Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, Reviews  |  April 23, 2015

70s Bohemian Chic

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the preview of the Fashion and Textile Museum’s latest exhibition: Thea Porter 70s Bohemian Chic.
The invitation (incredibly exciting in itself as I’d never received an invitation before!) was embossed with a silver hand symbol, an “anti-evil eye charm”, intended to bring luck and to give a small taste of the exotic chic that was to follow. The exhibition is a retrospective of a designer who, though prolific and successful in the 1960s and 1970s, had faded into fashion obscurity. Thea Porter was a key figure behind the vogue for worldly bohemia in the late ‘60s and, among other designers, was central in maintaining London’s reputation as the world’s fashion focal point.
Born in Jerusalem and growing up between Damascus and Beirut before settling in England, it was in Soho where Porter’s unique style of glamour found its customer with London’s young socialites. With an initial focus on interior design, her business began by importing soft furnishings and wall hangings, soon discovering a growing demand for Middle Eastern fabrics. The exhibition leads you through a childhood in the Middle East, directly linking Porter’s designs to the bazaars and markets she explored as a child.
Divided up by black veil screens, the museum spaces were set out to replicate corners of her store; arranged with ornate furniture and printed silks draped from the walls. Throughout the 60s and 70s just being seen in the right shops with the right people could be as important as actually wearing the right thing, and observing the relaxed atmosphere of the space it was apparent why her Soho store became a haunt for the rich and famous.
The early London scene had been dominated by modern fashions of miniskirts, shift dresses and optical prints in radical new materials. As people tired of Swinging London’s cliché and novelty they sought escape through nostalgic and sophisticated dresses; Porter’s printed textiles thrived in the shift towards romanticised bohemian style. Her designs were simultaneously glamourous and playful, and offered escapism to the wearer. Notable customers included Pink Floyd, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and even Princess Margaret.
My personal wardrobe is on the rational side (minimal frills and flutters) and I hadn’t thought too hard about what to wear to the event, however I found myself to be out by a decade and completely out of my comfort zone! Why on earth did I wear a smart shirt and shift dress when I should have been sauntering through in a flowing kaftan? I couldn’t help but envy the various attendees who donned floaty chiffon and embroidered robes, embodying the glamourous hippy ideal.
During her speech regarding the exhibition opening, Dame Zandra Rhodes mentioned how from the early stages of its inception 4 years ago, curator Laura McLaws-Helms could not have predicted the current trend for all things 1970s. The timing of this exhibition couldn’t be more perfect, although it stands to magnify the similarities of Porter’s society with our own. In an age where gap-years and prolonged travel are increasingly the norm, it seems apt for an exhibition to so accurately capture the mood of a Western world yearning for exotic escape and Eastern promise
Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic runs 6 February – 3 May 2015.

Sarah-Mary Geissler, Costume Society Amassador 2015

  • Detail of Porter gown Image Credit: Sarah-Mary Geissler
  • Recreation of Porter’s interiors Image Credit: Sarah-Mary Geissler
  • Examples of Porter’s menswear designs Image Credit: Sarah-Mary Geissler