London: The swinging Sixties

Fifty years ago, Mary Quant opened a boutique on the King's Road, and swinging London was born. Diana Melly was there from the start. She recalls the sex, scandals and helmet hairdos of the original Chelsea Set

Sunday 30 October 2005 00:00

Bazaar very quickly made a huge impact. It was where anyone young and interested in clothes had to be. It's hard to appreciate now quite how radically different Mary's clothes were from anything else available at the time. When I wasn't working in Bazaar, I would do modelling for magazines like Women's Own, Vogue and Queen and there it was all tweed suits, pinched at the waist, finished off with hats and gloves. We were constantly being told to make ourselves look older because fashion was directed at women over 30. It wasn't something for people of my age.

Mary Quant changed all of that. She was the same generation as us and her short skirts, little white plastic collars to brighten up a black dress, and stretch stockings were what we wanted. She was a visionary.

We were just coming out of post-war rationing and we weren't used to having lots of clothes. I only had one dress from Bazaar. The wages didn't stretch far, but it was bright pink and curvy with a scoop neck and bare shoulders and I was so proud of it.

We all admired her so much, but even though she was only three years older than me, I was very intimidated by her. Her whole demeanour was quite like a headmistress - a very nice headmistress, but a headmistress nonetheless. Even later, in the 1960s, when I was married to George and we used to go to dinner parties in her entirely red dining-room at her house off Sloane Street, I never really felt as if I was her friend. She always seemed out of my league. Meeting her was a bit like meeting the Beatles. She was that famous to my generation.

In the late 1950s, Mary was the undisputed queen of the "Chelsea Set". Bazaar was one of its main meeting places. That was part of the reason why I wanted to work there. My friends could come in to gossip and giggle - though we tended to shut up when Mary walked in. It was the same just along the King's Road at Kiki Byrne's, another boutique that opened at the same time, or at one of the two coffee bars nearby.

They were the haunts of the Chelsea Set during the day. In the evenings, after work, we'd go to one of two pubs - the Markham, round the corner from Bazaar, or the Pheasantry. You went to find out where the nearest party was. And then you'd take your cigarettes and your bottle of cheap red wine and head off there. Sometimes they'd be fancy dress. There would be dancing to Paul Anka records. I don't remember there being any drugs. We were, in many ways, very innocent.

I've read a lot about the Chelsea Set subsequently and its importance, but it didn't feel like that at the time. There was a sense of the new and exciting, yes, of being in the forefront of change. And, of course, we were always being written about in the papers. In some ways the Chelsea Set was a media invention. The focus on us was out of all proportion.

I have one good example of this. In October 1957, I made the front page of the Evening Standard in the later editions, displacing a story about the Queen in Canada, just because someone had hit me. "Model Knocked Out At Chelsea Party" it read. And the next day the other papers were full of stories about how my assailant's mother had brought me flowers at the hospital.

All that had happened was that a gatecrasher, a young male model called Robert Taylor, had tried to get in to one of our parties. My boyfriend, Michael Alexander, had gone down to throw him out. Robert went to punch Michael. Michael ducked and I got hit. Why was it front page news?

The only explanation is that there was something new, unusual or challenging about the Chelsea Set as far as the papers were concerned. But I still can't see it. There were in reality two Chelsea sets. There was Mary and some of the slightly older, wealthier women who came in to Bazaar to buy the clothes - people like Sonia Melchett, wife of Lord Melchett, or her sister Bunty Kinsman. If they gave parties, we'd dress up and be flattered to be invited, but really they were grander than us. You didn't take a bottle, although I do remember that on one occasion Sonia and the publisher George Weidenfeld had a party where we were all told to bring either champagne or brandy.

We were younger and although a few people did have titles we were a much more ramshackle bunch of free spirits. Some didn't have to work. They had private incomes. There was a lot of hanging about and going to parties, looking for someone to pick up if you hadn't gone there with someone. We may have seemed terribly promiscuous to the papers, but our liberation paled into insignificance in comparison to what came along in the 1960s. And anyway I believe that it was the wartime generation who had changed the old moral standards. I don't think our behaviour was terribly rebellious. For most of us it was just great to break out of our backgrounds and have a good time.

I used to spend whatever I had earned modelling on food for Michael and his friends. These were the days before women's lib. We lived in a flat in Harrington Gardens. He was a writer - the nephew of Earl Alexander of Tunis is how the papers described him, though in truth he was only a distant relative. He was very glamorous. He'd been in Colditz and was 41. I was just 19 and potty about him. I'd already been married at 16, had a child and divorced by 18.

Michael was at the heart of the Chelsea Set in more than one way. He had a secret deal with Charles Wintour, editor of the Evening Standard. He got a £500 retainer for supplying gossip from the parties that would appear in the "London Last Night" column which vied with William Hickey in the Express to detail our every move - and plenty of imagined ones. It was disgraceful now when I think about it.

The same old names would appear in all those reports and they always had a way of describing people. So Sharmani was "the Sinhalese model", Suna Portman "the niece of Lord Portman", Mark Sykes "her fiance", Antonia Fraser "the daughter of Lord Pakenham" (as her father, later Lord Longford, was known then) and Lady Jane Vane-Tempest-Stewart, "a maid-of-honour at the Coronation".

There was undoubtedly an element of snobbery about it all. Titles and aristocratic families seemed to matter more back then. I do remember everyone getting very excited one night because there was a rumour that the Duke of Kent was coming to the party we were at. And of course Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who later married Princess Margaret, was around.

I don't remember it being extraordinary or scandalous, though. The one big scandal was the suicide of Tony Beauchamp who'd been married to Churchill's daughter, Sarah. He was a photographer and his death and his part in the Chelsea Set was very well covered in the press.

It was Mary who was extraordinary and what she started at Bazaar. That went on and grew in the 1960s but my memory is that all the rest changed in 1958. The Chelsea Set had a brief heyday with the opening of Bazaar but within three or four years, it was over. I went to Afghanistan for four months with Michael in 1958 and when I came back it had all gone. There were no more parties, no one in pub you knew. I think it probably came back alive again with the swinging Sixties, but by that time I was married to George and living in Golders Green.

Today when I go down the King's Road, it doesn't seem very bohemian to me any more. Just rich. Bazaar became a chemist's shop. The whole place is so changed that it doesn't feel like anything to do with me. There's just Waitrose and expensive chain shops where we used to play.

Diana Melly's new memoir, 'Take A Girl Like Me', is published by Chatto, priced £14.99. She was talking to Peter Stanford

George Melly on the Chelsea Set

I lived in Chelsea in the 1950s and shared a basement flat at the wrong end of Cheyne Walk. It was the sort of area where MPs used to keep their mistresses. My flatmate was Andy Garnett who was one of the heads of the Chelsea Set. He had a Bubble Car and used to like to drive posh totty - as we'd call them - to low clubs in the East End. He saw endless glamorous debutantes, all part of the Chelsea Set.

There was always a terrible racket going on in our flat with all my jazz set staying. Andy was wonderfully relaxed. Once he came in and there were mattresses everywhere. He pulled back the sheets and looked at the naked bodies. He turned to me and shouted, "What do these animals eat in the morning, George? Hay?"

It was a bit like the 1920s, when after the First World War people reacted with short skirts and the Charleston. This was only 10 years after the Second World War.

But if you think of the artists who used to live there, such as Augustus John, Whistler, Rossetti, Holman Hunt, then you realise that bohemianism wasn't new to Chelsea.

I remember Mary Quant well. She looked very sexy. Not that she particularly was, I suppose, in real life, but her skirts were shorter than anyone else's and she had this wonderful helmet-like haircut. She was good at overturning all the conventions.

George Melly's latest autobiographical book, 'Slowing Down', is published by Viking

Peter York on 50 years of the King's Road

The opening of Mary Quant's Bazaar marked the moment when the King's Road first began to establish itself as crucial for the young, aspirational and fashion-conscious. But it would continue to draw increasing numbers of would-be avant-gardistes from the hinterlands of London and beyond for at least the next 25 years.

In the 1960s it was one of the key places where rock stars and toffs socialised together. It was full of Chelsea girls with their aristocrat and pop-star boyfriends in velvet suits. One of the most eye-catching landmarks back then was Granny Takes a Trip, a boutique which appeared to have half a car buried in its façade.

Go forward to the early 1970s and along came Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's little clothes shop Let It Rock (later renamed Sex), the birthplace of punk. It was just around the corner from me, in my second-ever bedsit, in the crotch of the King's Road, just before World's End.

But while the King's Road was still rather glamorous and exciting at the time, changes were already well under way.

You would see flagships of multiple shops with branches in Oxford Street opening and it was also in all the standard tourist guides. That was the killer.

A lot of very mainstream shoppers began hanging around there. Most people began to think of the King's Road as a glorified shopping centre. The original Chelsea crew were forced to retire to the back streets. It was no longer their own place of parade.

And now I think Chelsea is due for some fashionable revival. If you called Nicholas Coleridge (MD of Conde Nast Magazines), I bet you he'd say, "I'm thinking of going back to Chelsea". There's just that feeling in the air.

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