I don’t know what it is, but this blog is getting a bit fixated on mortality these days. First it was Ruth Pearson, then Mary Millington, and now we have Christine Keeler, who died this week at the age of 75. Keeler was the last of the major players in the Profumo affair, a scandal that gripped the attention of Britons in the early 1960s, led to the eventual downfall of the Conservative government, and ushered in the era of more liberal, progressive, and – some might say – permissive society that most people imagine when they think of the sixties. As the poet Philip Larkin, much quoted in the aftermath of Keeler’s death, put it, ‘Sexual Intercourse began in 1963/ Between the Lady Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP.’
The years from 1962-63, as those who’ve followed this blog will know, were also pivotal ones in the development of the fashion boot, something that is explored in detail in the forthcoming MFW book. This is the period when the boot completed its transition from utilitarian rainwear to the world of high fashion. Looking back eight years later, Daily Mail fashion writer Iris Ashley remembered that in May 1962 “there was only one pair of boots (not counting Wellingtons and riding boots) in the whole of London…. Hand-made they were by Anello and Davide, and I nearly got shot for photographing them in the rain and getting them dirty.” But things were changing. “Boots will put the kick in fashion this fall and winter,” Raymonde Alexander wrote in the Atlanta Constitution in July of that year, while Patty Peterson’s fall forecast for the New York Times in August predicted “boots for all occasions” as a major accessory trend.
This can be very clearly seen in the 1962 Paris fall collection of Balenciaga, who revealed something quite startling; the first over-the-knee fashion boots for women, side-zippered in leather and suede, worn with checked and pleated skirts, white blouses, and wool and leather coats and gloves; the Daily Mail hailed the emergence of “a new sporting type of woman, one who can walk the countryside with elegance in very high leather boots and leather jerkin,” while the Atlanta Constitution described it as “an unexpected group of country clothes.” And in 1963, of course, there was what Vogue hailed as “the most feminine foot, the most luxurious boot – black crocodile… musketeer boots – shiny, thigh-high, shapely as legs. With this look they brought down the house at St. Laurent.” Roger Vivier’s iconic boot was paired with black suede jerkins, a visored leather cap/hood, strap sleeved short coats, leather gloves and tights. In an era when a lady still wore gloves and a hat to go out, this was radical stuff.
So I wondered – was there a link to Keeler in all of this? “Her finest moments,” as Julie Burchell wrote in the Telegraph this week, “may have taken place naked, but Keeler’s dress sense was to have a pleasing impact on Sixties style. When she came out of court, women in floral frocks and fussy hats perched atop home perms line up to jeer at her; in her sleek black suit, tossing her dark glossy mane, she had an air of being one of Nature’s aristocrats.” This struck a chord, because it seemed to echo something that Iris Ashley had written in the Daily Mail in October of 1962, just a couple of months before Johnny Edgecombe began the unravelling of Profumo’s career by firing five shots at a house where Keeler was staying. “Keep an eye on the young…” Ashley urged. “The under twenty-fives…. These are the girls who made long hair piled high into fashion, the girls who’ve been living in tunic dresses and Chanel-type suits – these are the girls who are going mad for capes. For daytime, they wear them with high boots.”
So, was Christine Keeler one of those under twenty-fives in high boots? It seems, based on a couple of images available from Getty that perhaps she was. #71870367 was taken on April 23, 1963, #592272662 in Keeler’s apartment on March 17, 1963, the week before she was due to give evidence in Edgecombe’s trial. Her two outfits – a blouse and an oversized sweater, both worn with ski pants tucked into knee-length boots – would have been seen as shockingly edgy by Burchell’s latter-day tricoteuses, with their floral frocks, fussy hats, and home perms, but it pointed to wider changes in society.
The approval of the oral contraceptive pill had given women an unprecedented level of control over their fertility. While social conservatives tut-tutted about promiscuity and extra-marital sex, the major impact of this new contraceptive technology was in transforming women’s economic role. By uncoupling the onset of sexual activity from the age that women first married, it allowed them to invest in education and other forms of human capital as well as generally become more career-oriented. Soon after the birth control pill was legalized, there was a sharp increase in college attendance and graduation rates for women. And as Beth Levine so presciently noted, the emergence of the boot and the pill were contemporaneous. They were both, in their in own ways, symbols of women’s growing independence.
- Alexander, Raymonde. 1962. Fashions Will Stand on Solid Footing as Boots Kick Off the Fall Season. The Atlanta Constitution, July 16, 1962. Pg. 17
- Anon. 1962.Balenciaga Is Praised by Buyers. New York Times, Aug 2, 1962. Pg.18.
- Anon. 1963. Paris: The First Full Report: Vogue’s First Report On The New French Clothes And The Fresh Excitement Of Paris. Vogue, Sept 1963: pp164–181, 243, 245
- Anon. 2017. Christine Keeler, model at the centre of the Profumo Affair – obituary. Daily Telegraph, Dec 5, 2017. Accessed 12/9/2017.
- Ashley, Iris. 1962. Iris Ashley with Balenciaga Yesterday. The Daily Mail, Aug 29, 1962. Pg. 4.
- Ashley, Iris. 1962. On the Wave of a New Rave. The Daily Mail, October 31, 1962. Pg. 10.
- Ashley, Iris. 1970. Fini the Mini. The Daily Mail, July 30, 1970. Pg. 4.
- Burchell, Julie. 2017. Christine Keeler made me realize the respectable life was not for me. Daily Telegraph, Dec 9, 2017. Accessed 12/9/2017.
- Peterson, Patricia, 1962. Fall ’62 Forecast. New York Times, Aug 26, 1962. Pg.248.