Boutique: A 60s Cultural Phenomenon

As much a history lesson as it is a chronological account of fashion happenings in 1960s London, Boutique is an attractive, easy-to-read, and overall pleasant approach to explaining the impact of the boutique. Author Marnie Fogg hopes to demonstrate just how the rise of boutiques in the sixties “gave voice, form, and location to the youthful desire for independence and personal freedom, and in turn led to an unprecedented awareness of fashion as a vibrant medium of self-expression.” By talking about the clothes themselves, as well as the individual retailers and designers who provided new styles to shoppers, and, most importantly, the meanings these clothes expressed in the context in which they were worn, Fogg takes an intelligent and informative stance on a topic that could otherwise be light and fluffy.

The word “boutique” originally defined a shop within a shop, or a section of a department store that offered entirely different merchandise than what was available throughout the rest of the store. In the ’60s, boutiques began to separate from department stores, opening their own doors on obscure back-streets and alleyways, and they initially required shoppers to search for them. With the rise of innovative boutiques such as Biba, Mary Quant, and Granny Takes a Trip, which were set up to feel more like a closet or bedroom than a market, shopping became an exciting activity for those with money.

Boutiques gave more credit to designers and quality than department stores ever did, and they allowed shoppers new means of self-expression and creativity with their wardrobes. Because independent boutiques didn’t offer mass-produced merchandise, they had very limited numbers of garments that sold out quickly, causing a fast turnover of styles. There was always something new to buy, and if you were young, wealthy, and cool, you’d be in line to buy it.

Fogg’s use of images is perhaps what sets Boutique apart from other, often dry, straight-information history books. It does not, however, dumb down its subject. Each page of Boutique is filled with colourful photographs, designer illustrations, magazine cut-outs, and newspaper clippings – the text is almost secondary. Images are outfitted with lengthy captions that explain why they’re important, and each one conveys something that Fogg’s central text may have left out. Members of fashion-focused subcultures like teddy boys and mods are defined not by words, but through their own aesthetics in all their posed and photographed glory. Fogg’s choice of pictures makes the reading process feel quick and easy – you don’t have to imagine what happened to clothing when LSD became a staple in many young peoples’ diets; you can see it all in colour.

In addition to providing an interesting array of imagery, Fogg’s Boutique provides multiple perspectives on her topic, including those of industry retirees who have quite exciting memories of London’s fashion scene in the ’60s. Although it is sometimes difficult to tell which anecdotes come from interviews and which come from Fogg’s prior readings on the subject (her bibliography is vast, but her acknowledgements list several interviewees), the voices are seamlessly tied together to make Boutique feel more like a ’60s magazine than an informative work on fashion and lifestyle.

Fogg’s Boutique not only describes the merchandise, typical shoppers, and even the aura surrounding several different shops in London in detail, it also talks about the impact the boutique scene had on many facets of life in the ’60s. Besides the newfound fun in the activity of shopping itself – a result of more disposable income than ever before – Boutique discusses the lasting effects boutique culture has had on fashion magazines and art schools. With the sudden obsession with boutique shopping came a widespread desire to attend colleges for all types of fashion design, inspiring a generation of young creative workers. Magazines were no longer about women and the things they ought to enjoy. In the ’60s, they came to be “about femininity itself, as a state, a condition, a craft, and as an art form which comprises a set of practices and beliefs.”

I don’t think there is a page in Marnie Fogg’s Boutique: A 60s Cultural Phenomenon without at least one beautiful picture; there was creative, inspiring energy just seeping from each chapter; and my view of the ’60s is changed forever – no longer is it just “a period of drug- and sex-fuelled decadence,” as the book’s introduction implies. Now, it’s an era whose place in history I can say I understand and appreciate. At times during my reading I felt a bit angry, though: Why wasn’t I alive to experience the era in which “going shopping” was just starting to get interesting?

Boutique: A 60s Cultural Phenomenon by Marnie Fogg, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 2003
Reviewed by Stephanie Fereiro

4 thoughts on “Boutique: A 60s Cultural Phenomenon

  1. Great review! I laughed when I got to the last sentence, because I can totally identify – I am convinced that I was born in the wrong generation.

  2. What an interesting economic shift in the ways clothes were marketed and sold. The boutique certainly allowed the designer to shine, but you have to wonder if it wasn’t like the prestige of the artist/dealer relationship, where the dealer has the name and makes the artist famous.

    The chicken or the egg.

  3. Well done – this review makes me want to have a good long look (though I admit, it’s mostly about the pictures!). I’m amused as, last night, I cracked open a 60s bossanova record I just bought and the very first track was the Soul Bossa Nova (these days better recognized as the Austin Powers theme). Although its association with those movies sort of ruined it for me, the song did put me in the mood for some swingin’ 60s style.

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