How the iconic face of Swinging Sixties fashion became a target for anarcho-revolutionary terrorists.
Biba is one of the names most associated with Sixties London fashion. Launched by Barbara Hulanicki as a mail-order company offering cheap but stylish clothes for teenagers and twenty-somethings (it was famously said that women over thirty felt old and out-of-place in the Biba shop), the first store opened in Kensington in 1964, with the opening day seeing the place packed with girls all trying on the same design – there was only one style in stock, and that was because the company had so many of it that they were storing them in the shop. When the dress sold out, customers hung around waiting for new stock to arrive. This was the start of the shop becoming one of the places in Swinging London, attracting celebrities and fashionistas alike.
The Biba look was instant streetwear for the skinny dolly bird of the era – affordable, modern, fresh. The shops belted out loud music and avoided window displays – if you wanted to see the products, you had to go through the door. The art nouveau styling and logo, the dark atmosphere and the muted colours of the clothing – avoiding the more garish styles of the day – all helped make Biba into a destination for fashionable young things. It also made the brand a target for the other side of late Sixties youth culture, the politically angry middle-class socialist.
The Angry Brigade grew out of both the 1968 anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Grosvenor Square and the European anarchist movement, and was essentially a left-wing revolutionary group that could be seen as a British version of the Weather Underground in Chicago, or perhaps a more restrained version of the Red Army Faction (aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang). The Angry Brigade decided to up the ante from mere protest to violent insurgency in August 1970, with a series of bombing campaigns against a somewhat random collection of ‘establishment’ targets – banks, foreign embassies, the Ford car company, a BBC outside broadcast truck during the Miss World contest and the homes of Conservative MPs. The bombings were designed to cause property damage and disruption rather than loss of life, and only resulted in one injury – the aim was publicity and anarchy rather than mass destruction. Still, you can’t really have people going around planting bombs to make a point – eventually, it is certain to escalate, especially if the bombers get frustrated about how little impact they are having with the wider world (the same argument might be made about modern Antifa groups and their increasing penchant for violence). In the end, some 25 attacks have been attributed to The Angry Brigade – it’s possible that the actual figure is higher. They were hardly in the same murderous league as the then-resurgent IRA, but it’s easy to see why, in the contemporary atmosphere where both a fear of terrorism and a suspicion of the post-hippy underground (this was the time of the Oz and Little Red Schoolbook trials), the Angry Brigade was a cause for major concern among the establishment.
On May 1st 1971, as a blow against consumerism (how very now!), the Angry Brigade bombed the Biba shop on Kensington High Street. The damage was minimal and no one was hurt, but no doubt the Angry Brigade felt very pleased with themselves, having terrorised a group of young women and struck a blow against reasonably priced fashion… and tasteless coffee, if their Communique 8, published in International Times (London’s leading underground newspaper) meant anything:
If you’re not busy being born you’re busy buying.
All the sales girls in the flash boutiques are made to dress the same and have the same make-up, representing the 1940’s. In fashion as in everything else, capitalism can only go backwards — they’ve nowhere to go — they’re dead.
The future is ours.
Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.
Brothers and Sisters, what are your real desires?
Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP OR BURN IT DOWN. The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses — called boutiques — IS WRECK THEM. You can’t reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just kick it till it breaks.
In the end, the Angry Brigade’s need for publicity also meant that they were not especially hard for the authorities to locate. Jake Prescott was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 1971, while the Stoke Newington 8 became a left-wing cause celebré in 1972 when they were the subject of one of the longest criminal trials in English history – a trial that resulted in four convictions and prison sentences of ten years, and four acquittals (the latter including Angela Weir, who is now Angela Mason, a former Stonewall director and head of a government equalities quango, and very much part of the establishment that the Angry Brigade rated against, having been awarded an OBE in 1999 and CBE in 2007). At the time of conviction, it was said that the accused had been framed by the police and the authorities and that not all were involved in the actual bombing campaign, but were merely supporters and friends – these days, they would probably be convicted of membership of a banned organisation, but such ideas were a political manoeuvre for the future. With the exception of former heroin addict and petty criminal Prescott, the Angries, rather predictably, were middle class, University educated, and comfortably off – dilettantes rather than hardened revolutionaries, perhaps. The trial effectively put an end to their terrorist careers – when they were released, some stuck by their socialist guns (so to speak), some became international drug smugglers while Prescott felt that – as the only working-class Angry – he had been set up to take a fall for his middle-class colleagues.
By the time of the Angry Brigade trials, Biba was still on the up. By 1973, the brand (backed by Dorothy Perkins) would take over a seven-storey building on Kensington High Street, opening a whole department store – the famous Big Biba – that included floors for homewares, a food hall and restaurant, and even the Rainbow Room where bands would perform. But this huge expansion was the beginning of the end. While this store initially attracted a million people a week, many were simply browsing or marvelling at the art-deco and pop-art design of the store (such as the giant dog holding pet food pictured here), and the expansion seemed to dilute the brand – no thirtysomething would have felt uncomfortable in Big Biba. By 1975, founder Barbara Hulanicki had left and the brand was closed by the new owners. There have been periodic revivals of the name since, but these have been pale imitations. Big Biba is now occupied by Marks and Spencer, H&M and other high street chains. This is not an improvement.
Similarly, the Angry Brigade re-emerged in the 1980s as The Angry Brigade Resistance Movement – part of the Irish Republication Socialist Movement – but didn’t do very much and quickly fizzled out as anything other than another far-left faction. The International Times – which helped shared the message of the Angry Brigade by publishing the Communiques and was a sympathetic supporter once the Stoke Newington 8 trial began – also ground to a halt in 1973, though like Biba and the Angry Brigade, the name has been revived on several occasions – it currently exists as a website.
Help support The Reprobate: