Exhibition Review: Thea Porter // 70s Bohemian Chic

Whatever else clothes may be about, I believe they must add to the enjoyment of life. A dress is a failure unless it gives a woman added confidence.” – Thea Porter

Photos taken by Electra Simon at the Fashion Textile Museum

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The first exhibition to tell the tale of the Thea Porter, the designer who pioneered bohemian chic in the 1960s and 1970s, opened at the Fashion Textile Museum in London last week. The retrospective explores her life, from the early years in Damascus and Beirut, glamorous endeavors in Soho, Paris and New York, through her exquisite designs, curated by 70s clothing fanatic Laura McLaws-Helms.

Thea Porter was born in Jerusalem, but attended boarding school in Hampshire where she pined for the lavish fashions of the Middle East from a ration-defeated England. Back in Beirut in the 1950s, Thea met her husband who worked at the British Embassy, life for Thea at this time was a round of parties; their social circle including Lebanese politics, playwrights and painters. Thea prided herself on being the best-dressed wife at the embassy she often visited the seamstress to have copies of dresses by Lavin and Cardin made in fabrics from the Beirut suq. Interestingly, when she returned to London in 1964 she began her (unintentional) career in fashion by commissioning replicas of the authentic Middle Eastern garments that she sold in her iconic Greek Street shop. It seems Thea was clearly never one to conform, using the modernity and sophistication of western garments and infusing them with the exotica of the east, she created a mystical aura around the wearer of her clothes. Thea’s knowledge and experience of Arabian craftsmanship applied also to her interior design as well as her clothes; Her store was a luxurious, bohemian jewellery box, hidden amongst the seedy streets of Soho

Thea’s designs cultivated a collection of immensely wealthy and glamorous clients from the Hollywood and rock ‘royalty’ to real-life royalty. Including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Joan Collins and Faye Dunaway; followers of rock and psychedelia like Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd and Jimmi Hendrix; and then the royal patrons such as Princess Margaret and the empress of Iran, Farah Diba. Today her following is a new generation of muses that epitomize bohemian chic, namely Kate Moss, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Nicole Richie. Nowadays her dresses may be even more extortionately priced than they were at the time, but then they have that additional appeal of worn experience and stories to tell.

When I design a dress, I try to put it together like a painting: colours, shapes, proportions have to work together with the face, which is integral to the whole design.” – Thea Porter

Art played a key role in Thea’s life, and the exhibition includes some of her own paintings and sketches. From early artistic ventures in Beirut, studying with French artist Georges Cyr, where she had two successful exhibitions at the Alecco Saab gallery to her later days where she socialized with the likes of Francis Bacon and Molly Parking. It is clear that her artistic training informed her sensitivity to pattern, shape and colour and since she was unable to find textiles in Europe that could satisfy her exotic fantasy, she began to have fabrics designed for her exclusively, making her works even more rare and unique.

It seems everyone wanted a part of Thea’s luxurious bohemian textiles, that she so perfectly personified herself. The desire to look well-traveled and experienced creates an air of laissez-faire, sophistication that so designers have since tried to replicate.

 

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