You Say You Want a Revolution: new V&A exhibition aims to revive the optimism of the Sixties

A new V&A exhibition aims to reacquaint us with the decade that changed the world — and revive its optimism. Turn up, turn on and tune in...

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Could there possibly be anything left to say about the Sixties? It’s an era that still has plenty to teach us, insists Victoria Broackes, co-curator of You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970, the new autumn show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington.

“The people who were active then are still around,” she says. “We wanted to bring the V&A’s ability to provide cultural context and the creative process to bear on one of the most exciting contemporary periods, when the world opened up for ordinary people.

Face of the swinging Sixties: model Twiggy in Battersea Park, pictured in 1967 for Vogue (Tessa Traeger, courtesy of the V&A)

“In the words of the Beatles’ 1968 song, Revolution, ‘You say you want a revolution. Well, you know. We all want to change the world’ — and for nearly everyone the world did change.”

The show features music, fashion, design products, furniture, architecture and graphics to illustrate what the curators call “six revolutions in 1,826 days” — covering the five years from 1966 to 1970. “Revolutions in identity, the head, on the street, in consuming, in gathering and in communicating,” says Broakes.


The show recreates a mix of Carnaby Street with a hint of King’s Road to show what, in 1966, Time Magazine dubbed “The Swinging City.” The Sixties opened up society; customs and values were challenged, by young people from different social classes. There was full employment. Many had disposable income and credit cards for the first time. The young bought fashion and music, spawning new art and design. 

Artworks by Bridget Riley and Richard Hamilton feature in the show, alongside clothes from Biba, Mary Quant, Mr Fish and Granny Takes a Trip. There are costumes designed for Mick Jagger and Sandie Shaw, photography of musicians of the day, their music and clips from the 1966 films Blow Up and Alfie. 

This world of experimentation with music, drugs and counterculture is looked at in an evocation of London’s UFO club, where live music combined with avant-garde film, and Pink Floyd was the house band. Graphics from posters and album sleeves influenced interior design, especially textiles.

Psychedelia:poster for pop band The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s gig at UFO in Tottenham Court Road, 1967 (Courtesy of the V&A)

The music scene expanded to festivals and gatherings promoting political protest, and idealistic communities formed, offering new utopian visions. Fuelled by the expansion of visual media and disposable income, consumerism boomed. We spent on electrical goods and interiors products. 


British design schools led the way. Designers had access to new materials and technologies, which changed the way they could think about everyday objects. New plastics and moulding techniques allowed for fresh forms, illustrated in the exhibition by furniture including Olivier Mourgue’s Djinn chair, and Eero Aarnio’s Ball Chair. 

Fresh forms: the Ball Chair by Finnish interior designer Eero Aarnio illustrates fresh Sixties furniture forms

Architecture, too, assumed new forms offering a futuristic vision. Science and technology could solve every problem, or so it was thought for a while.

Broackes suggests that “visitors to the V&A reflect on how the ideals of the Sixties have shaped today”. She also hopes the show will “encourage a rediscovery of an imaginative optimism to envisage a new and better tomorrow.” We certainly need it. 

  • You Say You Want a Revolution: Records & Rebels 1966-70 runs from September 10 to February 26 at the V&A, Cromwell Road, SW7 (020 7942 2000; Admission £16.

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