Fashion at the Royal College of Art: Swinging London (1956-68)

Royal College of Art

Under Janey Ironside's professorship, fashion at the RCA becomes synonymous with the exuberance of Pop and the Swinging Sixties, as the College attracted and nurtured stars such as Ossie Clark, Foale & Tuffin, Bill Gibb and Antony Price

Swinging London (1956-68): Professor Janey Ironside
Janey Ironside took over from Madge Garland in 1956, having served several years as her assistant at the RCA. Ironside had run her own designer-dressmaking business and was firmly in favour of the democratisation of fashion and the opportunities provided by mass production. She forged strong links with business, including Marks and Spencer, which snapped up some of her top students. Crucially, she built solid relationships with the press at a time when there was a growing public and media appetite for British design. Ironside supported street fashion in a way that Madge Garland and her finishing-school ethos had not; she demystified fashion but in a way that kept it metropolitan and London-centric. As Colin McDowell wrote in 2012: ‘Whereas Madge Garland’s background had been all about the Paris of avenue Montaigne and the quality of haute couture, Janey Ironside’s Paris was instinctively more the Left Bank of Juliette Greco, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.’ The tone of the press coverage moved from patronising and sceptical to engaged and supportive. College graduates were rarely out of the fashion pages. Janey harnessed and catalysed the students’ invention but could be as intimidating as her predecessor in tutorials. Alumni, however, would often link their confidence to secure top jobs on graduation with their ability to survive and learn from these challenging and invigorating encounters.
Swinging London (1956-68): The Students
The eclectic student cohort, growing in number and reflecting wider demographic shifts, powered the Fashion School with a crackling energy. The complex social mix, including many grant-supported students from families who had never before pursued higher education, led to an outpouring of sharp, inventive designs, in richly saturated colour or angular monochrome. As Susannah Handley has written, it was this wave of students that bridged the gap between high street and couture, between clothing and bespoke.

Janey’s brightest star, Raymond ‘Ossie’ Clark (graduated 1965), encapsulated swinging London: his student work featured angular Op Art patterns, and a coat trimmed with flashing lightbulbs (battery operated). Other significant students included Anne Tyrrell (1960), Sylvia Ayton (1961), Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin (1962), Pauline Denyer (1962), Alan and Valerie Couldridge (1963), Janice Wainwright (1964), Bill Gibb (who did not complete his course, having found extraordinary success while still a student) and Antony Price (1968). Price was highly skilled at cutting and tailoring, and equally adept at feminine classics and visionary menswear: in the next decade he would go on to design the spiral-cut skirt that was ubiquitous in the 1970s, as well as the look and ‘packaging’ of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. In a neat encapsulation of the interdisciplinary nature of College life, the Graphic Design students, who were themselves pushing design boundaries, would often create the invitations and programmes for the annual Fashion shows. These would typically involve experimentation with paper stocks, colour, typography and even paper engineering.

Swinging London (1956-68): The Place
The first half of Janey’s tenure as professor continued in the house in Ennismore Gardens, but in 1962 a monolithic, dark-brick tower block emerged on Kensington Gore, next door to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the new home for the Royal College of Art: the prosaically named ‘Workshop Block’, designed to unite all the design courses over eight floors and under one roof. This brutalist presence on the Kensington skyline won immediate acclaim from architecture critics and benefited from having been designed by a team at the College (H T Cadbury-Brown, Robert Goodden and Hugh Casson) who understood its needs better than anyone. The Fashion School was finally admitted to the heart of the College, taking its rightful place alongside Industrial Design, Furniture, Silversmithing and Ceramics, in spacious and well-fitted studios. It was a short-lived triumph. Before long, Fashion was pushed out to make room for the School of Stained Glass, becoming ghettoised again in one of the miscellaneous College properties on Cromwell Road.

This leaflet from 1959, designed to explain the new College premises on Kensington Gore, shows the location of College buildings in the 1950s. The Fashion School, on Ennismore Gardens, is on the far right. It would move to the new building in red in 1962.

Janey Ironside with students, c.1963. L-R: Angela Sharpe, unidentified, Alan Couldridge, Janey Ironside, Margaret Derrick

Swinging London (1956-68): The Time
In 1959, Mary Quant and Alexander Plunkett-Green started selling a new style of dress at Bazaar on the King’s Road, changing public expectations of, and access to, fashion with the arrival of the boutique shop. Although neither Quant nor Plunkett-Green was a graduate of the RCA, they profoundly influenced the students of the time there, who began opening vibrant shops on Carnaby Street or the Fulham Road. The growth of newspaper colour supplements in the 1960s fuelled public interest in the new approach to the high street. With the arrival of Pop, itself centred around the Painting students of the Royal College of Art, and the buzz of swinging London, colourful media coverage was guaranteed. Art and design movements reinforced one another, compounding press interest in the new generation of talent. The interdisciplinary nature of the College was electric and catalysing: graphic design and fine art played off against each other, and the angles and colours of posters and paintings fed into fashion and textile design. In 1964 a Menswear path was introduced in the School of Fashion Design, on the suggestion of Hardy Amies and with support from Hepworth’s, which had realised the need for new blood in the industry. The menswear course was emphatically commercial from its launch and remained backed up by the trade; effectively it was the first commercially sponsored element of the Fashion School.

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Although Ironside’s tenure was a golden age for the School, her reign would end in public abdication as the decade entered its closing years. In 1967, amid much jubilation, the College received its Royal Charter, conferring university status and the power to grant its own degrees rather than the diplomas it had always offered. To stay ahead of the competition, the College also became a wholly postgraduate institution and introduced Master’s courses across the board, with one conspicuous exception. An advisory committee had recommended that Fashion would be kept down to diploma status - a discriminatory decision that caused uproar among the student cohort and in the fashion press. Although various justifications were offered, including Darwin’s suggestion that fashion was too ephemeral to merit the award, internal politicking may have been to blame. Janey Ironside’s position became untenable and she resigned, to be replaced by her assistant Joanne Brogden, just as Ironside herself had once superseded her predecessor. The waters closed quickly: the College relented and degree status was conferred just months later, but Janey Ironside’s time was over, just when the decade she had done so much to define was itself waning.

Explore more of the history of Fashion at the Royal College of Art:

1948-56: Paris, Kensington
1956-68: Swinging London
1968-88: The World Comes Calling
1989-98: Own Labels and Household Names
1998- : Time for Reality

Find out more about Special Collections at the Royal College of Art

Credits: Story

Text and selection:
Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager, Royal College of Art
Royal College of Art Special Collections

Project assistant:
Sara Jamshidi
Special thanks:
Nick Frayling, Henrietta Goodden, Virginia Ironside, Cathy Johns, Octavia Reeve, Simon Taylor
Cohen, Lisa, ‘Velvet is Very Important’, in: All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012).
Frayling, Christopher, The Royal College of Art: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Art and Design (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1987).
Handley, Susannah. ‘Home Furnishers, Fashion Makers and Image Creators’, in: Christopher Frayling and Clare Catterall (eds.) Design of the Times: One Hundred Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Richard Dennis Publications/Royal College of Art, 1996).
McDowell, Colin, ‘Material Differences at the RCA’, in Octavia Reeve (ed.), The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Royal College of Art, 2012).

Credits: All media
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