The Designer Who Brought the Caftan to Britain

A model in the window of Porter’s London shop, about 1970. Photo: Courtesy of the Venetia Porter collection

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Zandra Rhodes, Ossie Clark, and Mary Quant have all received recognition for their Swinging London–era designs — but a lesser-known name from the same era is now getting her due, thanks to a new exhibition and book. London’s Fashion and Textile Museum is currently displaying a retrospective devoted to Thea Porter, the bohemian designer beloved by Talitha Getty and Faye Dunaway for her dreamy, flowing designs. The retrospective runs through May 3, and has also generated a book, Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic, out this week. Laura McLaws Helms, the curator of the exhibition and coauthor of the book, and Cameron Silver of Decades (and a member of the It’s Vintage advisory panel) walked the Cut through the designer’s significance.

Her designs were influenced by an international upbringing. 
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, the designer was born in Palestine and grew up in Damascus, an upbringing that greatly shaped her future designs. “It was the most important thing to her — going to the souk and picking out Middle Eastern fabrics with her mother,” explains Helms. After she married the British diplomat Robert Porter, she settled in Beirut, which was then “the Paris of the Middle East — the place where you went to go to nightclubs, get fancily dressed up,” says Helms. “She would spend her days painting and then going to all-night parties at various clubs.”

And while plenty of European designers have been influenced by the region, Helms points out that “she really had this intimate understanding of it — that was her world. When she was making Middle Eastern–inspired clothes, it wasn’t as though she just looked at a book. These were things that she knew so viscerally.” In 1965, she went so far as to open a decor shop which sold decorative art and furniture from the region. Later, when she branched into making clothes, “she would have to explain what a caftan was, what an abaya was, what a djellaba was. Nobody [in England] had any idea what these things were.”

Now, Silver finds that customers in Saudi Arabia clamor for Porter’s designs, drawn to their modest proportions and traditional silhouettes. “She was doing the hip abaya, and there is a return to wearing an abaya, culturally, in the Middle East. And Westerners will wear it because it’s rock ‘n’ roll chic.”

You can trace much of the past few seasons’ penchant for flowing, late ‘60s/early ‘70s psychedelia to her. 
Explains Helms, “In the late ‘60s, she had these antique caftans in the shop,” on Greek Street in London, “that were mostly there to be cut into cushions. As the hippie movement started to grow, people started coming in asking to buy them. These people had already started to go on the hippie trail across Afghanistan, and they were interested in these textiles in a new way. She realized she could make copies of them using the textiles she had collected.” An entirely self-taught talent, she worked with patternmakers and tailors to articulate her vision.

She dressed pretty much every musical star of the period. 
The Beatles wore her designs and decorated their Apple boutique with her textiles; members of Pink Floyd sported her psychedelic clothes on the cover of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And musicians as varied as Cat Stevens, Elton John, and long-haired country singer Crystal Gayle were all fans.

She was also a go-to designer for Hollywood divas. 
Her dresses were known for, says Helms, “giving you the best décolletage possible.” Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins wore her abayas and evening gowns. Faye Dunaway bought ten of the same style of dress in one fell swoop. And, says Helms, “When Barbra Streisand was renovating her house in Malibu, she had gotten in touch with Thea and she explained what every room was going to be like and that she needed a different outfit to match each room. There’s a House Beautiful where she’s wearing an abaya in the living room that matches [the décor] and it showed her in each room of the house with the outfits custom-designed to match the rooms. Kind of an excessive fantasy, but kind of amazing at the same time.”

She’s still a favorite of A-listers now — so much so that you probably won’t be able to snap up her clothes on eBay.
“She’s not a designer that, necessarily, everybody knows, but when they see her clothes, they are the ultimate version of that luxe, hippie, East-meets-West look,” says Silver. Kate Moss, Nicole Richie, and Julia Roberts are all fans, says Helms, adding that “Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have a large collection. I know from dealers that when they get a really nice piece, they go to [these women] first. They don’t often end up on eBay or Etsy; usually they’re on 1stdibs, or they’re at auction. ” At Lily et Cie, the L.A. vintage boutique, they can be up to $10,000, she says.

Her designs have palpable mood-transformative powers. 
“You put them on and you feel elegant and sexy and hot, like you just want to go and have a really good time,” says Helms. And even collectors loved to wear them, as she found when she began readying the exhibition — “They wore them for years, and they had amazing memories of the parties they went to [in them].” Adds Silver, “Women held onto those pieces — there was kind of an emotional attachment that don’t I think is really ubiquitous in fashion. For some reason, women don’t get rid of her clothes.”

The Designer Who Brought the Caftan to Britain