Exhibition review: ‘Thea Porter–70s Bohemian Chic’ in London

Philippa Scott remembers the fashion designer Thea Porter, whose world of ‘haute bohème’ has been re-created in a new exhibition.

An article in Country Life (‘The Romantic Look of London’, March 19, 1970) described Thea Porter’s clothes as ‘spectacular in a theatrical sort of way, but… ravishing on the right people’. Inspired by her early life in Syria and Beirut, where she developed a love of the shapes, textures and colours of Middle Eastern textiles, Thea (1927–2000) introduced ‘bohemian chic’ to 1960s London, Paris and New York.

Her glamorous designs app-ealed to a varied clientele, among whom were pop stars, film stars, the rich, titled and privileged, ‘hippies’ with private means, artists and those with artistic aspirations. Her signature flower was the sumptuously scented lily—Thea’s clothes were not for ‘shrinking violets’.

Now, for the first time, her life and work are the subject of an exhibition, ‘Thea Porter—70s Bohemian Chic’ at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, founded by Zandra Rhodes in 2003. On show until May 3, the exhibition has been put together by the museum’s curator, Dennis Nothdruft, in collaboration with Laura McLaws Helms and Thea’s daughter, Venetia Porter.

Like many of my generation, my late teens saw me pottering back and forth along East/West routes. My 21st birthday happened in Istanbul. When I returned to London, I went regularly to Thea’s shop in Greek Street, the ultimate dressing-up box for an oriental ‘fix’. The first item I bought there was a green silk-velvet waistcoat piped in silver cord that reminded me of the lovely things I’d seen in the Sadberk Hanim Museum and the Istanbul Grand Bazaar.

In 1970, I gave my husband-to-be a Thea Porter shirt, chiffon with a ruffle down the front, patterned with the black-and-white peacock print. He wore this with a black-velvet jacket when we married. The peacock husband and the ruffled shirt now reside only in memory, but I was chuffed to learn that Jimi Hendrix had bought the same shirt. Designed by Sandra Munro, the Beardsley-esqe peacock is one of several prints now reproduced as scarves, for sale in the museum shop.

The daughter of an Irish Pres-byterian missionary of Russian-Jewish origin and a French-
Tunisian midwife, Thea was born Dorothea Noelle Naomi Sigel (later Seale) in Jerusalem in 1927 and brought up in Syria from 1933. Nostalgia for the Middle East informed her whole life and she would later write in the notes for her unpublished memoir: ‘An exotic childhood is an incalculable asset for a designer, or indeed for any sort of artist.’

After the Second World War, she studied in England for a while before marrying Bob Porter, an economist working at the British Embassy in Lebanon, and they lived in cosmopolitan Beirut through the late 1950s and early 1960s. An array of photographs, letters, sketches and notebooks serves as introduction to this early period of her life.

Thea studied with the French artist Georges Cyr, and later with Simone Beaulieu, and had two successful exhibitions at the Alecco Saab gallery in Beirut in 1961 and 1963. She regarded herself as an artist first—among her paintings on show are portraits of her husband, and of her lover, Peter Langan—but, in 1964, she settled in London and sought to establish herself as an interior designer, first working for Elizabeth Eaton, then on her own.

Her first showroom, in a house in Berwick Street, London W1, was followed in 1966 by her famous shop—also in Soho, at 8, Greek Street, conveniently close to the Colony Room. Here, she sold furniture, rugs, embroidered textiles, traditional kaftans and other garments and began making commissioned replicas of these traditional garments.

Her first official fashion collection was shown in 1968 and, over the years, her designs for women were, for the most part, variations on seven basic garments: the Gipsy dress, the Faye dress, a brocade dress with sheer side panels, the wrap-over dress, Chazara jackets, a sirwal-like skirt and the abaya or kaftan.

Among European designers, she was inspired by the work of two earlier figures, Paul Poiret (1879–1944) and Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949), but it was the garments and fabrics of the East that were always her domi-nant influences.

Thea’s Greek Street shop, which has been re-created for the exhibition, was accurately portrayed in the film Zee and Co (1972), an adaptation of the novel of the same name by one of her best friends, Edna O’Brian. Starring Elizabeth Taylor in a ménage à trois with Susannah York and Michael Caine, the film can be watched in the final room.

Also re-created as a set for this exhibition is the black dining room that Thea had in her Bolton Street flat, with her mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, although not the tall silver lamp with a lily-shaped shade by Andrew Logan, which was once a presiding feature. A 1975 BBC documentary (viewable here) shows one of Thea’s dinner parties round her mirrored table—among the guests was Frederick Davies (d. 1988), who read the tarot for her every day.

At the end of the 1980s, aware of the early intimations of Alzheimer’s disease, Thea emb-arked on a memoir, Thea Porter’s Scrapbook, consisting of three main sections: ‘The Lure of the Exotic’, ‘The Story of Greek Street’ and ‘What Are Clothes About’. Still unpublished, it forms the basis of this exhibition and its accompanying book. Thea’s own words are quoted throughout the show: ‘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. She must put it on, feel great, and then forget that she is wearing it and get on with her life.’ There’s also a wonderful musical backdrop chosen by her daughter, with Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Gloria Gaynor (I Will Survive) and other tracks bringing the whole era alive.

Thea was a complete romantic she always travelled with her copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and she told me once, with the most beautiful smile, how lucky she was to have known the most extraordinary, wonderful love in her life.

‘Thea Porter—70s Bohemian Chic’ is at the Fashion and Textile Museum, 83, Bermondsey Street, London SE1, until May 3 (020–7407 8664; www.ftmlondon.org). An accom-panying book entitled ‘Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic’ by Laura McLaws Helms and Venetia Porter is published by V&A (£25)