London Swings Again With Ossie Clark Show At The V&A

By Emma Midgley | 22 July 2003

Emma Midgley goes far out in South Kensington for this top show.

On until May 2, the V&A's new retrospective show displays the work of Ossie Clark, the designer who dressed Mick Jagger, Twiggy and Liz Taylor through the 1960s and 70s.

Ossie Clark was an innovator in the world of fashion, and reached prominence at a time when London was becoming one of the most exciting places in the world for fashion, art, music and photography.

Walking into the exhibition, you are immediately struck by the diaphanous chiffon dresses, tailored coats and beautiful prints on display. Satin trouser suits cling flatteringly and flare dramatically over the manikins' frames.

A video wall shows footage from four of Ossie Clark's early catwalk shows between 1968 and 1969. They are theatrical events, with models and celebrities dancing down the catwalk, while members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles look on.

His clothes were worn by from everyone from Bardot to Julie Christie, including Patti Boyd, Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Marianne Faithfull, Talitha Getty, Bianca Jagger, Jean Shrimpton, and Liza Minnelli.

Wandering through the collection, it is easy to see why Ossie Clarke's clothes were so desirable. Ossie Clark was innovative, introducing floating dresses which were virtually see-through, mini skirts and maxi skirts. He experimented with fabrics, creating glamorous clothes out of wool tweed, silk chiffon, snakeskin, fur and crepe.

He was the first to make elegant, tailored silk trousers an essential fashion item - at a time when women were not allowed in to Claridges if they were wearing a trouser suit.

Celia Birtwell, Ossie Clark's muse, business partner and wife, created beautiful prints that complemented his tailoring. The dresses are painstakingly patterned using silk screening techniques.

The exhibition also features photographs and garments worn by Ossie Clark's clients. Twiggy's fur-lined snakeskin coat is on display, as is Talitha Getty's red crepe evening dress and sketches for Mick Jagger's stage costumes.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition is the dress, which Celia Birtwell wore in Hockney's famous painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.

Hockney immortalised Ossie Clark and his wife as the quintessential 70s couple in this painting, both elegant, wearing beautiful clothes, surrounded by white lilies on the coffee table, a cream rug and a white telephone.

Ossie Clark was born Raymond Clark in Liverpool on June 9, 1942. During the war he was evacuated to Oswaldwhistle in Lancashire, where he got his nickname 'Ossie'.

By the age of 10, Ossie Clark was designing and making clothes. At 16, he took up a place at the Regional College of Art in Manchester.

It was there he met his future wife, Celia Birtwell, a talented artist who designed many of the prints used in Clark's fashion. He also befriended the artist David Hockney.

In 1962, Ossie Clark came to London to study fashion at the Royal College of Art. He graduated in June 1965 with an Op-art MA collection inspired by Bridget Riley.

Within months his clothes were featured in Vogue. Soon they were flying off the rails of the ultra-fashionable shop, Quorum, owned by his friend, Alice Pollock.

Fame and celebrity followed, until the late 1970s when Ossie Clark stopped designing commercially and his marriage to Celia Birtwell failed.

After breaking up with his wife, Clark fell into bankruptcy, drug addiction and depression. In 1996, he died, brutally stabbed to death by an ex-lover. Had he lived longer, he would have seen a revival of interest in his fashion and fortune.

This exhibition brings alive a seminal time in London's history, while the collection of clothes allows us to enjoy Birtwell's beautiful printed textiles, Clark's expert tailoring and innovative fashion of the 60s and 70s.

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