Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic

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Photo credit: Artfund

With 70’s styles making a comeback on the catwalks this spring, the Fashion and Textile Museum in London is taking the opportunity to revitalize the accomplishments of Thea Porter – the fashion designer credited with engineering the bohemian chic look – in the first ever retrospective of her work.

The exhibition, which is based upon Porter’s unpublished memoir “Thea Porter’s Scrapbook”, follows her career chronologically; from her beginnings setting up a Moroccan inspired interior design and lifestyle shop in Soho, to her dramatic rise to stardom and acclaim, featured frequently in Vogue and designing for stars as varied as Pink Floyd, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Margaret. Porter’s designs drew upon her childhood in Syria, as well as her later travels in Europe and America, to create exotic Middle-Eastern-inspired designs out of luxurious and colourful fabrics.

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Walking through the displays of Thea Porter’s garments and relics of her Soho shop, it was impossible not to become infected by the heady vibrancy and decadence of 1970’s bohemia (though this was certainly aided by the decade-appropriate sound track!). Porter’s work forms a part of the renaissance of British fashion design which took inspiration from history, fantasy and other cultures and this is clearly visible in the ingenious combinations of contrasting fabrics and style; sheer chiffon mingling with heavily embroidered brocade, whilst eastern inspired prints make up classic European styles.

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The exhibition draws attention to Porter’s seven signature styles: The Abaya, a beautiful flowing chiffon garment often panelled with colourful print, the Gipsy dress (my personal favourite), the Faye dress, a brocade dress with sheer side panels, the Wrap-over dress, the Chazara jacket and a Sirwal-like skirt. In her memoir Porter wrote “even for a simple dress to be successful, there has to be the alchemy at work which makes the dress fuse with the person, as a painting which appears always to have existed…do a dress should be complete, a whole…as in a portrait it should take you back to the face or body, it should not take over but serve to emphasise the wearer’s best points”. Indeed, despite the level of detail and structure, which make Porter’s designs resemble artworks in their own right, her clothes retain a strong sense of wearability.

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Despite the lack of commercial success of Thea Porter’s brand – her habit of consulting fortune tellers and astrology for business advise preventing her from capitalising on her popularity – Porter’s designs continue to have an enduring appeal. The exhibition highlights her success with a new generation of celebrities such as Kate Moss, Nichole Richie and the Olsen twins. Perhaps this lasting attractiveness and indeed the reason for the resurgence of 70’s style today is the decade’s sense of excitement and experimentation. In a society where more than ever culture is repetitively recycled and remarketed, the ability to experience that sense of wonder at the unknown and freshness of new combinations of cultures is, perhaps unsurprisingly, highly prized. Indeed, Porter’s ability to not only emulate other time periods and cultures, but to bring something of her own personality and style to them, perhaps suggests a way we can approach the resurgence of 1970’s fashion in 2015.

Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic is at the Fashion and Textile Museum, February 3rd to May 3rd

Sarah Scott

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