In the 1960s the fabulous Mary Quant did wonders for the visibility of female fashion designers. Sadly, this didn’t ignite a gender revolution in the fashion industry as a whole. Today, both globally and in the UK, women represent over 70 percent of the industry’s customers, but still hold less than 25 percent of leadership roles. Here, Zandra Rhodes, Stella McCartney, and the much missed Vivienne Westwood are the glowing exceptions that prove the rule: men are still the “creative geniuses” who tell the world what women are supposed to look like.
One of the most enduring and sympathetic personalities in fashion’s fight-back against male dominance is Betty Jackson. In the mid-1980s she was a familiar figure on Tottenham Street. “There’s Betty,” we used to say as we tottered out of number 39 with our piles of Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Newses. Not that we ever met her. After a couple of years, I rather lost sight of her.
Then in October 2022 I saw the film Emily, an imaginative reconstruction of the life of the novelist Emily Bronte. When I got home I googled the cast, and found that the love interest, the sexy curate William Whitfield, was played by an actor called Oliver Jackson-Cohen. If the Revd Whitfield really looked like that, you can see why he might have inspired the character of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Further googling revealed that Jackson-Cohen is the son of Betty Jackson and her late husband David Cohen.
Next I visited Ebay. And here I am, wearing my very first Betty Jackson item, a turquoise jumper. £3.50, in case you were wondering.
Later that evening I homed in on an interview with Betty Jackson on the British Library’s website. It’s part of their Oral History of British Fashion series, available in audio and as a transcript. Much of what follows is drawn from this source.
Betty Jackson was born in 1949 in Bacup, East Lancashire, the younger daughter of a manufacturer of shoe components. I’m a couple of years older than her, and also from East Lancs, so when she tells us that every spring her mother went to Manchester to buy new outfits at Kendal Milne, I have a pretty good image of her background: that of comfortable businesspeople. “We’d sit in the restaurant,” she says, “and models would come out and present the clothes, wearing numbers on their wrists. That’s how my mother would choose her suits for the season.”
Jackson’s early childhood was less than comfortable, however. When she was six it became clear that her left leg wasn’t growing properly owing to a mishandled breach birth, and her parents took the difficult decision to have the leg amputated below the knee. This doesn’t seem to have greatly affected the young Betty, who was soon running around happily with the other children. But in her early twenties she was involved in a serious car crash, and her leg had to be re-amputated above the knee. Since then she has walked with a stick.
At Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School Jackson was marked out as potential Oxbridge material. This was the era of radical art colleges, when the creativity fostered in places like Hornsey and Chelsea was still frowned on by schools with academic aspirations. When Jackson stuck to her guns her parents engineered a compromise, and she was allowed to do a year’s foundation in art at Rochdale College. “So when my friends were going off to Sussex and Oxford, I was catching a bus down the road to Rochdale.”
She knew straight away that she had made the right decision. In 1968 she went on to study textiles at Birmingham College of Art, and after moving to London she got jobs with a variety of design companies. At Quorum she shared a cutting-table with the fabled Ossie Clark. The big change came in 1979 when she tossed a coin with a group of friends to decide between Mallorca and Yugoslavia for a summer holiday. The villa in Mallorca won, and on a visit to a bar in a nearby town she met a Frenchman from Marseille, David Cohen. After a long-distance love affair Cohen finally moved to London, and together he and Jackson launched the Betty Jackson label in 1981. They began in a basement in Meard Street, Soho. At the time the recession was in full swing, but their order book soon filled up, and a bank loan helped them to cope with their immediate cash-flow crisis.
After six months Jackson and Cohen moved to larger premises on Hanway Street, in an area Jackson knew well because she had once lived on Riding House Street. Two years later “the sacred hour of lunch” led fortuitously to the purchase of a new base for the company on Tottenham Street. While Jackson had a quick sandwich at her desk, the Frenchman Cohen would wander around Soho and Fitzrovia deciding where to eat. One day he phoned to ask what “lease” meant. “Well, I think I’ve found the right place,” he said when she explained. “It was an absolutely fabulous little building,” Jackson comments. “Basement for stock, ground floor for office and admin and upstairs for design.”
While she was at Tottenham Street Jackson was chosen as British Designer of the Year for 1985, and she was also awarded an MBE (later upped to a CBE). The company spent about seven years in Fitzrovia, then in the early 1990s relocated to Shepherd’s Bush when Jackson and Cohen decided the West End was becoming rather sleazy. In the course of the next 20 years Jackson joined the Debenhams design stable, and in 2000 she launched the Autograph label for Marks and Spencer. She also became involved with several charities, including Smartworks, which helps to style disadvantaged women who are trying to win back positions in the workplace. In the late 2000s she was an advisor on the British Fashion Council’s “Model Health Inquiry” after two models died from eating disorders. But perhaps the role which won her most celebrity was that of designer to Patsy and Edina (Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders) in Absolutely Fabulous.
Five months after first rediscovering Betty Jackson, I’m now the happy owner of ten of her garments. In total they cost me less than £60. This in no way reflects on the quality of the items. They’re lovely. Rather, I attribute it to Betty Jackson’s feminist and democratic spirit, which prompted her to design for ordinary women who were buying their clothes on the high street. As fashion journalist Janet Christie wrote in 2014, “You’re never more than six feet from a woman wearing Betty Jackson.” Those garments have now made their way into the second-hand market. Above all, they are relaxed: “I never ever want to see a woman as a victim,” says Jackson. “I always want her to be free in what she wears and feel confident and comfortable because I think that’s the only way… Clothes shouldn’t trouble you — you should put them on and feel fabulous.”
I do realise that writing this article may be the equivalent of tweeting photos of my favourite secret beach, complete with road directions. But that’s OK: my wardrobe may not be able to hold any more Betty Jacksons. On second thoughts, I don’t as yet possess any shoes designed by Jackson. Please bear this in mind. I’m size 38, UK 5.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com