Book Review: Foale and Tuffin: The Sixties. A Decade in Fashion

I’m please to bring you a book review by Laura McLaws Helms, a photographer, blogger and fashion history graduate student at F.I.T.

“For me, Foale and Tuffin represented the revolution that was happening in London. They were all about all that was new. They were before Ossie Clark, before everyone.”

-Manolo Blahnik[1]

As two of the key players in the creation of the groundbreaking Swinging Sixties look, Foale and Tuffin were long overdue for a book based on their legacy. Iain R. Webb, a well respected British fashion journalist and author of Bill Gibb: Fashion and Fantasy, has taken on their rather remarkable story and put together a well-edited look at their designs and partnership in  Foale and Tuffin(ACC Editions, January 16, 2010). An eleven-page foreword succinctly tells their story, while the rest of the book is rather cleverly organized around three interviews Webb had with Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin. Interspersed between these interviews are short one or two page interviews with thirty-seven characters connected with their company and the period.

Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin met at Walthamstow Art School in London in 1955, studying art and design. From there they were accepted into the exclusive Royal College of Art’s fashion design program, led by the legendary Janey Ironside. While in school they were taught to look to the great Parisian couturiers for inspiration, but they also sought to design simple and wearable clothes for themselves, the kind of clothes they couldn’t find anywhere. Graduating in 1961 Foale and Tuffin decided to set up a company out of their flats, and approached several stores with a lookbook of youthful designs. Fashion had not yet moved on from the full-skirted silhouettes of the fifties and only one buyer, the 22-year-old Vanessa Denza from the 21 Shop in Woodlands department store, took them on.

The 21 Shop was a completely new style of store-within-a-store geared toward young people and carrying designs that were “simple, zany, not for squares (in any sense).”[2] She chose three dresses from their collection, buying three of each and placed one, a simple gray a-line flannel dress with frill front, in the window. Spied by an editor from Vogue, it was quickly photographed for the magazine by David Bailey and subsequently ushered in the new Dolly Bird look. Soon orders were coming in from stores all over the globe as everyone became enchanted with the London Look. Caroline Charles, the British designer, says, “Foale and Tuffin’s clothes were absolutely delicious, very pretty in a girly way. It was a joyous and innocent time and Foale and Tuffin reflected that brilliantly.”[3]

Foale and Tuffin were always seen to be at the forefront of fashion in London, constantly coming up with new styles that would have young women running to their little store off of Carnaby Street, one of the first boutiques to open following Mary Quant‘s Bazaar, and would have other designers and manufacturers scrambling to copy them. As the decade went on their style evolved from a-line minis into more feminine bohemian maxi dresses, foreshadowing the rise of hippie culture. Webb writes that “their narrative… perfectly traces the decade from its groovy, optimistic beginnings… to its demise, as sixties sanguinity melted away into a hangover of seventies cynicism, masked as it was by fancy-dress escapism.”[4] They closed the company in 1972 after a few seasons of more exotic, Japanese inspired looks even though they were still highly successful and still widely used in magazine editorials.

Webb’s decision to structure this book around interviews is very interesting and at times very compelling. The interviews with both women are wonderfully engaging, as their still close relationship is palpable and inspiring. The short interviews with others are also of interest as he took great pains to speak to everyone from their machinists to several fashion editors, celebrities, other designers and friends. These interviews are quite illuminating about the incredible creative energy in London during that era and capture the “anything goes” attitude that helped these young girls with no business training become successes.

According to the fashion editor Meriel McCooey, “Everything was going on in London at that time. It was like a big club really, and you had to be talented to become a member. You had to be producing something amazing; you had to have a credential, a form. Everybody knew everybody, and we all had enormous respect for each other.”[5] Their associations with the other great creative minds of the period, from the Beatles to pop artists like Peter Blake, helped their business and also kept them at the forefront of popular culture. Webb makes their importance to the London scene clearly visible and illustrates it with hundreds of snapshots, fashion photographs and sketches.

The one failure of this book is that at times it can be rather repetitive- whereas normally a historian will take the best quotes from all their interviews, Webb has included quite long sections from each one and many of the participants have many of the same things to say about Foale and Tuffin and about the 60s. There is also a lack of real depth as all of the interviews are short and more general in subject. While I would have enjoyed a more detailed analysis of their clothes and business Webb’s book is still a highly enjoyable and worthwhile look at these very influential designers.

In conjunction with this book a retrospective is on view at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London. Titled Foale and Tuffin: Made in England and curated by Dennis Nothdruft, I was lucky enough to see this exhibition while in England over Christmas. Cleverly designed, in the main hall of the gallery a replica of their famously tiny shop has been recreated down to the metal pipes for hanging clothes, their innovative hangers with long necks, records and their sign made out of red and blue light bulbs. The main gallery showcases all of their mod designs with supplementary sketches and photographs, and a large video projection of girls zipping around London in their trendy frocks. The upstairs gallery is given over to their later designs, the floaty hippie pieces made from Liberty fabrics. Rather remarkably both women’s worktables have been maintained in their original condition and are on view heaped with original fabrics and notions. At the end of the show is a small display of the work they have been doing since they closed the company- Foale has found great success with her company of handknit garments, and Tuffin as a ceramics designer. The show is on until the 24th of February and is well worth a visit if you are in London.

All Photographs by Laura McLaws Helms

Further reading:

Fogg, Marnie. Boutique: A ’60s Cultural Phenomenon. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003.

Ironside, Janey. Janey;: An autobiography. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Hulanicki, Barbara. From A to Biba. London: Comet Books, 1983.

Levy, Shawn. Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London. New  York: Broadway, 2003.

Quant, Mary. QUANT BY QUANT. London: Ballantine, 1967.

Watt, Judith. Ossie Clark 1965-1974. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2006.

[1] Iain R. Webb, Foale and Tuffin: The Sixties. A Decade in Fashion, (London: ACC Editions, 2009), 83.

[2] Webb, 14.

[3] Webb, 76.

[4] Webb, 10.

[5] Webb, 110.

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