Friday, 6 January 2012

Last-Year Reads: Janey

(via Frivolene)

The name Janey Ironside comes up again and again in books about 60s and 70s fashion designers. She was Professor of Fashion at the Royal College of Art and is credited for having taught and inspired such designers as Bill Gibb, Foale and Tuffin and Ossie Clark. This Christmas I had a bit of a Janey Ironside theme - fascinating from a fashion viewpoint but not really the most festive choice, as you'll see - and read Janey, her autobiography which was published in 1973, A Fashion Alphabet, a fun A To Z on fashion and clothing terminology that she compiled, and Janey and Me, a more contemporary book written by her daughter Virginia Ironside about their complex relationship. First off the blocks and onto the blog, is Janey.

Janey is recommended reading for people obsessed with swinging London scene, and what is was like to be part of that fashion world. It's a fascinating read, wittily told, starting with her childhood in India and following  her distinguished career which spanned the shift in fashion from revered salons through to the stylistic freedoms of the sixties and seventies. She worked as assistant to Madge Garland, the first Professor of Fashion at the RCA and a former Vogue fashion editor, left to run her own dressmaking business - largely producing Paris-influenced fashions for those who wanted the look on the cheap - before succeeding Garland as the RCA's Professor of Fashion. Always chic, she perfected an immaculate uniform for her new role, dressing in dark colours set off with white, dramatising her dark hair and pale skin with striking red lipstick. She wrote: ""I unconsciously carried out Dior's maxim that to please a man, or to stop a show, use black, white and scarlet." It was at the RCA she was at her most influential and she devoted her time and considerable energy to her cultivating her students and their future careers.

(via Afterdark)

On her appointment to the RCA position, a Daily Mirror journalist asked her about her aims in her new position. She replied "I want to try and promote an internationally accepted new English look". The disbelieving journalist, who like the rest of the world was still in awe of the fashion dominance of Paris, didn't print the quote. Yet this is exactly what her students help to promote and were a vital part of the shifting social scene in Britain and the world in that period. When Janey was assisting Madge Garland, she noted the groomed and formal atmosphere at a Hardy Amies show: 

"Paste brooches gleamed on labels, extravagant hats sat on newly coiffured hair, the whitest of white gloves were worn with handbags from Hermes and scarves from Jacqmar".

Compare that to her description of a show from her former student, Ossie Clark: 

"Ossie's clothes, his wife's Celia's prints, and his outrageously wonderful model girls are now famous, drawing unpackable-in crowds of the most trendy from Cecil Beaton to David Hockey." Or, in the case of this clip, two Beatles' watching Patti Boyd model.

Although the 60s is considered the era of the boutique, part of Janey's successes as Professor was to increase links and opportunities  for her students within the mass-fashion industry. She also set up a menswear course. In an interview she was asked who she considered a stylish man. She was ridiculed by the press for her answer of Mick Jagger (rather than a tweed suited chap), again surely only going to illustrate how she had her finger on the pulse about what was really going on in the UK. The menswear course produced Antony Price amongst many others best known, of course, for helping to create Bryan Ferry's suited look. 

Describing Antony Price's work she praises "an imaginative cut in his garments ... one or two of the most advanced ideas (or the most backward looking, whichever way you look at it)". Like many of her students, he was looking to the 1930s for inspiration for new look rather than to the 'futuristic' Space Age designs of Courreges and the like. It was a generation who saw the 1930s through plays and fashion magazines and saw its glamour, in contrast to their parents who had lived through it. Janey felt the role of designers were to pick up on such moods and articulate them through fashion: "Successful designers themselves interpret the unconscious desires of the majority, without thinking 'why', but knowing intuitively that this is the way that things must go to be right for the moment." Not just in fashion, all designers were dependent on "a feeling for what is in the air, for what is right now ... obviously all designers are highly sensitive to the spirit or atmosphere of the times."

Not distinguishing between fashion and other forms of design, it came as a massive blow to Janey when, in 1967, all the schools in the RCA were granted permission to award the degree B.A. with the sole exception of her fashion department. After various battles she resigned from her role. Although she does discuss this in her book, the consequences of her loss of position are more fully dealt with in the Virginia Ironside book. Janey is written six years after this event and concludes with more general thoughts about fashion. Like Kennedy Fraser in The Fashionable Mind (which was written roughly about the same time), she seems to see this moment as a watershed one for fashion:

"The standard I set at the Royal Collage of Art now operates everywhere ... It is a bad time for manufacturers too, because people do not 'wear clothes' nowadays. I don't mean that they go about naked but that there is no such fashion as such."

It's hard to conclude my thoughts about Janey, both the person and book, without referring too closely to Virginia Ironside's Janey and Me book which I hope to briefly write about later in the month. So, perhaps for now the best way to finish writing about Janey's autobiography, is to repeat her thoughts on the generation of fashion designers she helped to shape:

"England had produced a very interesting set of internationally known young designers who make for the few and charge high prices for beautiful and romantic clothes ... [who] show all the latent imagination and talent in the English. Not necessarily 'chic' but beautiful."

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  1. HI there. I was just wondering if the information written in this post is from the book "Janey" ? if not what other sources have you used?

    Many thanks

    1. Hi there, sorry for the delay in replying. The quotes are all taken from the book 'Janey' which is well worth a look if you are interested in this period and the work of Janey Ironside.

      I also recommend 'Janey and Me' which is written by her daughter and fills in some of the gaps in the story, though it's a heartbreaking read. I wrote about that book here:


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