The Decade that Taste Forgot? That is the question posed in the title of the latest exhibition at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock. Readers who remember the flowered shirts, flared trousers, nylon bedspreads and the psychedelic curtains of the period may agree with the proposition.
My visit brought back memories of a different kind. The contraceptive pill may have been introduced during the Sixties but it was really in the Seventies that the consequences were felt. The decade began with the Equal Pay Act and ended with the Women’s Liberation Movement. The freedom women were feeling expressed itself in fashion as ‘Anything Goes‘. To me, that was the joy of the time but also the reason for its embarrassing reputation. I can remember wearing minis, midis, maxis and earth-mother florals by Laura Ashley. We also experienced the shock of Vivienne Westwood’s Punk and the elegance of Biba. The sense of fun in the Seventies meant we wore what we fancied according to the mood of the moment.
The curator of this exhibition, Cherry Gray, who also brought us the enjoyable Sixties show in 2006, says: “Exhibitions can only provide snapshots of what an era was like but this will give people who lived through the Seventies a chance to reminisce and those who haven’t a sense of the colour, fun and freedom of the period and, hopefully, they will want to go and explore it in depth.”
She is right and this nostalgic show is fundamentally a light-hearted look at the Seventies through room settings about fashion and design with spotlights on the entertainment, music, games and toys of the era. There are hints of what else there is to explore. A giant replica of a View-Master acts as a time line showing the profound changes that were happening, including Britain joining the EU and ending pounds, shillings and pence.
The darker side of the Seventies included the Vietnam War, Watergate, IRA bombs, the Winter of Discontent and an energy crisis not unlike the current one. It is always a mistake to regard the past as a Golden Age.
This is a free exhibition that all ages can appreciate. There is a disco dressing-up area for young and old. As well as donning real clothes, children can use a magnetic board with cut outs to dress characters from the period. You won’t escape the sound of the Seventies be it the songs of the Bay City Rollers or the family conversation you hear on the Sound Sofa.
A new generation is discovering Dr Who and the original series was exciting but unsophisticated. You could more or less see the cardboard scenery moving. While sets in the latest sci-fi are still often made from cardboard, today’s computer generated effects means you are unaware of it.
The fun of the times burst on to our TV screens in innovative humour including wacky disrespect. Among the unforgettable series to appear in the Seventies were Rising Damp, The Good Life and Fawlty Towers. Although the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus appeared on October 5, 1969, most of them were televised in the early Seventies. Similarly, colour television sets were on sale in 1967 but most families couldn’t afford them until well into the Seventies. You come away from this exhibition with vivid colour on the brain. It was not only in colour TV and fashion fabrics but in Perspex, the must-have lifestyle material, in all its brilliant oranges, greens and purples.
Among the iconic films were Saturday Night Fever, Star Wars, Jaws and Apocalypse Now and plenty of tasteless fun epitomised by the Carry On’ films. Mary Whitehouse was always at hand to complain if she considered there was too much sex and violence.
The Olympics are upon us again, and there is a section on sport reminding us that the star of the Munich Olympics in 1972 was the young gymnast Olga Korbet. You are invited to match quotations and characters on a magnetic board. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” had to be from that master of the one liner, Muhammad Ali. 1970 was the year of the first New York Marathon.
The Seventies was not completely tasteless, just diverse. The sight of Concorde flying hasn’t been surpassed. By the end of the decade Habitat made Scandinavian style popular and the new fitted kitchens, by companies like Poggenpohl are not fundamentally different from those on offer today.
The ’70s Exhibition is at the Oxfordshire Museum until October 12. The museum has a pleasant café, garden and a permanent exhibition. I can recommend this journey into the recent past which can be combined with a wander around Woodstock and the grounds of Blenheim Palace to make a memorable day out. If you miss it this summer, it will be back. This is a joint venture between Hampshire and Oxfordshire Museum services. After nine months in Hampshire it will return to Banbury in 2009.
Opening times: Tues-Sat 10am-5pm and Sunday 2-5pm. Admission free. www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/museums.