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How Was it for You?

Women, Sex, Love and Power in the 1960s

“A feeling that we could do whatever we liked swept through us in the 60s…” 

The sexual revolution liberated a generation.

But men most of all.

We tend to think of the 60s as a decade sprinkled with stardust: a time of space travel and utopian dreams, but above all of sexual abandonment. When the pill was introduced on the NHS in 1961 it seemed, for the first time, that women - like men - could try without buying.

“It was paradise for men… all these willing girls…”

But this book describes a turbulent power struggle.

Here are the voices from the battleground. 

Meet dollybird Mavis, debutante Kristina, Beryl who sang with the Beatles, bunny girl Patsy, Christian student Anthea, industrial campaigner Mary and countercultural Caroline. 

From Carnaby Street to Merseyside, from mods to rockers, from white gloves to Black is Beautiful, their stories throw an unsparing spotlight on morals, four-letter words, faith, drugs, race, bomb culture and sex. 

This is a moving, shocking book about tearing up the world and starting again. It’s about peace, love, psychedelia and strange pleasures, but it is also about misogyny, violation and discrimination – half a century before feminism rebranded.

For, out of the swamp of gropers and groupies, a movement was emerging, and discovering a new cause: equality.

The 1960s: this was where it all began. Women would never be the same again.


I am available to promote How Was it for You? through appearances, interviews and articles. For further information contact: Olivia Mead at Penguin Books: omead@penguirandomhouse.co.uk 


Excerpts from How Was it for You?  

Excerpt 1

1965

It is intriguing to uncover at least three quite separate origin myths for the mini-skirt. Did Mary Quant invent it? Whether she did or didn’t, she was gracious enough to give the credit to ‘the girls on the King’s Road.’ But Barbara Hulanicki (‘Biba’) had her own theory. In 1965 a factory failure meant that a whole batch of temperamental jersey-fabric skirts arrived in the store shrunk to half the desired length. ‘That little fluted skirt walked out on customers as fast as we could get it onto the hatstands.’ Jean Shrimpton however, had a quite different account of its genesis. The synthetic fibre company Orlon had hired her to promote their product on a trip to Australia, but had been stingy with the fabric for her outfits. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ the Shrimp told the designer. ‘Make them a bit shorter. No one’s going to notice… He did. And that was how the mini was born.’ But Shrimpton’s public appearance at the Melbourne Races, bare-legged in a mini-dress with no hat or gloves, provoked a press furore down under. Meanwhile back in Britain, American visitors - like the journalist John Crosby – were frothing uncontrollably over the sexuality of the London streets. The Sunday Telegraph printed Crosby’s drooling description of the mini-skirt phenomenon -

…a frenzy of the prettiest legs in the whole world belonging to models, au pair girls or just ordinary English girls, a gleam of pure joy on their pretty faces… all vibrating with youth… They’re more than pretty; they’re young, appreciative, sharp-tongued, glowingly alive… Young English girls take to sex as if it’s candy and it’s delicious.

Jean Shrimpton at the Melbourne Races, 1965

Jean Shrimpton at the Melbourne Races, 1965

‘They’re getting shorter, shorter and shorter,’ headlined The News of the World’s fashion page in March 1965. ‘All eyes will be riveted on the legs and feet.’ Not just there. One young woman referred to her mini as a ‘helicopter skirt’. Why? she was asked - ‘Because you can see into the cockpit.’ Michael Caine’s mother, a charlady, didn’t believe in the mini until her son took her to the King’s Road, where she reacted with repugnance: ‘If it’s not for sale you shouldn’t put it in the window!’ Many eyes now swivelled towards the upper thighs and crotch area revealed whenever a fashion-conscious young woman climbed upstairs on a double-decker bus. ‘There is only one solution,’ wrote Felicity Green. ‘Tights. Not longer stockings. Not panty-girdles. Just tights.’ 

Inevitably, the mini was tough on the heavy-busted, the thick-ankled, or the plain fat. Advertisements for slimming aids multiplied. This was extreme fashion that disenfranchised those over twenty-four. Hips, bosoms, and all they symbolised – motherhood, milk and honey, ample home-cooked meals – were inappropriate for a new age of contraception and long-legged youthfulness. The ‘dolly-bird’, in all her nubile, compliant, Lolita-like immaturity, was in the spotlight.

 

Excerpt 2

1967

Bunny girls, 1967

Bunny girls, 1967

With its bars, restaurants and casino, the Playboy Club was regarded as the ultimate exclusive venue for rich sophisticates. The sex divide was surely never more explicitly highlighted than in this dark, mirrored, chrome and marble interior: a space where male and female appeared almost as different species. Here in its plush, shadowy recesses men in black tuxedos talked business, made deals and made money, ate, drank and played, while shimmering, semi-naked, improbably curvaceous women in shades of pastel satin tottered past, waiting upon them. The club worked because it created an environment in which a man could live out his own James Bond fantasy of the martini-drinking playboy and bon viveur, complete with suave suit, cigar, roulette and an attitude to women that cramped, crippled, stifled and depersonalised them, and varnished over their imperfections. In the war of the sexes, it decisively handed men the power. 

Meanwhile, the mix of provocative lingerie, alcohol and money created an intoxicating cocktail. The steamy atmosphere of sex had the potential to ignite, and Playboy’s managers found it expedient to damp things down. Bunny Patsy explained:

The clientèle were all these smooth James Bond types, you can imagine – very nice! And you were supposed to be this lovely object, who would come at their command when you were sent for. However, they were not supposed to touch you. And you learnt to duck and dive, to stop them touching. 

Also you were made very aware that a lot of them would be wanting to see you outside work. So if one of the men who came in liked you and said, ‘Oh, may I have your phone number?’ we couldn’t give it. And we were taught on pain of death that we would be instantly dismissed if we did. 

In other words, they could look, but NO touching.

So, while the outside world was a ferment of free love, the portals of 45 Park Lane concealed a sanctum of Victorian values. Imagine a nineteenth-century society drawing room, strip its occupants of their mutton-chop whiskers and rip off their crinolines, add in some false eyelashes, and you have the Playboy Club. From tight-laced corsets to prohibitive codes of conduct, from D-cup bras to deferential curtseys, the bunny girls lived out a glamorised fantasy in which men-about-town could buy an updated version of the sexually unavailable, heavily supervised Victorian handmaiden. The discreet blush, the feminine flirtation, the billowing bosoms – combined with a strict ‘look but don’t touch’ diktat: a hundred years earlier, this was the way their grandmothers had flattered men into marriage. And not so very much had changed. 

 

Excerpt 3

1968

Race was the hottest of topics. 

For many black women like Floella Benjamin, the sense of female pride - accompanied by dignity, power, gifts and potential - was tangible. At the Earls Court West Indian Students’ Centre Floella and her sister sang along to soul singer James Brown’s 1968 funk civil rights hit, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. Since Elvis, imported black music had already stamped its white counterpart with indelible rhythms – but by ’68 record buyers and concert goers were in love with Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, the Miracles, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and too many other great black artists to mention. Black was minority, black was underprivileged; but black was dangerously, indisputably cool.

Marsha Hunt at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1969

Marsha Hunt at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1969

For this traffic across the Atlantic brought with it more than great music; it brought a look, a glamour and an attitude. Fringing, embroidery, beading, batik and ethnic motifs broke away from their roots and appeared on the clothes and cushions of fashion-conscious hippies. Black women groups like the Supremes who had assimilated white styling by straightening their hair, now un-straightened it and re-embraced African-ness. Their springy, curled hair, which until now had been the despair of many a hairdresser, suddenly became enviable. Black model Marsha Hunt had arrived in England in 1966 and was quickly adopted in alternative circles. ‘Black is beautiful’ was the slogan on innumerable lips. It perfectly described Marsha’s sultry loveliness, lithe limbs and Afro halo; at Christmas 1968 her black face was blazoned across the cover of Queen magazine. It was cool to be a ‘Spade chick’. But it worked both ways – and white women who slept with black men reaped the associated glamour. For Kathy Etchingham – a white working-class girl from Derby - Jimi Hendrix’s ‘otherness’ (as it was then perceived) was undoubtedly part of the allure: 

I had never seen such an exotic man before. To my naïve and unsophisticated eyes he seemed dangerous and exciting… His hair was standing up from his head in his own version of the Afro style, [a] new concept in London.   

Though Kathy doesn’t go into detail, it’s clear that – compared to her white lovers - Jimi’s sexual technique is on a different, mythic plane. We are left to imagine whether or not the crushed velvet skin-tight red loons concealed unusual prowess, but the implication is that they did.

All of these themes and many more, from illegal drugs to astrology, from environmentalism to the anti-Vietnam protest movement, collided in the musical Hair.


Gallery


What people are saying about HOW WAS IT FOR YOU?

PREVIEWS

Tina Brown

‘With fine intelligence and irresistible brio, Virginia Nicholson brings alive the moral rigidity, panty-wetting Beatlemania, and A-bomb nihilism of 60s England. What was left for women to do? Shake it out and shake it up, and they did. How Was It For You? is a kaleidoscopic tribute to the generation that put the “F” into feminism. I ripped through it with gusto and delight.’

Amanda Foreman

‘Virginia Nicholson is one of the great social historians of our time, and How was it For You? is another jewel in her crown. No one else makes history this fun.’

David Kynaston

‘Intimate, immersive, often moving, How Was It For You? subtly but powerfully subverts complacent male assumptions about a legendary decade.’

Sheila Rowbotham

‘Written with verve, wit and empathy, this account of the 1960s skilfully interweaves the lives of individual women with broader  social and cultural changes.  Virginia  Nicholson nudges the reader to  reconsider the  well-beaten tracks and to reflect upon out-of-the-way experiences. Best of all, How Was It For You?  neither idealises nor excoriates the bouncy, controversial decade.’

Anne Sebba

‘Every baby boomer should read this great and wonderfully revelatory book if only to shout, “Ah yes, that’s exactly what it was like for me!”’

Hunter Davies 

‘How Was It For You’ brings it all back. As always Virginia Nicholson’s book is full of fascinating history and fascinating new material. It makes it feel like the Sixties have never been away, which they never have been, as far as I’m concerned. Wonderful.’ 

Valerie Grove

‘I loved this. Yes, the 1960s were good fun, sometimes.   But Virginia Nicholson forensically unpicks what "permissiveness" really meant for flower-chicks, fearful of seeming un-cool.  They were perpetuating a society as patriarchal and phallocentric as ever -- even in the counter-culture.  

I was there, and she's right.  

Amazingly right about so many things.

Roll on the 1970s when things did change --- but that's for another of her excellent books.’

Selina Hastings 

‘Virginia Nicholson’s social history of the lives of women during the 1960s is an absorbing study of an extraordinary age. Beautifully written and intensively researched, it covers a wide range of characters and many levels of society, uncovering with remarkable perspicacity a world of rebellion and change. I am sure How Was It for You? will remain a vital study for many years to come.’ 

David Kynaston

‘Intimate, immersive, often moving, How Was It For You? subtly but powerfully subverts complacent male assumptions about a legendary decade.’

Juliet Nicolson

‘They say that if you remember the 1960s you weren’t really there. But if you really weren’t, then the next best thing is to read this fascinating book.

With the meticulous attention worthy of a Vidal Sassoon haircut, Virginia Nicholson has shaped her dazzling kaleidoscope of facts, feelings and observations, into a razor-sharp account of the women who lived through that tumultuous decade.’

Richard Vinen, author of The Long '68 

‘A hugely ambitious kaleidoscope of a book, written in a sympathetic but also hard-headed tone that captures squalor and tragedy as well as glamour.’ 

Carmen Callil

‘Virginia Nicholson is the outstanding recorder of British lives in the twentieth century. She has told us how it was for British women – and therefore of course for men and children since the First World War.  The formidable research and sympathetic understanding of so many different lives make this account of the 1960s - that swinging, sexy, revolutionary decade – the most vivid and moving of all her works. A fascinating decade, a fascinating book.’


REVIEWS

Ysenda Maxtone-Graham in The Times

Sparklingly readable…

Having read Nicholson’s magisterial and sensuous overview of the decade, I now feel I’m floating above the Sixties (a bit like Lucy in the Sky) and looking down on them with a new understanding…

To encapsulate a decade in a book is a feat; she achieved it in her previous one about the Fifties, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes… She has achieved it again here, with her trademark technique: individual recollections from 40 o so interviewees… interspersed with observations gleaned from Nicholson’s wide reading.

Bel Mooney in the Daily Mail

BOOK OF THE WEEK

Have you ever had the experience of watching your life flashing before your eyes? Traditionally, it’s a sign of impending doom, but it happened to me joyfully - to a soundtrack of The Beatles, The mamas & the Papas and Dusty Springfield - when I read How Was it for You? So… how was it? ‘Cool, man!’ Most of the time anyway.

Virginia Nicholson’s absorbing work of social history exactly bookends my own adolescence and young adulthood.

The speedy lurch [from old-fashioned values] to the freewheeling, long-haired, Leftist world of free love and protest… is well-documented by Nicholson in a pleasingly sensible structure of a chapter per year - each one containing a range of telling, often touching, interviews with women from many backgrounds. This method, used with great success in her books on previous decades, brings vividly to life the big events… And because she cleverly runs the interviews in strands throughout the book, the more gradual social changes… are allowed to unfold as they happened. By the end you feel like some of these women are old friends.

[Nicholson’s] next book will surely be about the Seventies. I, for one, can’t wait.

Joan Bakewell in The Spectator

For me this book evokes a Gigi duet moment: ‘You wore a gown of gold.’ ‘I was all in blue.’ ‘Am I getting old?’ ‘Oh, no, not you.’ Memory plays us false, and it takes the skill of a sympathetic historian such as Virginia Nicholson to sift the evidence, written and oral, and unfold a story that is both plausible and sound.

I look back to my 1960s life and think how many of us were metaphorically clothed in gold… how we strode through the years enjoying new freedoms, new loves, music, clothes, drugs, opportunities. I have in my time contributed to the myth of unalloyed pleasure, extolling the 1960s for the quickening pace of change, the broadening mood of happiness and hope. But, as another lyricist has it, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.

Nicholson meets the dilemma head on. There have been fine histories of the decade by David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook and Arthur Marwick: all of them footnoted, thorough… and male. In contrast, Jenny Diski’s agonising personal account was poignant and female. Nicholson, too, lets her own presence into the narrative… ‘How could I be alive at such an amazing time and miss out on all this?’ She asked the question then and she asks the question now.

It is her enthusiasm as much as her scholarship that makes this such a beguiling read, especially for those of us who were there at the time and indeed have shared our recollections. In the course of answering her own question she draws on a parade of witnesses now in their sixties, seventies and even eighties, women who in their comfortable retirement remember what it was like in their youth… This is history captured on the wing: soon they will all be gone and the distortions of history will begin to fudge their accounts as much as, perhaps, their cherished memories. But for the moment this is a rich and detailed story, told by those who were there.

Daisy Goodwin in The Sunday Times

Sparkling… there is a wonderfully diverse range of voices… We have a long way to go, but reading this book made me grateful for how far we have come.

Rosie Boycott in the Financial Times

In How Was it for You? Nicholson uses individual stories and interviews with a wide range of characters to spell out the gloomy world confronting women at the start of the 1960s… The stories are terrific.

Sara Maitland in The Guardian

Beautifully narrated… Nicholson ranges widely and her story touches on both the famous and the anonymous.

Emma Hughes in Country Life

[An] absorbing and moving account of the decade…

There have been enough books written about the 1960s to fill the shelves of Biba 10 times over, but very few of them make a serious attempt to understand what life was like for British women. Like David Kynaston, whose trilogy of postwar social histories this echoes in its attention to the fabric of everyday lives, the author draws on accounts from ‘ordinary’, but noteworthy people right across the social spectrum to write her study… [But]Nicholson goes further than Mr Kynaston, weaving in original interviews with very different women, from a debutante to the leader of a girl guide group. This kaleidoscopic approach could feel head-spinning, but it never does, due to her novelist’s eye for detail.