The Biba Story

Posted by on May 27, 2024 in Blog, Dame, Exhibition, Fashion, feminism, Women's equality issues | 2 comments

Biba crepe dress/damesnet

Biba: the word has a near Proustian association for me.  Sensory but not gustatory;  tangible almost.  I am around 12 years old and in a shop in Kensington, and I am tentatively yet excitedly wafting my way through a clothing collection that bears no resemblance to anything I have seen before.

I of course cannot buy any of the items for sale as I am not yet of independent means, but accompanied by my best friend Berenice, who lived nearby in Bayswater, I am being gently introduced to another world where fashion rules.

Biba; in 1964 Barbara Hulanicki gave up a successful career as a fashion illustrator as her new mail order business selling inexpensive women’s and children’s clothing began to take off. It was the swinging 60s, and Hulanicki opened a shop in Kensington to sell her clothes. In 1966 Biba moved to larger premises in Kensington Church Street; the interior décor was Art Nouveau inspired, and a larger range of clothing came on sale: wide-brimmed hats, double-breasted wool coats, tights, gloves, bags, shirts, dresses and feather boas. They were all dyed to match and coordinate in a range of muted colours.

Biba originals/damesnet

Celebrities from Brigitte Bardot to Sonny and Cher shopped there, as did Twiggy and Yoko Ono. Swinging London never looked back. 

If you go to the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey near London Bridge you can immerse yourself in The Biba Story.   It explores how this fashion phenomenon blossomed to become the world’s first lifestyle label, sparking a revolution in how people shopped and how Biba earned its spot as the brand that epitomises 1960s and 1970s fashion.

Biba floppy hats and boas/damesnet

The exhibition focuses on the years 1964 to 1975, when the legendary Big Biba closed its doors to the public. On display are fantastic archival pieces of clothing, original photographs, film, and material all of which have been personally chosen by Barbara Hulanicki.

Hulanicki worked with her husband Stephen Fitz-Simon: she is quoted as saying ‘I wanted to make clothes for people in the street, and Fitz and I always tried to get prices down, down..’ Purple, black, mauve and plum became the quintessential Biba colours; the inspiration for these were found in the work of 19th century artists and designers such as Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Later on Hulanicki introduced bright geometric patterns – another 60s staple.

Not since the 1920s had fashionable womenswear been so youthful in style and simple in construction. Both decades witnessed newly gained freedoms for women – suffrage in the 1920s and growing economic independence in the 1960s – with clothing reflecting these social changes.

Biba geometric pattern dress/damesnet

The fabrics themselves were another game changer; classic Biba fabrics were rayon, crepe, velvet, satin cotton voile, and a copy of Liberty’s wool they called flanesta which was a brushed rayon. To quote Hulanicki again: ‘We were always desperate for something different. We’d always had hundreds of fabric reps coming into Biba and we produced thousands of in-house prints.’

The Biba look was designed around a specific body shape that was also emblematic in the 60s: long thin arms, flat chest, low waist and straight hips.  How I longed for that shape, but somehow I never achieved it.

The exhibitions runs until September, so you have plenty of time to get to see it. As Hulanicki explained: ‘It isn’t just selling dresses, it’s a whole way of life’.

PS My Saturday job proved the gateway to solvency – of a type. It did allow me to buy a pair of airforce blue canvas Biba boots with a block heel. I was in heaven.


  1. What a lovely stroll down Memory Lane that was Barbara! Happy days…

    • Biba was the best!

      Dame B

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