alwyn w turner








by Alwyn W Turner

from chapter iii: CABARET

We have no troubles here – here life is beautiful

‘Walk into the new Biba,’ said the Evening News, ‘and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped inside a dream machine.’ It was an impression that many were to share: ‘it was like a strange Disneyland,’ ‘like walking into Narnia,’ ‘like stepping in off the cold reality of the street into fairyland.’ The New Yorker acclaimed it as being ‘what a department store should be: a unique synthesis of promenade, living theatre, movie palace, gallery and classroom of taste as well as marketplace.’

What Biba offered, reflects Steve Thomas, was ‘fantasy for the night: you can be Garbo, you can be Marilyn. It took girls out from being second-class citizens, secretaries and shopgirls, to being stars. Because boys fell apart at the sight of them. Blokes’ jaws dropped when Biba girls went out on the town. It was an important transference of image.’ That Pygmalion effect had long been the stock in trade of Biba, but Derry & Toms went further by offered a setting worthy of such a transformation. ‘The lifts, when they were working, were superb,’ says one enthusiast. ‘And the stairwell was magnificent; if you could get to walk down it with nobody else around, you felt like a million dollars.’ Marco Pirroni remembers going up the escalator and hearing for the first time Roxy Music’s new single ‘Street Life’ on the in-house sound system; as close to glam heaven as one could get.

The worsening economic situation in the world generally, and in Britain in particular, was ensuring that popular culture’s fondness for the past was unlikely to diminish. Artists like the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, Manhattan Transfer and Bette Middler went back beyond rock & roll for their influences, while music from Busby Berkeley movies and the Swing Era was being reissued in a process that culminated in the Glen Miller revival of 1975. And, following on from Bonnie & Clyde, there was a string of movies rooted in the Twenties and Thirties: The Boyfriend, Cabaret, The Great Gatsby. (Barbara was invited to design the costumes, and Whitmore Thomas the sets for the latter film, but the preparations for Big Biba left no time for the project.)

In the most difficult period for Britain since the War, people were increasingly seeking escapism, and were turning to the same source that had sustained their parents during the Great Depression: Hollywood glamour. Big Biba’s triumph was not merely to draw on that but to recreate it, building an environment that was ‘more like a Busby Berkeley film set than a department store’; here you could not merely witness but participate in the fantasy.

photograph by Sian Irvine

excerpted from The Biba Experience by Alwyn W Turner
published by Antique Collectors' Club
© 2004