Dolly Birds and Swinging Cities?

The 1960s was a changing world for women, with increased affluence, cosmopolitanism and explosions in popular culture like never before. Following the Second World War, traditional gender roles loosened and women were given more work opportunities and more sexual freedom

We explored the impact of alleged newfound freedoms for women in the 1960s at an event entitled Dolly Birds and Swinging Cities. The event examined “whether the 60s were swinging for everyone”, in the words of Dr Katie Milestone, joint convener of the event and Senior Lecturer in Sociology. Katie argued that there was “huge inequality” between women, and some women were not afforded such freedoms until the 1970s.

Dr Joan Ormrod, joint event convener and Programme Leader for Film and Media Studies, introduced some of the “contexts and contradictions” of the decade. Many social changes acted as double edged swords for many women. Whilst more women went into work, they did not reach “dizzy heights” and the ideal feminine trope was “a woman who is professional, but a bit of fluff on the side”. Fashion gave women a freedom of expression, but also inflicted pressure to have the ideal slender body shape. The emergence of the birth control pill could offer sexual freedom, but not freedom under social conventions that still surrounded sex. Indeed the pill, which was made available on the NHS in 1961, was only available to married women until 1967. After this time however, women experienced added pressure to say “yes” to sex.

Dr Mel Gibson

Dr Mel Gibson

Comics and magazines for girls reached peak popularity during this time, and were particularly important in perpetuating messages of girlhood and what it meant to be a woman. Jackie was the best-selling teen magazine in Britain for ten years, with sales rising from an initial 350,000 to 605,947 in 1976. Dr Mel Gibson, from the University of Northumbria, spoke on British Girls and their Comics. These magazines gave confusing and often contradictory versions of girlhood, for example, one story in Bunty suggested social mobility was possible, whilst also showing that working class women would be excluded by middle class women. Surprisingly though, many stories had messages of political activism, and ultimately suggested a girl could grow up to be like anyone, even like the celebrities that covered the magazines’ centre pages.

Women emerged more than ever into the public eye and the celebrities of the day became a driving force behind developments in fashion. Dr Pamela Church Gibson, from University of the Arts, London, spoke about The Impact of New Female Icons in bringing about the social revolution of the 60s. Dr Gibson explained that the term ‘dolly bird’ has distinctly sexual connotations, as “dolly” was an 18th century term for a prostitute, and “bird” suggested sexual availability. The stars of the decade performed sexual availability through their fashions, which were much more revealing than those of the 50s.

Dr Georgina Gregory

Dr Georgina Gregory

The revealing outfits worn by women were a way they could gain power. Dr Georgina Gregory, from UCLan, looked at Go-Go dancing to explore women’s ‘erotic capital’ in the 1960s. The dance was so popular that fashion items, such as Go-Go boots, were named after the dance. Go-Go dancers typically wore exaggerated versions of the fashions of the day, for example skirts shorter than the norm. This allowed women to capitalise on their sex appeal and femininity. According to Gregory, the dance’s high energy and freeform reflected the growing individualism in post-war England. Before the Second World War, partner dancing was very much the norm; however, Go-Go dancing saw couples dancing side-by-side as young people rejected the traditional ways of living. Following WWII, women in particular were no longer cushioned by the stability of traditional roles, and sought new ways to express themselves and gain power, through fashion, dance and a “performance of sexual availability” that the women did not possess in reality.

The same apparent availability was seen in representation of women in cinema. Professor Ewa Mazierska, from University College London, spoke on Girls in Polish Cinema of the 1960s and Early 1970s. Poland was the most destroyed country in the Second World War, and consequently women in cinema following the war “had no lives as ‘girls’, but only as workers rebuilding the city”. However, by the 1960s, Poland had achieved a period of “small stabilisation” and Polish people were encouraged to lead private lives and enjoy the city they had worked hard to reconstruct. In films such as Goodbye ‘til Tomorrow, Marguerite is shown exploring the city with the help of a young man. However, because of the social conventions and restrictions that still surrounded sex, girls never fulfilled romantic relationships in movies: Mazierska explained “cities were better than sex”. By the 1970s the city became a dangerous place, particularly to working class girls: “culture sped up, and joy evaporated from life”.

Dr Vanessa Brown

Dr Vanessa Brown

Even though the emergence of the pill lead to an increased availability of sex, this was mostly afforded to men. Surprisingly, sunglasses became a way women could express their ‘erotic capital’ whilst simultaneously detaching themselves from the men who may benefit from it. Dr Vanessa Brown, Nottingham Trent University, spoke aboutCool, Sunglasses and the Ultimate Modern Woman. She explained how sunglasses originated from driving goggles. They were seen as a masculine accessory to such an extent that early advertisements for women’s sunglasses did not feature the dark lenses that they had in reality.

It was this distinctive ‘male-ness’ that made sunglasses so distinctly ‘cool’ when the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O wore them. Dr Brown defined cool as “a special form of composure signifying an idealised response to the disruptive forces of modernity”. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s Hepburn’s sunglasses allowed Holly Golightly to remain concealed even in her most vulnerable moments. The sunglasses interrupted the male gaze, and allowed the wearer to appear independent, detached, and introspective. Hence, sunglasses became a symbol of modernity, an embodiment of the way in which fashion allowed new ways of expression for women, and a rejection of the patriarchal control that had dominated the previous decades. Other celebrities manifested such a change, for example Nico. Gary Needham, from Nottingham Trent University, spoke on Performing Nico… and described how Nico started as a fresh faced girl in the 1950s but by the 70s became repellent and surly in her public image.

The sixties allowed women increased freedom and affluence, but inevitably, social conventions did not catch up until the later decades. The emergence of the pill led to women’s exploitation as much as it did their sexual freedom and the decade is rife with contradictions. Women had to seek out new forms of expression to gain power and reject patriarchy in a feminist movement which is still ongoing today.


This was also published on the Manchester Metropolitan University website.


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