Felicity Green Feature

Sometimes it only takes one artefact to change everything for ever.

So it was with The Gingham Dress. It didn’t sound much – a cheap throwaway little item featured in the Daily Mirror as a reader’s offer in 1963. Most newspaper offers are never remembered even a week later, but that one £3 dress was to revolutionise fashion and make an instant household name of one of the twentieth century’s true design stars - Barbara Hulanicki, or Biba, as she is better known.  

So important was this dress in the history of fashion that it has been given a starring role of its own in the new documentary film Beyond Biba. The film, now on general release, celebrates the life and work of Hulanicki, but we also have to give due credit to the far-sighted fashion editor who put her job on the line to get the dress into the paper in the first place.  

That was Felicity Green, a lifelong fashionista who at the age of 83 is just about to start a new job mentoring young fashion students at Central St Martin’s. She recalls the incident: “Barbara was then working as a freelance fashion artist and doing sketches for me at the Daily Mirror. I noticed that she herself always dressed beautifully and I asked if she could design something we could put in the paper as a very simple mail order offer.  

“She obliged and came up with a sleeveless dress in pink gingham with a little pink headscarf to go with it. I was absolutely enchanted with the design as it was so new and fresh and I wanted to put it on a double-page spread in the paper. I was already in big trouble with the chairman of the company, Cecil King, who had asked me how long I proposed to put Mary Quant’s ridiculous miniskirts in the paper. I replied: so long as they are news, and King said that if I continued he would arrange for me to be fired.

“Now I was about to do it again. This time the advertising director sent for me and asked, who is this foreign person you are putting in the paper? Who the hell is she? I said that it didn’t matter whether or not she was foreign because she was an extremely clever designer and added, with more confidence than I felt, that the offer would be a big hit with our readers.

“He reluctantly gave me the go-ahead and asked me how many we might sell. I told him maybe 3000, a figure I thought widely optimistic. In the event, we kept running out of pink gingham as the orders – 21,000 in all – flowed in and Barbara’s husband Stephen Fitz-Simon had to keep scouring the country for more fabric. Biba had never manufactured any clothes before, so it was a first, and a steep learning curve for all of us.”

Then there was a problem over the money. “In those days,” said Felicity, “few Mirror readers had bank accounts, so they sent in postal orders which Stephen’s bank wouldn’t accept. But the whole thing was a stunning success and launched Biba as an up and coming fashion house for the young.”

Felicity now reckons that the designs of Mary Quant and Biba hit the world with a cosmic fashion bang which has never been known since. “They were truly original designers making their mark with something completely different, at a time when there was a huge gap, a complete hole in fashion with haute couture at one end and stodgy middle-aged high street clothes at the other.

“Not since Quant and Biba has there been such a blank canvas, and nobody after them has ever changed the face of fashion so totally.  But although Quant was so talented, Biba was the very first designer to make high fashion affordable for the young.

“But Biba did more than just design exciting young clothes. She invented the dark boutique, she invented trendy mail order, and you could get everything matching and co-ordinating from hats and boots to underwear and cosmetics and even, at the end, designer tins of baked beans in the Kensington High Street store. Biba rethought everything.”

But the Gingham Dress story didn’t start and finish with the resoundingly successful reader offer. It heralded a completely new approach to fashion, and one which originated at street level rather than the Paris couture houses.

“Before Quant and Biba, fashion was controlled by Paris,” Felicity said. “We fashion editors used to report reverentially from Paris twice a year, and the looks we featured on our pages gradually filtered down into the high street. Retail fashion houses such as Wallis used to buy couture designs at high prices from the big French designers and adapt them for the mass market.

“Now it was completely the other way round and couture began to follow the high street.  Whereas before it had been all ballgowns, now designers like Yves St Laurent began to show black leather trousers, influenced by street fashion.

“Also, until the 1960s, young women copied their mothers, having no choice in the matter, as there was nothing else available. But from then on, mothers and even grandmothers took their fashion cue from their daughters.

“The result is that now, nobody wants to look like an old lady, including old ladies. The middle-aged market, what used to be known as grown-up clothes, is having a  struggle to survive because the age thing in fashion has vanished. This is something that has never happened before throughout history, but it’s not unusual these days to see 80 and 90 year old women confidently wearing jeans, T-shirts and high heeled boots they have bought from young stores such as New Look and H&M.  And they can look marvellous in them as well.  

“From age two to 90, the look is now the same for everybody. The other important thing is that money is no longer the key to being fashionable, as in the past. Fashion has been so completely democratized that you can look as good in a skinny sequin dress from Primark as when spending £2000 at Stella McCartney. Obviously the quality will be different but quick trends are now instantly available at every price level and the only thing preventing anybody having the latest look is laziness or a dead eye, or having given up on life and slouching around in tracksuit bottoms.”

Felicity Green believes there have been no major fashion trends since the 1960s: “There’s a picture of me, taken over 40 years ago, wearing black boots, a white mini-skirt and a black sleeveless top, all of which you could easily wear today. There have been wild fringes but no fashion story that has made world headlines, and Vogue has become an art-directors’ dream rather than introducing big new looks.” 

There has, though, been a revolution in the world of fashion, but it is in the organisation of the industry, rather than the actual clothes. Felicity says: “I first started teaching at St Martin’s 25 years ago and there has been a big difference in that fashion has finally been credited with the importance such a major industry deserves. In the early days, fashion courses were not considered academic or something to be seriously considered by intelligent people. Instead, they were rather looked down on as trivial and unimportant, courses for airheads.

“That attitude has completely changed.  In the 1960s it was all ad-hoc and there was no structure at all to the fashion world. Everything was completely disorganised but gradually commerciality and business training have been built into the college syllabuses so that now everybody on a fashion course learns about finance and legal aspects as well as designing fashion, and the courses have become as much a science as an art. They are now highly organised, structured and academic and the colleges are great design places as well.”

And just as Felicity Green was hugely influential in fashion in the 1960s so now, in her ninth decade, this former secretary from Dagenham, Essex, is continuing to push back barriers and pioneer new trends, this time in the working world.  Not for her a cosy retirement reminiscing in her rocking chair.  Felicity, a widow for over 20 years and still as chic and fashionable as ever, says:  “I’ve never really stopped working, and now I am enormously looking forward to my new role at St Martin’s.”

The Lady magazine