10 Things you Didn’t Know about 1960s Soho

When one thinks of the 1960s, images of colourful, eye-popping clothes and perhaps even The Beatles come to mind. Well all of these “Swinging Sixties” stereotypes can be linked back to one place and one place in particular: London’s Soho.

Long before the sixties came around, Soho was already famous around the world thanks to former famous residents like Mozart and Karl Marx. But some of the many events that took place during the 1960s in Soho changed the course of both music and fashion trends for years to come, and its effects can still be felt around the world today.

Out of all the surprising events that took place in Soho during the 1960s, (and believe us, there are many) here are ten that you may or may not have already known about:

1. Mod fashion was founded here

Soho may have been known for its countless tailoring and dress-making shops since as far back as the 1850s, but when the Glaswegian fashion designer John Stephen first set up a shop on Carnaby Street, he soon started turning heads with his groundbreaking designs (which today is simply known as “Mod” fashion).

Eventually, similar shops like The Mod Male, Lord John and Lady Jane started setting up boutiques in and around Carnaby Street, and soon people from all over the world (including members of the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles and The Bee Gees) would head to Soho to pick up the latest fashion trends.

2. If John Stephen was “The King of Carnaby”, then Soho was his throne

Not only did the world-renowned style icon John Stephen open up his first shop at No. 5 Carnaby Street, he also went on to own at least fourteen more Mod fashion stores along Carnaby Street alone – which helped him earn the “King of Carnaby Street” nickname. As a matter of fact, John Stephen is so closely linked with Carnaby Street, today you can still see a small plaque commemorating his legacy at 1 Carnaby Street.

3. During the early 1960s, Soho was more about sex than the drugs and rock & roll

Today Soho may be known for its countless designer shops, restaurants, tourist attractions and of course Chinatown, but during the 1960s Soho was considered as the “sex shop capital” of London. And even though there were over 100 different strip clubs and shops scattered all around the English capital, nearly 60 of them could be found in Soho alone.

Some of these spots (which were also known as “walk-ups”) were used by female sex workers who normally worked out of the upper floors of Soho’s many buildings. These “walk-ups” were easy to spot as they had red-lit doorbells, or even open doors with postcards advertising “French lessons” and “large chests for sale.”

4. Jimi Hendrix recorded his first album in Soho

Tracks like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” have become some of the most well-known rock tracks ever written…and both of them were recorded in a studio just on the edge of Soho.

In December of 1966, Jimi Hendrix and The Jimi Hendrix Experience walked in through the doors of 31 Whitfield Street (which is where the CBS Hit Factory studios were located), and went on to record one of the most influential rock records to date (Are You Experienced?) which changed the course of musical history forever.

5. It was once a breeding ground for socialists and communists

In 1958, The Partisan Coffee House first opened its doors at 7 Carlisle Street; except this wasn’t just any other coffee house…It was actually a sort of “secret” bar which allowed its customers to sit and debate about radical left ideologies without even ordering a thing. The company was owned by Raphael Samuel (a famous British Marxist historian) but officially closed its doors in 1962; (which may or may not have been because they weren’t making enough money off their coffees…)

6. The term “Beatlemania” was first coined after a Beatles concert in Soho

On October 13th, 1963, four lads from Liverpool performed an electrifying concert at the London Palladium in Soho…so electrifying that members of the crowd were screaming, crying and nearly fainting from excitement.

One Daily Mirror journalist covering the concert was so amazed by the level of frenzy from The Beatles’ adorning fans, he came up with the term “Beatlemania” to refer to the massive popularity of the group – and the term is still used today to not only describe musical acts, but public figures, politicians and trends as well.

7. The Kinks wrote “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” about the Soho Mod fashion movement

When the Mod fashion movement was in full-swing in Soho during the “Swinging Sixties,” you would often see “Mods” (AKA youth dressed up in the latest fashion trends) strolling around the streets of Soho looking oh so groovy.

Some people couldn’t help but poke fun of these Mods (who were basically like today’s version of hipsters), and one of them was none other than Ray Davies of The Kinks – who went on to write about them in the band’s classic 1966 hit “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.”

8. The Rolling Stones played their first live gig in Soho

The Marquee Club (which originally opened at 165 Oxford Street but later moved to Wardour Street) was one of the most famous music venues in London attracting acts like The Who, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds, and countless others.

But on July 12th, 1962, a little-known band at that time played their first ever live gig there – and today they’re known around the world as being The Rolling Stones.

9. There was also an espresso bar boom

Besides being the epicentre of sex, fashion and rock & roll, Soho was also famous for one other thing during the 1960s: Espresso bars. (Yes, espresso bars).

During this era, London’s countless espresso bars were serving over 1,000 espressos a day, which were typically topped with chocolate sprinkles and foamed milk. Although the majority of the “espresso bar boom” took place during the late 1950s, by 1960 there were over 500 espresso bars in London alone, most of which were located in Soho or other streets in and around London’s West End.

10. Carnaby Street’s Mod shops weren’t always so female-friendly

Although shoppers from far and wide headed to Soho to get the latest Mod fashion trends, one type of shopper in particular was left out of all the fun: The women.

Because most of the shops in Soho specialized in men’s Mod fashions only, women had to make the trek all the way to King’s Road in Chelsea in order to scout out the latest female fashion trends. It wasn’t until 1966 when Lady Jane officially opened its doors to the (female) public, and became the first boutique shop on Carnaby Street to ever cater only for women.

Want to learn even more fascinating things about Soho during the 1960s? Join us on our Free Soho Tour every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 3:30 p.m.; (more info here).