A kaleidoscope of costume: putting swinging London’s fashions on screen

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Liz Eggleston’s wonderful presentation on boutique culture at our symposium last month prompted me to gather together some thoughts on a particularly interesting example of the intersection between fashion and film in the sixties: the Warner Brothers production Kaleidoscope (1966). This thriller-romance starred Warren Beatty, just prior to his career reboot in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as a gambler with a master plan for grand larceny, and Susannah York as his kooky London girlfriend. Set partly in Monte Carlo and partly in a London which had only recently been officially pronounced ‘swinging’ by Time magazine, it was one of the first of the Hollywood-financed films seeking to cash in on the cachet of ‘swinging London’, and one of its primary tactics in that endeavour was to capitalise on the excitement being generated by London fashions. Therefore the Susannah York character was made into a boutique owner, enabling scenes which took place at her trendy little shop – peopled by real-life sixties ‘faces’ Jane Birkin and Pattie Boyd – and a deal with a real-life design team was brokered so that they would be getting their fashions for the film ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ so to speak (a continual problem faced by fashion-oriented films is that their style is old-hat or obsolete by the time the film actually gets goes on release).

Marit Allen, then the editor of Vogue’s influential ‘Young Ideas’ pages, was hired to ‘put together a really sort of super sixties look for Susannah York’, as she described it. There was one obvious design house to go for to provide the right kind of costumes for this hip young girl-about-town, as Allen recalled: ‘I asked Foale and Tuffin to design the costumes and I acted as a sort of co-ordinator and worked with the story and the film people and I was there on set and did the fittings and they designed the costumes. That was really fun to do and that was the first sort of real extension for me of storytelling through clothing.’ (Allen would later move into film costume design, working on films as diverse as Mrs Doubtfire and Brokeback Mountain). It is easy to see why Sally Foale and Marion Tuffin would have been Allen’s first port of call. These two young RCA graduates had become exemplars of the Mod look, wearing the same black and white op-art prints and mini-skirts as their customers.

Kaleidoscope’s ‘fashion consultant’ Marit Allen (Susannah York’s ‘granny glasses’ in the film seem to have been borrowed from Allen’s look) and the designers of Susannah York’s costumes, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin.

It is interesting to wonder whether getting these high-profile young fashion designers on board entailed some modifications to Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington’s script. A draft script I consulted at the Film Finances archive in London put some pretty dismissive dialogue about her profession into the mouth of Angel, the Susannah York character:

I design clothes for baby-faced Chelsea girls who like to show off their pretty knees. I’m terribly ‘in’ right now, and scandalously pampered… just bounce in with a stack of new drawings every week or so, and everyone sighs blissfully. Of course, I own the shop… which may explain the bliss. Nonetheless, it’s a hideous distortion of values, and quite good fun.

In the end, only the first, and far less incriminating, first sentence of this speech made it into the final film, tactfully avoiding any conflict that might have resulted from describing fashion design as ‘a hideous distortion of values’. First rule of filmmaking: don’t alienate the talent.

Foale and Tuffin’s 12 key pieces for the film – one for each letter of the word ‘kaleidoscope’ – were showcased in the British edition of Vogue in June 1966, modelled beautifully by York herself accompanied by her co-star Beatty (Vogue took the letter theme but shortened it to L-O-V-E).

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Pages from UK Vogue, June 1966. Scanned and shared at http://ciaovogue.blogspot.co.uk/

Foale and Tuffin liked their ‘Napoleon’ floor-length coat so much it entered one of their 1967 collections, in shortened form but with the same distinctive collar.

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Pattie Boyd modelling the modified ‘Napoleon’ coat from Foale and Tuffin, 1967. Courtesy of http://ltsbf.blogspot.co.uk

But the design team’s foray into film was not completely conflict-free. They recalled having to throw over one of their favourite designs – a ‘really simple’ dress ‘in white jersey that hung straight’, off-one-shoulder and embellished with gold and silver sequins – in favour of something that was more to Susannah York’s liking:

ST/ It was a really cracking dress, but it wasn’t sexy, so we had to make that satin dress.

MF/ That was the only one she didn’t like that we did.

ST/ That’s true.

MF/ So we had to end up doing something that she wanted. The bias cut slip. Clingy. Sexy.

ST/ And she made a very good case for it. She wanted to look like a film star.

IRW (interviewer)/ And it was very vampy.

MF/ Yes, it was sexy. She knew what she wanted. But we were very disappointed.

ST/ We were.

MF/ We weren’t used to being told what to do.

ST/ No.

(both laugh)

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Susannah York in the bias-cut satin slip dress from Kaleidoscope.

But despite this slight difference of opinion, there seems to have been no lasting rancour and instead Foale and Tuffin reminisce fondly about being flown out to the Monte Carlo location and staying at the grandest of hotels, and then going to the film’s premiere in ‘a painted stretch limo all the colours of the rainbow.’

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Report on the London Kaleidoscope premiere in Kinematograph Weekly, 15 September 1966.

Making the most of the film’s connection to contemporary fashion, the cinema lobby at Kaleidoscope’s premiere was given over to a ‘switched on gear’ contest for both men and women, and the presence of a ‘mini-skirt meter’ ensured that ‘no girl but no girl’ could be admitted ‘unless her hemline is the regulation 4” above the knees!’ or she was wearing some ‘other kinky gear.’ British Pathe’s raw unused footage from the event reveals some of the eye-watering fashion fails that ensued.

 

ABC cinemas then rolled out the ‘switched on gear’ competition nationally, promising £350’s worth of vouchers for Lord John of Carnaby Street for the winner (Foale and Tuffin seemed to have drifted somewhat from the promotional strategy by this point).

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Exporting swinging London to the provinces: the ‘switched-on girls contest’ goes nationwide in ABC Film Review, December 1966.

But all this attempt at creating a buzz for the film was to no avail. Its kooky tale of casinos and boutiques, Monte Carlo and Scotland Yard, failed to switch on the box-office as much as had been hoped. Perhaps this was an early warning of the fact that not everything set in London would automatically result in fantastic returns as had become unofficial Hollywood studio folklore around this time, hence their setting up of British production offices. Foale and Tuffin would go on to provide some of Audrey Hepburn’s mod outfits for Two for the Road (1967) along with a roster of other contemporary designers including Paco Rabanne, Mary Quant and Ken Scott, but they concentrated more on their core business henceforth. Marit Allen, as we’ve seen, would return to the arena of film costume several years later when asked by Nicolas Roeg to supervise Julie Christie’s wardrobe for Don’t Look Now (1973), which then began her new career. Susannah York would drag Dirk Bogarde to the Countdown boutique on the King’s Road in Sebastian (1968) but she divided her time between contemporary roles and period dress for the rest of the sixties.

Even though Kaleidoscope had been a bold experiment in fusing London’s film and fashion cultures, it hadn’t quite come off. The most successful sixties ‘fashion films’ seemed to be those that emerged more haphazardly, like Darling (1965), or those that had period settings where the style of the costumes then infiltrated contemporary fashion, most notably Doctor Zhivago (1965) and, ironically, Beatty’s next film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which is generally credited with making longer skirt lengths fashionable again. Bonnie and Clyde was also one of the key films of the ‘New Hollywood’ which would go on to revitalise American film and make ‘swinging London’ look rather antiquated. But that just suggests the dangers of trying to harness the power of the fashionable.

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