between 1969 and 1972, from the Kensington High Street store. Dating the dress was intrinsic to my research, both for assessing the stage in the development of the Biba boutiques, as well as my mother's life, and how the two correlated.
 See appendix three for notes from the Jo Goode radio show on other personal recollections, and appendix four for testimonials from former Biba customers.