Max Décharné’s top 10 London fashion books

Max Décharné lives in London and is the author of King’s Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World, a history of the short stretch of Chelsea pavement which was the launchpad for bands from the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols, theatrical blockbusters from Look Back in Anger to the Rocky Horror Show, and fashion designers such as Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood and Ossie Clark.

“Having spent the recent past digging into the history of the King’s Road, it’s not hard to see how greatly the street styles of the capital have influenced fashions around the world. Prior to Mary Quant, people looked to Paris or New York for the latest thing. By the mid-60s, London was the world capital of cool, and in terms of rock’n’roll fashion, it maintained that position right up until the late 80s, when the entire globe seemingly drowned in a sea of sports clothing, trainers and corporate brand-names. In the end, though, individuality was always the most important part of the deal – particularly in the punk days, when the influence of the Clash and their spray-it-yourself Oxfam-chic did far more than the expensive store-bought styles to define the look on the streets – and London youth culture has long had that attitude in abundance. As the Desperate Bicycles so memorably said back in 77: “It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it.”

1. Quant by Quant by Mary Quant

Fine 1966 autobiography from the woman who started it all, published the same weekend as Time magazine’s cover article London – The Swinging City, after which, as Mary told me, “American news magazines and TV were often filming both sides of the King’s Road at the same time”. An engagingly-told tale of how she started out working from her Chelsea bedsit back in 1955 and wound up heading a multi-million pound business. Long recognised as a key 60s artefact, rare in any format, it’s high time someone reprinted it.

2. Vivienne Westwood – An Unfashionable Life by Jane Mulvagh

A useful biography of the woman who brought you bondage trousers, ripped mohair sweaters and Cambridge Rapist T-shirts. This is very strong on the fashion side but occasionally loose when it comes to music chronology – Brian Epstein dying in 69, rather than 67, the New York Dolls’ original drummer dying in 74 rather than 72. Overall, a fascinating and valuable introduction to the last great King’s Road fashion iconoclast.

3. Satellite – Sex Pistols memorabilia, locations, photography, fashion by Paul Burgess and Alan Parker

Having read all about Vivienne, the best thing you could then do would be to immerse yourself in this beautifully-illustrated large-format book which, alongside shots of record sleeves and gig posters, has full-colour photographs of the revolutionary mid-70s street clothing which Westwood and McLaren unleashed on the world, much of which retains its shock value to this day. Never a cheap option even when brand new, most of these items now sell for thousands of pounds.

4. The Look – Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion by Paul Gorman

Excellent, immaculately researched and generously illustrated history of rock’n’roll fashion, from the 50s to the present. Gorman has spoken to many of the surviving tailors, shop owners and celebrity customers of hallowed outlets such as Granny Takes a Trip, Vince Man’s Shop and John Michael, who outfitted some of the biggest rock names who ever stumbled onto Top of the Pops or showed up on a stage near you, clad in sharkskin, glitter or dogtooth check. Written after several decades of immersing himself in his subject, the author is currently updating and expanding it for a new edition.

5. Ossie Clark 1965 / 74 by Judith Watt

Ossie Clark’s designs, sold at the legendary Quorum boutique on Radnor Walk, off King’s Road, helped define the era where 60s hippie styles melted into early 70s glam, and you could wear anything you liked, as long as it was see-through. Originally published in conjunction with an exhibition at the V&A in 2003, this is the first full length monograph devoted to Clark. It’s a fine tribute to a singular talent.

6. The Teds by Chris Steele-Perkins and Richard Smith

The Teddy Boy look was the first indigenous London youth street style, pre-dating rock’n’roll by several years. Revived on many occasions – most notably by McLaren & Westwood when they started their first King’s Road shop Let it Rock in 1971 – it has a purity which makes it absolutely timeless. These days, the members of the Edwardian Drape Society are the keepers of the flame, but in the late 70s, at the height of the punk/Ted wars on the King’s Road, photographer Chris Steele-Perkins documented the London rocking scene in meticulous detail, in a book which has become a classic of its kind.

7. Rockers! by Johnny Stuart

The best book ever written about the British bikers of the late 50s and early 60s – the Ton-Up boys who hung out at the Ace Cafe on the North Circular and stopped off at the pie stall by Chelsea Bridge. Packed with vintage photographs and original adverts from key London clothing outlet Lewis Leathers, it’s a welcome antidote to the portrayal of rockers in Franc Roddam’s film Quadrophenia, which, while understandably mythologising mod culture, missed the point about the original biker fraternity by miles.

8. The London Look – Fashion from Street to Catwalk by Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans

A valuable general survey of several hundred years of London street styles, written to accompany a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of London in 2004. Scholarly and fully illustrated, it covers the ground well from the era of Brummell to the present.

9. Worst Fashions – What We Shouldn’t Have Worn… But Did by Catherine Horwood

His’n’hers matching tank tops, dayglo paisley kipper ties, four inch stack-heel boots with a Maltese Cross – this book runs the gamut of every fashion violation imaginable, with a rich variety of photographs, vintage adverts and celebrity fashion faux-pas shots to bring back memories of those times when your parents would rightly have been crying “Surely, you’re not going out dressed in that?” From disposable paper dresses to ‘space-age’ PVC costumes seemingly knocked together in five minutes by the presenters of Blue Peter, these images can only leave you muttering, along with Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz, “The horror, the horror…”

10. Fashion Design by Sue Jenykn Jones

Finally, as an antidote to any of the above outfits that might leave you feeling “Hey, a child of three could do better than that…”, here’s a remarkably useful book for anyone thinking of actually becoming a fashion designer, written by a woman who teaches at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Accompanied by numerous illustrations, the text sets out to provide a step-by-step guide to pattern-making, measuring, cutting, draping and sewing, all the way up to presenting a collection and moving out into the commercial marketplace.


Full article: