The Day of the Peacock: Style for Men, 1963-1973 Geoffrey Aquilina Ross

V&A, pp.144, 24.99

This is the ultimate ‘niche’ book.

This is the ultimate ‘niche’ book. It focuses on that singular decade between the years of rockers and punks, when toffs, freed from school or army uniforms, and toughs, discarding skinhead aggression, found a sartorial meeting point.

This new style, the cool child of late Fifties mods, had been given a huge public oomph by the Beatles and ‘their silly little suits’ as David Bailey (who has stated that he, along with myself, was the unwitting originator of the look) succinctly puts it. It was sharper, leaner and hinted at androgeny. Its creators were no longer found in caverns down Carnaby Street, nor high in the King’s Road, but centered round that time-honoured dandy’s inferno, Savile Row.

Certainly West End tailors had been turning out the archetypal three-piece for decades, but the author makes the somewhat dodgy statement that the Duke of Windsor’s clothes were ‘classical’. Classical? Those huge clown-check plus-twos and fairy Fair-Isle pullovers? And he maintains that teddy-boy gear was Edwardian inspired — though I would say it was more Mississippi river-boat gambler/western sheriff. The real retro Edwardians were that cast of hour-glassed figurines, Peter Coats, Bill Akroyd, Hardy, Cecil, Bunny et al, whose suits were wildly exaggerated versions of what clubland codgers had worn for a century and still are wearing, though somewhat whiffily, dry cleaning having always been absolute athenaeum to St James’s habitués.

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Around this time were two (unmentioned) pretenders to the Peacock Throne: the ‘dandy’ Kim Waterfield wore gleaming white suits, while Kenneth Tynan (whose middle name was, appropriately, Peacock) wore flamboyant turquoise, liberally doused with Guerlain’s L’heure bleu.

But Geoffey Aquilina Ross misses an important point: namely the sudden change in female fashion during the period. It was only now that women were being allowed into hotels and restaurants wearing trousers. As girls began to dress like boys, the boys started flirting with paler colours and softer materials. Vogue’s cookery writer, Lady Arabella Boxer, on seeing Christopher Gibbs in a subtly hued tailleur exclaimed, ‘Goodness Chrissy, what a pretty trouser suit.’

Given that this style was different, focused, individual and very new, it seems odd that the cover shot, fuzzy at that, shows Michael Fish, the movement’s ringleader, looking more like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. But the chaps get better inside.

There’s a touching spread of the members of a new model agency, ‘English Boy’; almost all of them whey-faced, stick-thin, coked-out beauties, as indeed many of them are still today. Their appearance quickly relegated chiselled regular-guys like Roy Nightingale and John Blamey to the Daily Express’s dustbin. There is Patrick Lichfield, as ruffled, jewelled and cuffed as Liberace before him or Adam Ant after. There is the creator of those very ruffles, Annacat’s Janet Lyle, at the height of her sensational beauty, and a whole slew of angular aristocratic Ormsby Gores, their profiles and limbs as defined as stained-glass saints. There is Barry Sainsbury, whom Beaton thought the best-looking man he’d ever seen, and sometime financial half of the Fish shop; and of course Mick in the white gauze dress Fish made for that Hyde Park gig. There’s also the taut athleticism of Rupert Lycett Green, whose premises, Blades, at the gate of Albany’s rope-walk, verged on a literary salon, with a tattered Thesaurus for a door-stop.

As I was living in cowboy kit, in Arizona, at the time, Blades would be my immediate off-the-plane date. Rupert made me the first ever black velvet dinner-suit for a ball in Venice. A dazzlingly handsome young man complimented it. ‘Ravissante! May I copy’? He was Valentino. Later I grazed my knee and tore the velvet. Rupert mended it with a pre-punk patch of blue denim.

The author has assembled many fascinating and nostalgic facts to accompany the photographs, all of which combine to show how uniquely English his subject is. Pierre Cardin’s collarless chinoiserie, or the space-age plastics of Courrèges had little impact on this island’s phenomenon. We see that the peacock decade had softness in its sharp edge; conventions were stripped out and elegance created via daring cut and detail.

Sadly, however new, however fearless, however groundbreaking this tailoring was, by the end of the decade it was a dead duck. Jeans had taken over, suits reverted to dull necessity. Until, that is, Armani, Gucci and Tom Ford (not forgetting my personal Valhalla, Topman) came along to make clothes that gave the peacock in English lads a new proud strut into the 21st century.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: 1960s, 1970s, Art, Book review, Fashion, Men's fashion, Style