Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Katy Evans visits the Biba and Beyond exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and discovers a surprising history.

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is a brilliantly quirky museum with fascinating, and usually fun, exhibitions. From the history of Brighton, in all its bawdiness, to Brighton fashion through the years, including the notorious mods and rockers of the '60s but even going back to Victorian bathing costumes, our own city is a strong theme for many of its exhibitions. So, I'm not sure why I was surprised at the connection between iconic designer and Biba brand creator Barbara Hulanicki and the City of Brighton and Hove when the museum announced its new exhibition, Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki.

I went on a Sunday morning so it was relatively quiet, which meant I could stand for as long as I wanted and marvel at the tiny waists and beautiful tailoring of the clothing on display. For those who don't know, Biba was an iconic ladies clothing and lifestyle brand in the 1960's and '70s, started by fashion illustrator-turned-fashion designer Barbara Hulanicki, who then famously left her company in the late '70s after a corporate buy out. She has been a successful independent designer ever since, with collaborations from Topshop to George at Asda (I wish I'd known this at the time!), Habitat and even designing hotel interiors in America. But it is the Biba years that she will forever be remembered.

It is well known that Biba opened its first shop in London in 1964 and it is that city that is forever associated with. But, it turns out, after moving to Hove from Warsaw when she was just a girl, growing up there and studying Fashion Illustration at Brighton Art College, she did in fact open a Biba store on Queen's Road in Brighton in 1966 - the only Biba shop to exist outside of London. This was definitely news to me and I was really pleased to come away from this exhibition with a new 'did you know…?!' knowledge rather than just oohing and ahhing over the clothes. Which, of course, I did too.   

Biba definitely designed for the smaller lady, with narrow waists, hips and shoulders and had a Lolita-esque dolly bird muse in mind. And we all know the famous movers and shakers of the '60s and '70s who wore Barbara's designs - from Cilla Black and Twiggy to Mick Jagger and Mia Farrow. What I really enjoyed about the exhibition though was the inclusion of Brighton and Hove residents, from donating their original, now vintage, pieces to sharing their memories of the clothes, the shop and the brand. One of my favourites was a silky pink dress on display with a photograph of the owner wearing it to her high school prom, and revealing her horror at discovering the dress two weeks later on the cover of a magazine described as négligée. The personal touches and reminiscences are definitely what makes this exhibition.

Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki is on at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 14 April 2013. For more information visit the Brighton Royal Pavillion and Museums website.

Pictures: Supplied by Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

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