Like Twiggy, Betsey Johnson’s career began in the youth oriented 1960s. From the beginning, Johnson’s designs had a playful, almost costume-like sensibility, an outlook her work maintains to this day. In numerous interviews, Johnson has suggested that this aesthetic stems from the colorful dance costumes she both wore and sewed as a child. “I can’t believe how much I remember being an octopus, a butterscotch candy, a little flame” she stated in a 1972 interview.1
After winning and completing a Mademoiselle guest college editor internship in 1964, Johnson was hired as a designer for the New York boutique Paraphernalia in 1965. While designing for Paraphernalia, Johnson demonstrated a facility for working with unusual materials such as vinyl. She designed a “Do-It-Yourself” clear vinyl shift which was sold with a packet of stickers. The wearer could then place these stickers in strategic locations. Another design was the “Noise” dress, also a shift, but decorated with metal grommets. Johnson also designed vintage-inspired prairie dresses with small floral prints. Though numerous designers worked for Paraphernalia, Johnson’s name became closely associated with the boutique and even appeared in store advertisements. The boutique was a hotbed of fashion culture and attracted fans such as Twiggy, the Velvet Underground, model Penelope Tree, actress Julie Christie and style icon Edie Sedgewick, who became Johnson’s fit model.
The cat on the label was probably sketched by Johnson, who often features her sketches in marketing campaigns.
In 1970, Johnson left Paraphernalia because store expansion meant less control over the design process. From 1970-1974, she designed for Alley Cat, a junior sportswear company. Johnson had full creative control at Alley Cat, designing everything from the textiles used in her designs to the accompanying shoes. Alley Cat clothing was always priced under $100, making it within reach of the junior market. She also worked with Butterick patterns to produce a line of 8 Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat patterns, making her aesthetic even more affordable.
The Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat coat seen here is a youthful version of popular fur coats of the early 1970s. Winter fashion editorials in 1972 Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar are filled with images of heavy jackets made entirely of fur or made of wool and accented with fur collar, sleeves or cuffs. These jackets are sedate and luxurious, certainly not intended for a young woman. Johnson maintained the overall silhouette of this style, but made it more appealing to young women by using a bright colored fabric. Fake fur trim and lining made it more affordable, while also differentiating it from “your mother’s jacket.”
1 Krier, Beth Ann. “She Gives ‘Em What They Want.” Los Angeles Times 23 Feb. 1972: H3.