From all over Britain, Biba clothes, make-up, scent, shoes and feather boas poured in from staid-sounding married women still proud to be called Biba Birds. As if they were uncovering old expeditionary foodstuffs in the Antarctic, men even contributed unopened tins of black-
labelled Biba soup and baked beans.
Barbara Hulanicki's novel idea, in inventing Biba in 1966, was to sell a dream of a whole life and not just bits and pieces to wear or use. For provincial youngsters like me whose parents still lived in a kind of genteel hangover of war-time austerity, Biba hinted at new exciting things that ordinary youngsters in the street were not supposed to know about - opulence, glamour, decadence and sex.
After the ding-dong of church bells in the North Riding, formal family meals cooked in aluminium saucepans, bracingly cold bedrooms and virginal home-made cotton dresses, Biba life seemed just the ticket. In Sunday newspapers, glimpses of the far-away Biba boutique showed a flickering world of crushed velvet sofas, long-fringed purple lamps, ostrich feathers, huge mirrors, potted palms of the Empire and accomplished languor. A typical Biba interior had the air of a junk shop-cum-bordello. The Biba 'lifestyle' seemed so potent because it suggested little more than the old British pastime of making love among the ruins.
Biba was entirely London-based (why the V & A is not taking the new Biba show is quite baffling) but Barbara Hulanicki very cleverly reached out to the frozen North by producing a glamorous mail-order catalogue. It was long and thin in chocolate brown, with the mysterious gold Art Nouveau Biba logo on the front. Inside it was full of moody pictures taken by photographers like Helmut Newton.
In 1968, after tuition fees, books and lodgings had been paid for, I blew my university grant quite shamelessly on Biba clothes featured there. Even if it meant living for the rest of the term on chips, buns and 10 horrible Players No 6 a day, the clothes were so irresistible that I simply had to have some.
It is often forgotten that for small, slight, women Biba clothes were a particular god-send at that time. Being narrowly cut, often on the bias, and with very high armholes, they actually fitted. Ordinary off-the-peg clothes did not seem to cater for small people then and cheap clothes that one had to wear most of the time had the grace and fit of Army blankets. The Biba colours seemed wonderful too - bitter chocolate and cream, murky pinks, duck-egg and assorted grege. Having skinny legs also became a virtue because Biba made very tightly cut lilac suede knee-boots with platform soles and, if you could manage to zip those on, an ankle sure was an ankle.
Sometime in the late Sixties, the Dorothy Perkins chain began to sell Biba cosmetics and then, for those who rarely visited London, the Biba Look could be complete. Instead of motherly suggestions that nice girls only needed a dab of face powder and a bit of pink lipstick, this black-and-gold boxed Biba stuff had the utility of modern Body Shop packaging plus a hint of the artifice of the theatre.
The whole purpose of Biba make-up was to be an innocent vamp. At the fair end of the range, liquid make-up was based on a chalky pale yellow, fixed with near-white or translucent powder. Then for the eyes came plum eye-shadow, grape, blue-bottle, even the astonishing panda-style black. Lipstick was deep mulberry or pale lilac worn in the manner of Clara Bow, and all topped off by gallons of that distinctive Biba vanilla-pod pong. At the start of a week I took special care to lash on ounces of all this stuff before sitting in adoration before my wonderful tutor, Dr Arnold Kettle. What this high-minded family man made of these waftings from the casbah at nine-o'clock on a Monday morning when he was trying to discuss 'the rise of the novel' I now blush to think.
Certainly, as one contributor to the Newcastle Biba show wrote of the rather overpowering effect of Biba cosmetics in broad daylight: 'We thought we were the bee's knees but the lads thought we were ghouls.'
In 1972, after moving to London, I caught up with the new Biba department store in the old Derry & Toms building on Kensington High Street. Looking back it was the most extraordinary place although it turned out to be the tomb of the Biba cult. Unusually for a department store, it seemed to operate in almost total darkness. To encourage people not to overcrowd the lifts, the 'Hallelujah Chorus' was piped down the central stairs to tempt shoppers to walk up. By now, the store sold not only women's and children's clothes, but menswear, Biba wallpaper, Biba black and purple matt paint, Biba lino, Biba satin sheets, even Biba chocolates and bird's nest soup in a food department from which the distinctive Biba tins were rarely opened but just left as status symbols on a kitchen shelf. I must say, even for those of crazily romantic temperament, shopping for tins of Biba cat food with a torch seemed a little over the top.
Nowadays I wish I had the power to double the state grant of every student in Britain so that like us - the very pampered post-war Welfare State generation - they too could relax a bit and sometimes buy nice things. When living in cold derelict bed-sits under intense pressure to succeed, all students need a few glamorous things in their lives just to keep them going. Like owning a few Biba clothes and a bit of luxurious make-up, there is nothing that lifts the spirits and stiffens the will to go on as the occasional possession of what we take, however absurdly, to be the beautiful.
Biba: The Label, The Lifestyle, The Look is at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, from Friday to 6 June, Aberdeen Art Gallery 3-31 July, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, 21 August-14 November.
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