Tour de Force: From Punks to Princesses

Once a year Maitland Simpson’s kitchen table becomes an improvised catwalk for a re-enactment of an iconic moment in British fashion. “A friend and I dress up in a pair of Vivienne Westwood shoes, identical to the ones worn by Naomi Campbell when she fell over at Paris Fashion Week. We strut up and down the table without a slip.” Maybe Westwood should give Maitland a call for her next show.

She is certainly no stranger to the public eye. At Edinburgh University, Maitland formed a new-wave rock band with a mate. This earned her a gig as a backing singer for the Rezillos and in 1978 she found herself on the BBC music show Top of the Pops.

“My very brief ‘music career’ resulted in me re-taking my university exams,” says Maitland. “But punk gave me a sense of freedom and identity, a chance for me to look different from my hippy-style cousins back home in Aberdeen”.

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Following her short-lived brush with celebrity, she worked for charity organisations, married and travelled. Then, in 2010 when Maitland qualified as a London Blue Badge Guide, she decided to combine her passion for street style, clothes and history.

“Fashion tells the story of social status. In London’s Victoria and Albert Museum there is a collection of Tudor women’s corsets. Some fasten at the back, some the front. Nothing remarkable about that – except that if you were rich you had servants to fasten you up at the back; if you were poor you had a front-closing corset.

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“Victorian corsets were designed to create a tiny waist. They were so tight that some women fainted and there are even stories of fatalities. If the corseting didn’t kill you, the fashionable new magenta dyes made with arsenic would leach poison around your collar.

“For centuries British women’s fashion design was conducted from the wealthy streets of Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge was once home to over 30 millinery shops. Today there is just one survivor: John Boyd. The 90 year-old started work in the post-war period, when clothing material was rationed and Boyd would improvise by decorating his hats with wire wool unravelled from kitchen scouring pads.

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“He has designed headwear for nearly all the royals including Princesses Margaret and Anne and – famously – Diana’s going-away hat following her wedding. It takes three weeks to design and make the pieces which he hand finishes. I am hanging on to my personal Boyd hat – it is a collector’s item.

“Boyd belongs to the generation of clothes designers whose post-war aristocratic styles defined women’s fashion. Norman Hartnell opened his shop on Bruton Street in the 1930s, near the house where the future Queen Elizabeth II was born. In 1947 he designed her wedding gown. This was England’s most talked about dress and a concerned public sent in their clothing ration coupons to make sure there was enough material to make an outfit fit for a princess. The gifts had to be returned, as it was illegal for another person to use them.

“But Mayfair’s old-school fashions were about to be swept away by a road that defined a new era in British fashion: Carnaby Street. People stopped dressing like their mum and dad, the  royals were replaced by Rock‘n’Roll and shops became boutiques. The goddess of the Street was Mary Quant, who gave the name to the mini-skirt, saying: ‘if you couldn’t afford a Mini car, wearing a mini-dress gave you the same sense of freedom’.

“Biba was the defining 1960s boutique. Everyone wanted to be a Biba girl, with free flowing clothes, wavy hair and huge eyes. When I was 12, my mum took me on my first trip to London. We went to Biba where she bought an ostrich feather boa and a pink and black dress. Compared to the conservative clothes of my Aberdeen aunties, these were exotic items that I longed to wear.

“In 1974 on London’s Kings Road a provocative challenge to Biba’s hippy culture appeared. Announcing itself with a pink foam rubber sign saying ‘SEX’, this was the unofficial headquarters for the British punk movement. The shop sold clothes collected and designed by Malcolm McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood.

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“I spent a lost weekend at ‘SEX’ in the late 1970s. During an appearance with the Revillos on Top of the Pops I made friends with a cage dancer from the show. We visited the shop together and somehow she ended up marrying Billy Idol.

“Dame Vivienne Westwood is now the grand lady of British fashion. Though an internationally recognised designer, she hasn’t forgotten her punk roots – she cycles to her Mayfair shop in platform heels and collected her OBE knickerless.

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“Westwood paved the way for a new generation of British designers, but their great champion is Joan Bernstein, or Mrs B as she’s affectionately known. Her South Molton Street store opened in 1970 and fostered design talents such as John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane.

“Alexander McQueen combined two great British traditions: tailoring skills learned on Savile Row and a rebellious bondage aesthetic. He pioneered the revealing low-slung bumster trousers at the same time as using slashings, a fashion that originated in the Tudor period.

“Stella McCartney also learned to tailor on Savile Row, where her Beatles father is one of the street’s most prestigious clients. She rose to fame designing Madonna’s wedding dress and Team GB’s 2012 Olympic outfits. Known as ‘Stella Steel’ for her tough business skills, she has pioneered ethical fashion.

“Christopher Kane is a Scottish designer who has just opened in Mayfair. Kylie Minogue wears his clothes. He is the UK’s Versace, combining gaffer tape, cables and lace with traditional Scottish materials such as cashmere.

“These designers have mixed the tailoring traditions of Savile Row and Mayfair with UK street style to turn British fashion into an international business. At the same time they have made London into the ideal city for dedicated followers of fashion.”

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