This is the first-ever exhibition to look at the work of interior/fashion designer Thea Porter (1927-2000) and her enduring influence in the 21st century.
The exhibition asks how Middle Eastern and North African textiles and culture have influenced fashion design in the 20th century through some of Porter’s most popular signature styles including the Abaya & Kaftan; the Gipsy dress; the Faye dress; the Brocade-panel dress; the Wrap-over dress; the Chazara jacket; and the Sirwal skirt.
We learn about her time spent in Jerusalem and Damascus, her shop in Soho in the 1960s, and her influence on Paris, New York and Los Angeles during the 1970s. The exhibition features 150 items including textiles, garments, artwork and fashion photography from some of the best-known publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily.
Thea Porter opened her first shop in 1966 in Greek Street in the heart of Soho. Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic reproduces the shop as visitors would have seen it at the time. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the Fashion and Textile Museum, all rights reserved.
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Also on display are letters and photographs loaned by Venetia Porter, Thea’s daughter and adviser to the exhibition.
The Fashion and Textile Museum/Newham College, organisers of this exhibition,
are grateful to EAST, for their generous support of this venture.
Bohemian Chic Comes to London
Thea Porter’s early range was primarily menswear. This suit was designed in 1971 for journalist Christopher Ward’s wedding. Thea had previously designed Ward’s bachelor flat. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the Fashion and Textile Museum, all rights reserved.
In 1966, Thea Porter opened her interior design shop at 8 Greek Street in London’s fashionable Soho. Selling kaftans and other Middle Eastern garments as well as furniture mostly imported from Syria, the shop was an instant success.
Other shops opened in New York and Paris in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Inspired by the Middle East, she soon began designing garments herself, primarily creating menswear.
Early clients included members of The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Three members of Pink Floyd wore her printed shirts and decorated jackets on the cover of their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn ( August 1967).
The collection soon evolved to include glamorous full-length evening gowns and sexy mini-dresses, which became extremely popular.
Some of her well-known female clients included Elizabeth Taylor, Faye Dunaway (after whom the Faye dress is named), Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand, Princess Margaret and Shirlee Fonda (wife of actor Henry Fonda).
Thea Porter wrote in her memoir that Shirlee Fonda collected more than sixty Shazara jackets.
For almost twenty years, exotic garments and beautiful interior designs, inspired by the Middle East and made from luxurious richly-patterned silks and antique fabrics, were Thea Porter’s trade mark.
An Interview with Curator Laura McLaws Helms
Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic is jointly curated by Dennis Nothdruft, Curator of the Fashion and Textile Museum, and Laura McLaws Helms, fashion historian, writer and design consultant.
Shazara Jacket by Thea Porter. This Shazara Jacket dates from 1975 and has been loaned by the Collection of Shirlee Fonda. The Shazara Jacket was another very popular design. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the Fashion and Textile Museum, all rights reserved.
Laura has worked on exhibitions at a number of museums and was Assistant Curator for Beauty CULTure at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.
Laura is joint author with Venetia Porter of Thea Porter Bohemian Chic. This is the first major publication to explore the life and work of this iconic designer. Laura spoke exclusively to Decoded Past.
Decoded Past: When did you become interested in Thea Porter?
Laura McLaws Helms: I actually started researching over four years ago because I liked her clothes and I wanted to know more. I realised that there was just one paragraph about her that appears in every book, and that was all the information I could find. So I started going back, finding old articles. I tracked down her daughter and suddenly I went from having no information to having every piece of paper of hers, every order, every bill. I spent several years putting it all into order.
Decoded Past: So she never threw anything away?
Laura McLaws Helms: No… it was like a dream for me, as an historian, to be handed an archive I could just organise. It was amazing to learn so much about her in all of these different realms, from the business side to her personal letters, to how she designed. It was a really holistic view, and I feel as if I know her personally, even though I’ve never met her. It was an amazing project. Her clothes are beautiful, so that made it even better.
Decoded Past: Were you able to find out more about her childhood in Damascus?
Laura McLaws Helms: I learned a lot through her letters from the period, and through interviews with people who knew her. For the book her daughter Venetia wrote that section. She actually went back to Damascus and interviewed people. Thea’s brother was still living until last year, so he was very helpful.
The white chiffon Abaya by Thea Porter has embroidered satin panels. It is a more romantic version of her signature design. Photograph taken by Frances Spiegel with permission of the Fashion and Textile Museum, all rights reserved.
Decoded Past: How did you decide what to include in the show?
Laura McLaws Helms: I wanted to give a really full view of her work and show how her pieces, like the Abaya, evolved over time. I wanted to show the sheer breadth of different designs. It was really about trying to capture very type of style that she did.
Decoded Past: Did she search out the materials herself?
Laura McLaws Helms: She would sometimes go to the Middle East to find silks and satins. She didn’t source everything herself, but there was quite a lot. And then there was also a man that she worked with who would simply turn up with suitcases full of antique bits and pieces, trims and braids from the 18th century.
Decoded Past: How do you feel this exhibition will influence today’s fashion students?
Laura McLaws Helms: I’m sure it will… the seventies always seems to be coming back. I think that until now there’s been such limited information about her, and just the same couple of pictures that people always refer to. I really hope that with the show and the book people will see her work as much more than just the Abaya and that the seventies had all these other facets. I’m sure it will influence textile designers a lot.
Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic at Fashion and Textile Museum
The Clothing Institute recognised Porter’s contribution to British fashion by awarding her the Designer of the Year award in 1972. Her work is in most museum collections all over the world and has featured in many exhibitions, including The Glass of Fashion in 1971, curated by Cecil Beaton, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Today’s fashion designers see her work as the perfect evocation of Bohemian style. Surviving garments are still treasured by original owners, and the latest generation of vintage lovers, including some of the world’s most fashionable women, such as Kate Moss, Julia Roberts, Nicole Richie, Ashley and MaryKate Olsen, still search for Thea Porter originals.
Thea Porter: 70s Bohemiam Chic is open at the Fashion and Textile Museum until 3rd May 2015.