I’ve spent a good part of time back in England over the past year scrabbling about in the family attics, sorting out crumbling cardboard boxes of great antiquity, in preparation for the house being sold. I’ve found all manner of wonderful things. The very first Next Directory, a silk kimono from 1913, my great grandmother’s couture dress from the 1930’s, my maternal grandmother’s wedding album, the first Kate Moss cover from The Face in 1990 and a lot of clothes from my mother’s heyday in the 60s & 70s.
I was beyond thrilled to dig out this dress by John Bates, from his Jean Varon label. I remember it hanging in my mother’s wardrobe when I was very small, but I never saw her wear it. Such a product of its time ( the early Seventies), it was very out of date by the time I had started to engage with what my mother wore.)
She thinks she bought it in 1973 or 74. My paternal aunt Mandy was a founder of the Chelsea Cobbler, (their shoes are now in the V&A Permanent Costume Collection), and knew someone at the Jean Varon studio, so off they went to get my mother a party frock. Even with a hefty discount it cost £25, a vast sum for my mother in those days. (That’s about £375 in 2010 terms.) She says she wore it out a lot, and pointed out an invisible mend where someone had dropped a cigarette end when they were dancing. I love having this tangible reminder of my mother’s deeply stylish past.
John Bates is quite possibly the most influential designer of the 1960s. His name isn’t as well known as his contemporaries, as he began designing under the name Jean Varon from 1959. He was doing futuristic, plastic clothing in the early sixties, long before Courrèges and Cardin lit up the Paris runways, and in 1965 the Fashion Museum in Bath chose a Jean Varon piece as their highly prestigious Dress of the Year.
He’s probably most famous in the minds of the public as the man who dressed Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers in 1965. Her iconic wardrobe was classic John Bates. Although history likes to think of Mary Quant, and maybe Courrèges, as the inventors of the miniskirt, it’s arguable that Bates got in there first and certainly British Vogue and the legendary Ernestine Carter of The Sunday Times were John Bates cheerleaders.
Because his name isn’t so recognisable, there’s quite a lot of very well-priced Jean Varon kicking around on line. There’s a wonderful piece for sale here & lots of Jean Varon on eBay, as in this wonderful dress here (someone please buy it – it’s too small for me, & lace is lovely for the coming season.)
ps In answer to reader questions: I can just fit into it, but I look obscene-ly busty. More like the Nurse than Juliet…Clare has made me promise never to wear it in public. Which is why it is hanging up, rather than being photographed on me.