Design for Avenging: Sisters Under The Skin

1960s, avengers, avengerswear, David Gittings, diana rigg, emma peel, frederick starke, honor blackman, Inspirational Images, jean varon, john bates, meriel mccooey, Meriel McCooey, Paul Blanche, Selincourt, sunday times magazine, the avengers
Diana Rigg in buckled snakeskin coat made by Paul Blanche.

On Thursday evening at 8 o’clock The Avengers comes back. Viewers in London, Scotland and the South will see it, other channels will have to wait until October 2. The new show lacks one vital element. Honor Blackman, who played Cathy Gale, that female gauleiter with a heart of gold, has left television for films and the arms of James Bond.

She is replaced by rangy, redheaded Diana Rigg, an actress already blooded for knock-about violence in shows like King Lear and The Devils with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She plays the new Avenger woman Emma Peel, who is described by A.B.C. television as “the youthful widow of an ace test pilot, daughter of a wealthy shipowner, and an internationally educated symbol of the jet-age female”.

A strong-arm widow, born with such disadvantages, couldn’t fail to be an interesting autumn draw, but the new girl will find it hard work to oust the memory of Cathy Gale from the spot she kicked out for herself in these shows. For, as Cathy Gale, Honor Blackman was mesmeric. Male viewers turned to pulp in their armchairs as she hurled opponent after opponent through plate glass windows, and their TV dinners turned to dust as she half-nelsoned men twice her size.

Women were fascinated too, but for different reasons. They sat glued to their sets wondering what it was she had, that they hadn’t. Her slightly sinister but wholly fathomable allure had little to do with her natural assets ; her toughness, the purring reassurance of her voice, her earthiness ; her blonde hair and wide mouth. Cathy Gale’s real appeal was firmly laced into the shiny black leather of her fighting suits.

The black leather fighting suits she wore, now generally referred to as ‘kinky clothes’ were designed by Frederick Starke. They proved such a success both here and in the U.S.A., where the last series was sold, that the American business men controlling the sales insisted that these clothes should be retained for the next series. This was a mistake. Fashion moves much faster than most business men, and the feeling for black leather was on the wane, long before the last episode was off the screen. But A.B.C. agreed to the American conditions, and Emma was togged up in black leather and boots, looking just like Cathy Gale in a long red wig.

Before the new series was half-way through, the planners realised that some fairly startling changes were taking place in the fashion world. Skirts were getting shorter and women appeared to be crossing their thighs, not their knees. Leather was out. All sorts of animal skins, from snakes to zebras, were in. And op and pop art were having an explosive effect on textile design.

This series is the first to be made on film instead of videotape, which means it could be running in different countries all over the world for the next five to ten years. It would be pushed to keep its con-temporary smack with a limping gimmick like black leather. At this point, with half their film in the bag, A.B.C. called in fashion co-ordinator Anne Trehearne, an ex-fashion editor of Queen magazine, and asked designer John Bates of Jean Varon to plan a new wardrobe for Emma Peel to wear during the last 14 episodes. John Bates is the man who made the now famous daisy dress which 25 red-faced debutantes wore to the same ball.

Designing a wardrobe for a preconceived image is no easy task, but he succeeded in doing this and more besides. His clothes are 100 per cent. modern. He has shortened the skirts (in spite of tough opposition in certain quarters at A.B.C.), re-designed the black leather fighting outfits into modern, one-piece jump-suits, introduced tailored snakeskin and a whole range of op art furs.

In all there are 35 garments with complementary accessories. And for the first time the whole collection will be sold in the shops. (Frederick Starke did sell some of Cathy Gale’s wardrobe, but only selected items.) Over 12 well-known manufacturers, like Edward Rayne, Paul Blanche and Kangol, are co-operating with John Bates at Jean Varon and are making the shoes, the skin coats and the berets under licence; Echo are even making the amusing ribbed sheer nylon stockings. They will all be in the shops in October.

Both the clothes and the series are now saleable properties. It will be interesting to see which proves the biggest draw to interested buyers the striking new clothes or the shiny new girl.

Photographed by David Gittings.

Story by Meriel McCooey.

Scanned from The Sunday Times Magazine, September 26th 1965.

In short snakeskin blazer made by Paul Blanche and ribbed sheer nylon stockings.
Leather jumpsuit with clasps made by Paul Blanche.
Black and white bunny coat made by Selincourt. All designed by John Bates.

Rigg Outs

1960s, alun hughes, avengers, avengerswear, Bata, Dannimac, diana rigg, Don Silverstein, edward mann, emma peel, old england, Selincourt, Sirela, the avengers, Thomas of Mayfair, Vintage Editorials, Woman's Own
Cotton pique raincoat in cream with top seaming by Dannimac, £8 19s. 6d. Matching barrow boy cap by Edward Mann, who make all hats for the series. Exotic watch on wide patent strap, by Old England about £5. Beige stretch stockings with single stripe by Echo 9s. 11d.

Where do I begin? You don’t need another rundown of her incredible career and life. You don’t need to be told what a breathtaking actor she was. I think I just need to express what she meant to me, except I’m not even sure I can do that adequately.

Her strength and confidence was, and continues to be, instructive to me as a woman in search of strength and confidence. I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if Diana Rigg hadn’t been the person she was and portrayed women in the way she did. I quite literally wouldn’t be where I am because she piqued my interest in John Bates and his work. I wrote my degree dissertation on Emma Peel and began my love affair with British boutique clothing, which in turn started my business and gave me my ridiculous eBay username. I first met my partner at the launch of Richard Lester’s monograph on John Bates, twelve years ago next month.

I was fortunate enough to see her in Mother Courage and Her Children and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, thanks to an adventurous Theatre Studies A-level teacher, and later in Suddenly Last Summer and All About My Mother. I travelled up to Sheffield for the former, and briefly met her afterwards. I couldn’t really have translated all that she meant to me into anything coherent, so I just got her autograph and told her I thought she was amazing or something (I don’t remember). She smiled kindly and said thank you. I don’t know, I probably hoped she might adopt me. But she didn’t.

There is profound sadness in her no longer being in the world but always joy in her body of work. Which I shall enjoy revisiting. And I shall make an effort to rescan a lot of my archive for the new era in my life. Thanks to her, as always. Because I always come back to, what would Emma Peel do? And without Diana, there’s no Emma.

Today is a feature on the Avengerswear range designed by Alun Hughes (who took over from John Bates for the colour episodes). Tomorrow will be John Bates Avengerswear. Enjoy!

The Avengers are back! And the fashion world’s buzzing with the great news of Diana Rigg’s new wardrobe. Here’s the low-down: ABC Television have seen to it that all Diana’s clothes can be bought, budget-priced, from big stores up and down the country. And you’re the first to see them in their true colours. Suzanne Grey has picked these five top-sellers, photographed exclusively for Woman’s Own readers.

Photographed by Don Silverstein.

Scanned from Woman’s Own, January 14th 1967.

Designed by 25-year-old theatrical designer Alun Hughes, an action dress in Celon jersey; sizes 10-16, also in natural/yellow/orange stripes, about 9gns. by Thomas of Mayfair. Hair by Allan McKeown of Here and There. Bata are making Diana’s Avenger shoes.
Fighting catsuit, with stretch an movement in navy crimplene with mustard side-stripes Echo are making these up-not only for fighters, more for apres-skiers- for 8gns. Selincourt are making Avenger furs; suede and leather togs come from Sirela.
“I love this,” says Diana Rigg. “It’s the kind of thing I wear in ‘real life’. All the new Avenger things are.” Stunningly simple crepe dress and jacket by Alun Hughes for Thomas of Mayfair, sizes 10-16, about 12gns. Larger-than-life watch by Old England, about £5.
‘Litting-nothing’ dress, epitomizing the new Avenger fashion thinking. “No gimmicks,” says Alun Hughes, “just elegant, modern clothes to counter-balance an Emma Peel-type life. Girls on the move can’t be bothered with bits and pieces..” By Thomas of Mayfair, about 8gns.

Avengerswear, elsewhere.

1960s, avengers, avengerswear, diana rigg, emma peel, jean varon, john bates, the avengers

Watching Circus of Fear, a very enjoyable B-movie from 1966 with Christopher Lee and Leo Genn, I noted that the luscious Margaret Lee was briefly seen wearing a piece of John Bates-designed Avengerswear.

Margaret Lee with Maurice Kauffman who, funnily enough, was Honor Blackman’s husband.

This black and white crepe catsuit was worn by Diana Rigg in The Avengers and modelled by Jean Shrimpton (with stunt man Ray Austin) for Vogue in 1965. It was, like all the Avengerswear, available to buy from the shops but these pieces are so rare and I have yet to find this catsuit in all my years of searching.

Dangerous black and white crepe fighting suit by Jean Varon Avengers Collection. Made by Simon Ellis, 13gns. Photographed by David Bailey. Vogue, October 1965.

I am now extremely curious to know whether this was something from Ms Lee’s own wardrobe which she bought herself, or whether the wardrobe supervisor (Charles Guerin) found it – oblivious to the fact that it was already a costume tie-in, or simply hoping that no one would notice. Or an even wilder theory is that it was the actual costume worn by Diana Rigg and already in circulation as a hireable costume. I suppose we may never know, but I thought it worth preserving for posterity.

Avengers collection promo, c. 1965. Scanned from John Bates: British Fashion Designer: The Sensational Years, 1963-1968

Linda Thorson for Belle Color

1960s, avengers, linda thorson, the avengers, Vintage Adverts, Vogue

linda thorson belle colour

Scanned by Miss Peelpants from Vogue, April 1969.

Mensday: Bowlers, brollies and birds

1970s, avengers, Bowler hats, Inspirational Images, Mensday, menswear, minis

Photo by W. E. Carden

“The battle of the sexes in England, land of stiff upper lips and furled umbrellas – a land, in short, of Ladies and Gentlemen. Some are here seen at an Old Comrades Association parade in London’s Hyde Park in the merry month of May, where the keen eye – and camera – of W. E. Carden,  A.R.P.S. noticed this amusing little vignette.”

Scanned from Photography Year Book, 1971.

I feel an Avengers episode coming on…

Gabrielle Drake in Cosmopolitan, 1973

1970s, avengers, david montgomery, Gabrielle Drake

Dress and hat by Shop O. Shoes by Walter Steiger.

“But I don’t hide the bags under my eyes … I like that slightly haggard look!”

Gabrielle Drake featured in Cosmopolitan, June 1973. Photographed by David Montgomery.

Scanned by Miss Peelpants.

Emmapeelers by Terry O’Neill

1960s, avengers, avengerswear, diana rigg, emma peel, terry o'neill

I am hoping to get to see the Terry O’Neill exhibition this weekend, if I’m feeling up to it. Although I doubt it will feature these photos of Diana Rigg in all her Emmapeeler Glory, more’s the pity. Enjoy!

(I’d rather have a Bates Avengerswear piece, but I certainly wouldn’t say no to an Emmapeeler!)

Photos by Terry O’Neill. TV Guide, June 1967

Emmapeel… dress

1960s, alun hughes, avengers, avengerswear, diana rigg, emma peel, eye candy, john bates, personal collection, vintage fangirl squee

I alluded, in an earlier post, to having recently acquired an original Avengerswear piece. Now before you go getting too excited on my behalf (because, you know, I imagine you would…..), it’s not a John Bates one. That remains my holy grail of collecting…

Diana and Alun

In the first colour season of The Avengers, Alun Hughes took over from John Bates as costume designer. Although strictly speaking Bates was never the costume designer per se, he simply provided Mrs Peel with a fully equipped working mod-girl wardrobe. Which would be used in various ways by the designer and whoever else happened to be making such decisions. Explaining why so many fabulous outfits, in which Diana Rigg was heavily photographed for publicity, made only brief appearances – if at all.

The colour episodes had been intended to be designed in a similar ‘working wardrobe’ manner by Pierre Cardin, who was already creating Steed’s very elegant suits [Shocking! A Frenchman designing our beloved Avengers? Whatever next??], but he was unable to complete the task and Hughes was brought on board as designer instead. Unfortunately I know very little about the man himself, but it would seem he actually was a costume designer rather than a fashion designer like Bates or Cardin. With the new colour format, and the strong overseas interest in the show, Hughes had new challenges to those of Bates with the black and white. He attacked it with gusto, using vivid colours, prints and playing with new synthetic fabrics. There’s also the varied influences, reflecting the ever-changing fashion scene of the time. We still have space-age cut-outs and skin tight gear, but also feathers and psychedelic silks. The look is more way-out, and more feminine than ever. He also invented the Emmapeeler, which was a more ‘Pop’ take on the leather and pvc catsuits of the earlier series.

“Don’t diss my mustard emmapeelers!”

As with Bates, and Frederick Starke before him, an Avengerswear range of clothes was produced and licensed out to different manufacturers and shops. Unlike Bates, whose Avengerswear collection was largely complete replicas of the Mrs Peel-worn originals, Hughes’ designs were used as templates for a wider range of colours and styles. Most items were produced in different colourways to the one seen on screen, again unlike Bates who was largely working in black and white anyway, and it would also seem that some items were produced in different lengths.

This stunning moire patterned velvet dress is clearly the same design as the one she wears in Return Of The Cybernauts. Emma’s is black (or perhaps dark green, it’s difficult to tell with early colour television) and a mini. Mine is purple and a maxi length. Nevertheless, it’s my first – and possibly only piece of Hughes’ Avengerswear and I feel very honoured to now have it in my possession.