Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki's designs dazzle Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

By Ben Miller | 19 September 2012
A photo of a series of colourful dresses, including a full leopard print cloak and hat
Exhibition Review: Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, September 22 – April 14 2013

Once, Barbara Hulanicki revolutionised fashion shopping by hanging risqué dresses on hat stands, playing loud, swish tunes accompanied by glitzy accessories and make-up boxes brimming with bright red, yellow, plum and chocolate colours.

Minus the coolly indifferent assistants – themselves a masterstroke at the time – the show celebrating her  50 years in the business has all of those perks, as well as films, dressable dolls, mirrors and interviews, including some with Hulanicki, who has taken a hands-on role in its curation.

The Brighton-raised designer might be broadcasting what we’re all thinking in dismissing much of modern fashion as having a touch of the Emperor’s New Clothes, but she also speaks of her continued excitement at being a dedicated follower of fashion – although her pioneering outlook from the mid-1960s was more a lesson in leading when millions followed.

The central plinth of this display is a dense promenade of beautiful dresses. Among them a leopard print cape and hood, sparkly gold numbers to swoon party planners, demure black gowns with cut-offs of once-unprecedented shortness and elements of flower power and psychedelia, floating next to decadent, vertiginous heels or strappy cow-coloured footwear.

Hulanicki is a feisty spirit with a restless flair for capturing the Zeitgeist. Many of the dresses have been proudly handed over by donors who donned them for weddings or similarly prestigious occasions. Fearne Cotton and Ronnie Wood head a list of celebs using the talents of an artist who retains reverence on high streets and catwalks.

But Wood’s commission – he asked Hulanicki to build his bar, Woody’s on the Beach, in Miami – is indicative of the dexterity her origins as an illustrator and perhaps explaining her seemingly endless longevity.

Almost 60 years after making an illustration of Audrey Hepburn (positioned as the quintessential Biba girl here) while studying at Brighton’s Art College, Hulanicki now designs hotels in Jamaica and the Bahamas.

She won an award from the American Institute of Architects in 1993 and, more fantastically, helped create recording studios, a private home, music video costumes and a Disney World restaurant during five years working for Gloria Estefan.

From crooners and Rolling Stones to bright lippy and affordable handbags, Hulanicki has turned a rebellious hand to so much. The dresses dazzle, but her precocity shines brighter.

  • Open 10am-5pm (closed Monday except public holidays). Admission £3-£6 (free for under-16s). Follow the museum on Twitter.

Watch curator Martin Pel introduce two exhibits from the show:

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