Exhibition Archives: Pop! Design, Culture, Fashion


Pop was probably the most significant cultural phenomenon in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Pop was a broad-based, grass roots culture whose young exponents constantly blurred the boundaries of its primary vehicles of expression and communication; music, fashion and design. These interests had their origins in a popular culture far too diverse and spontaneous to be identified with or controlled by any particular group of intellectuals or artists. This was particularly so in Britain, where the subtle connections between pop musicians, pop designers and pop artists resulted from a shared common inheritance, with many having begun their careers in the numerous art schools which mushroomed around the country, following the second world war. In this exhibition those connections are explored through design: the visual expression of pop culture.

The Pop in Popular, 1945 –1956

Although American popular post-war culture provided many of the ingredients for Pop design, in Britain, since the 1920s, there had been a growing interest in Victorian and Edwardian popular art, particularly nineteenth century advertising. Following the Second World War an increasing number of books were published on the subject. This interest intensified in the early 1950s, when post-war popular culture, more particularly American, was almost forensically explored and analysed by the influential artists and intellectuals of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Independent Group, of which the Pop artist Richard Hamilton was a leading member.

By the early 1960s – alongside many young British Pop musicians reinterpreting and reinvigorating Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rhythm and Blues music – many young British designers were synthesizing various aspects of British and American art and fashion, which they, as the musicians had with Pop music, then re-exported back to the States as Pop design.
A leading British pioneer researching in the field of Pop culture was the artist and writer Barbara Jones. She wrote and illustrated several books on the subject, amongst them the influential, The Unsophisticated Arts, 1951, and curated the seminally important exhibition of popular art, ‘Black eyes & Lemonade’, held at London’s Whitechapel Gallery as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Pop artist Peter Blake, a student of Jones, described her as a ‘treasure trove of information about popular culture’. It was she, and a few others like Richard Hamilton, who initially defined the Pop in popular.

Rock ‘N’ Roll, 1956 – 1959

In 1955 the ‘Youth Quake’, which sparked the cultural and social revolution of the 1960s, exploded into life in an act of apparently spontaneous combustion which rocked the Anglo-American world, the repercussions of which still reverberate around the globe. Out of this ‘Big Bang’ emerged a ‘Pop Culture’, self-generated in a vibrant fusion of Rock ‘n’ Roll music and teenage fashion with the iconic images of alienated ‘Youth’ portrayed in Hollywood movies, such as Marlon Brando’s glamorously delinquent character Johnny Strabler in ‘The Wild One’ of 1953, and, in 1955, James Dean’s legendary performance as the deeply angst Jim Stark in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Also from that year is the seminally important film ‘The Blackboard Jungle’, often credited as the launch pad for youth culture. The film featured Bill Haley’s iconic Rock n’ Roll number ‘Rock Around the Clock’, which, combined with its storyline of teenage alienation and rebellion, notoriously provoked widespread scenes of wild and destructive behaviour when first released.

The following year saw a flood of Rock ‘n’ Roll music from the first teenage Pop and Rock stars – Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Little Richard – reinforced by films such as Elvis’s ’Love Me Tender’, Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, and ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, a show case for a number of early Rock ‘n’ Roller’s, amongst whom were Gene Vincent, Fats Domino and Eddie Cochran. By 1957 a confident Pop culture had emerged, which was to continue up to speed for the next twenty or so years.

‘Mad Men’: Modernists into ‘Mods’, 1960 –1963

As the 1950s ended Rock n’ Roll declined and, until the advent of the Beatles in late 1962, Pop music was largely reduced to a fleeting and inconsequential form of lightweight teenage entertainment, epitomised by the ‘boy next door’ singer, blatantly tailored to exploit the female teen market. Instead, Modern Jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck, or Ray Charles’s proto – soul music, a fusion of Modern Jazz with Rhythm and Blues and Country music, provided the definitive soundtrack of the early 1960s.

’Cool’ became the leitmotiv of the era, and the ‘cool’ sounds of Modern Jazz perfectly complemented the crisp simplicity and elegance of the early Mary Quant inspired fashions of ‘swinging Modernist chicks’ and the sharp Italian styling of young mens’ ‘Modernist’ suits and accessories. By 1963 – with a newly emerging soundtrack of ‘Beat’ music – these sophisticated young ‘Modernists’ had evolved into ‘Mods’, the forerunners of the fashionable exquisites of mid 1960s ‘Swinging London’.

Swinging Sixties, 1964 –1967

The term ‘Swinging London’, was first used by Time magazine in an article in
their April 15th issue of 1966 to define the apparently carefree life style of the more
‘switched on’ youth living in the British capital. The image of ‘Swinging London’
is forever associated with the fashions and numerous boutiques of designers like Mary Quant and Biba (Barbara Hulanicki), and the style and look of models such as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, the ‘Face’ of 1966.

The city’s new ‘Mod’ fashions were transmitted to a receptive world either through the medium of television, by youth oriented programmes such a ‘Ready Steady Go!’ and the influential style of its presenter Cathy McGowan, or the images created by ‘trendy’ young fashion photographers, like David Bailey or Terence Donavan, for Vogue, and the plethora of new fashion led magazines, such as Nova or Petticoat.

The male equivalent of London’s mid 1960s ‘Dolly Birds’ was the dandified young male ‘Peacock’, whose sartorial needs were catered for by the Carnaby Street or Kings Rd emporia of designers like John Stephens or Granny Takes a Trip. This hedonistic ‘fun’ existence was lived out to the soundtrack of the new British ‘Beat’ and ‘Rhythm and Blues’ music of groups like the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, which was constantly played in the city’s boutiques, discotheques and concert venues. However, as the darker economic and ethical problems of the era became evermore apparent, such a frivolous ‘butterfly’ existence was increasingly questioned, until it eventually gave way to the mores of the ‘Counterculture’ and the psychedelic ‘Hippy’ culture associated with the west coast American city of San Francisco.

Psychedelia, 1967–1970

As the 1960s progressed many young people became increasingly anti-materialistic and anti-bourgeois, and there was a growing questioning and subsequent rejection, particularly in America, of the established order’s promise of a bright technological future fuelled by the ‘appliance of science’.

This growing sentiment found expression in 1967 in the ‘Summer of Love’, which centred on the American west coast city of San Francisco – mother ship of the loosely structured ‘Hippy’ movement. The city rapidly begun to rival London’s position as Pop capital, and ‘Mod’ London’s sharply – tailored dandyism was soon replaced with the romantic and flamboyantly eclectic style of Haight – Ashbury’s ‘Hippy’ fashions.

Many young people then began to reject the consumerist values, conformity, prejudices and intolerance of mainstream society and began to ‘drop out’, hoping to create an alternative society, the ‘Counter-culture’. To the long smouldering injustice of racial inequality and the Peace movement’s opposition to the Vietnam War, they added the issues of Gay Liberation and Women’s Rights, and between 1968 and 1970, their pent up anger and outrage frequently burst into violent protest. In 1967 their message of love, peace and personal transformation through the experience of psychedelic drugs and music, made a peaceful revolution seem possible: by 1968 a violent revolution in Europe seemed not only possible but, for a few weeks, likely.

Underground Posters and Graphic Design, 1966 – 1973

From 1966 poster art and graphic design became in Britain and America, as it had in Revolutionary Russia, the principal expression of the 1960s cultural and social revolution. The primary vehicles for protest were the pages and covers of the’ Underground’ press’ of which the most successful and widely read in Britain were the news sheet, the International Times (IT), and the satirical magazine London Oz.

A direct corollary of these were the remarkable series of ‘Underground’ posters by the leading British Pop graphic designers, Michael English and Nigel Waymouth’, who worked together as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, and the series of ‘Big O’ posters designed for Oz by Martin Sharp, the leading Australian Pop artist, graphic designer and, with Richard Neville, co-founder of the magazine. The American satirical cartoonist and graphic designer Robert Crumb also made searing contributions to Oz, and, in the aftermath of the student and workers uprising in Paris in 1968, to the French ‘Underground’ magazine, Actuel.

Although many British posters of the ‘Counter-culture’ were for the concerts and albums of Pop stars, it was in San Francisco that the art of the ‘Rock’ poster blossomed. From about 1966 a new dynamic type of graphic design, the Psychedelic poster, evolved in the city out of the west coast American ‘Rock’ scene. The five artists principally involved were Alton Kelly, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso. None of whom, other than Moscoso, had received any formal art training. Their achievement is considered a high point of American Pop design.

The Fun Palace, 1969 –1973

The ghost of Psychedelia, Haight-Ashbury and 1967 had a long afterlife, surviving in the clichéd sequins, crushed velvets, brocades, silks, glitter makeup, ringlets and other excesses of the ‘Glam-Rock’ style. Many of the era’s Rock and Pop bands, like their music, appeared at the time like antediluvian dinosaurs to many, more radically-inclined, young people. However a few highly original young designers began producing fresh ground-breaking work. Pop design’s principal manifestation at the time is probably best described as ‘Fun’ design, whose chief exponent in London was the Pop entrepreneur Tommy Roberts of Mr Freedom fame. The Mr Freedom style – largely the work of the talented young designers Pamla Motown and Jim O’Connor and husband and wife Jon and Jane Wealleans – was pure Warholian Pop; which took inspiration from an eclectic range of sources, films and fashions of the 1940s, Disney cartoon characters, American baseball and football, 1950s culture and early Rock ‘n’ Roll.

‘Them’: The Art Brigade, Proto Post-Modernism, 1970 – 1976

An informal group of London based artists, designer, and stylists – identified by the cultural commentator, author and columnist Peter York as ‘Them’ – created an important strand of ‘Baroque’ Pop in the early 1970s, which, eventually, led directly to the New Romantics of the late 1970s, and subsequently became an integral thread in the fabric of British Post-Modernist design in the 1980s.

Prominent in this group were the textile and fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and the sculptor and jeweller Andrew Logan, creator in 1972 of the ‘Alternative Miss World’ competition, an ironic event held annually for the remainder of the decade. Amongst others were the painter Duggie Fields and his friend the fashion and textile designer Rae Spencer-Cullen – ‘Miss Mouse’– the painter Lucianna Martinez de la Rosa, the journalist and stylist Chilita Secunda, the hairdressers Leonard of Mayfair and Keith at Smile, the jeweller Mick Milligan, the Pop artist and ceramicist Carol McNichol and the film director Derek Jarman. There was a strong element of almost defiant camp in the individual work of the members of the group, many of whom were gay and revelled in a joyously provocative use of Kitsch.

Stylistically aligned with this influential group of avant-garde taste makers was the fashion designer Anthony Price. He not only designed glamorous outfits for Bryan Ferry, then in the process of turning himself into a Pop Art object, but also the costume – inspired by the poses and style of 1940s and 1950s ‘Glamour Queens’ and Hollywood ‘Sex Goddesses’ – worn by the model Kari-Anne on the cover of Roxy Music’s debut album, which Price also styled. Roxy Music’s first album is a realisation of the Pop artist Richard Hamilton’s teaching. For Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music – its style, music, fashions and graphic design – was the actualisation of the cultural parity he saw, like Hamilton, between art and Pop.

Punk, 1975 –1976

The advent of Punk in 1975 finally gave the coup de grace to Pop culture. Punk was very dark indeed under the Svengali-like influence of Malcolm McLaren and the menacing aura of the Punk fashions of Vivienne Westwood. Yet, despite what is often seen as its cynical and exploitative origins, Punk arrived at exactly the right moment to give voice and form to the growing despair of an increasingly dispossessed younger generation. The grim mood of the time was matched by Westwood’s Punk designs, an ironic uniform for an army of angry, if often self appointed, teenage no-hopers and dead-legs, the sinister obverse of the ‘Fun’ revival of 1950s fashions or the Hollywood glamour of ‘Them’.
Bondage Vest with ‘Bum Flap’, Vivienne Westwood for Seditionaries, c.1976.

Posters and record sleeves – other than fashion, culture’s primary vehicle of visual communication – bore a tirade of crude and overtly offensive anti-establishment images and language, carried out in a blitz of anarchic Dadaist – inspired graphic designs by McLaren’s former art school friend Jamie Reid. For McLaren, Punk was neither the progenitor of New Wave music, nor a forerunner of 1980s attitudes and style, such as the New Romanticism of Westwood’s ‘Pirates’ collection. For him it was, rather, the defiant end of an era: ‘You couldn’t be respectable. We didn’t do it by accident, we did it by design. We were horrible by design.’

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