Picture a chubby pre-teen girl in a bland plaid catholic school uniform with white go-go boots. That was me in 1964. Even at age 10 I was into fashion. I would scan magazines and TV ads for appealing items. I would “design” some of the outfits my mother painstakingly stitched for me. She was an excellent seamstress and could combine bits and pieces from several different patterns to achieve the “look” we wanted. All I know is when I wore a groovy outfit, I felt marvelous!
Since we lived in the Canadian border town of Detroit, we had ready access to British television shows. Enter The Avengers. Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel. Not only was she the model of the liberated woman who could do it all, she sported the trendiest clothing and the most fabulous accessories including the previously mentioned gogo boots.
The clothing designer who first defined Mrs. Peel’s élan was John Bates. His fashions underscored her character. That of the truly unencumbered female. One minute she was in a feminine lacy dress with ruffles and pearls. The next in a one piece leather cat suit, of coarse, with matching boots.
Bates' designs for Emma Peel included leather cat suits, low slung trousers, empire waist mini and maxi dresses and jackets featuring PVC and Op Art designs. The garments not only made her look fantastic but were also fun and functional. Moreover, they were objects of lust and (verbose) desire for myself and all my friends.
At the age of 18 in 1957, Bates worked as an apprentice at the design house of Herbert Sidon, in London. He would then go on the be a fashion illustrator. In 1960 Bates introduced the Jean Varon label. The designs were fresh, bright and modern. Bates’ collections were immensely popular in the London boutiques. They were sought after by trendsetters like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Marianne Faithful.
Bates quipped,”I called it Jean Varon because at the time an English name like John Bates meant nothing, you had to appear to be French. Jean is French for John and Varon because there was no "V" in the rag trade book. Jean Varon made a good graphic image"
His creations were imitated and mimicked by many American clothing companies. Very short minis, trouser suits, lace dresses, cat suits and tube dresses. These styles seemed to define not only that particular time, but an attitude that a woman could be anyone she wished to be depending upon her couture.
In the 1960’s there was even a Poppy Parker doll in Great Britain with outfits designed that closely resemble Bates creations.
In 1965, one of his dresses with a mesh midriff was chosen as the Dress of the Year and donated to the Fashion Museum in Bath, which in 2006 held a major retrospective show of his work.
One of Bates' most influential champions was Marit Allen, the editor of British Vogue's Young Ideas. Allen considered Bates the true inventor of the miniskirt, rather than Mary Quant or André Courrèges. Bates designed a wedding ensemble for Marit Allen that is displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Allen said of Bates, “John Bates loves short skirts, money, false eyelashes and Cilla Black. Hates English bras, big busts and any sort of foundation garment.”
Believe it or not some John Bates/Jean Varon items can be purchased online on Etsy and Ebay and other sites. Some at very reasonable prices.