Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat

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

Jacket of fake fur and quilted corduroy
Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat
FIDM Museum Purchase

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.

2008.5.2 label

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.”

2008.5.2 Lapel detail

1 Krier, Beth Ann. “She Gives ‘Em What They Want.” Los Angeles Times 23 Feb. 1972: H3.

11 responses to “Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat

  1. Becky D says:

    I love the shape of this coat. The colors are wacky, but kind of fun! Very interesting.

  2. Kara says:

    See? Fashion- Costume. The same.

  3. Bobbi C says:

    I have this coat in my closet. It was always lucky.

  4. Barbara P. says:

    I owned this coat was the best purchase I ever made.LOVE,LOVE LOVE!Bought it in the 70s from a boutique in Philadelphia wore it to death had so many compliments.Can’t believe I found this online after all these years ive been telling my daughter about this coat,now she can finally see why I loved it so!makes me smile,love you Betsey!!!!!

  5. Pamela Roberts Levitt says:

    I was going threw my “old” Boulder Colorado clothes I wore when I was young in the very early 70’s maybe late 60’s. I found my number#1 favorite top. I looked at the lable and it is “Alley Cat”, by Betsey Johnson. Still my fave top ever! Basic black long sleeve jersey/cotton with open front that ties with “baby” ribbons. I wore it to every concert. It is still in excellent condition. My girlfriend told me I would never let her borrow it, and she loved it too (thats why it is still in excellent condition)! I told her that was the ONE piece that noone wore but me! My trade mark top! Drove the guys wild! Should be in a museum!

  6. Tricia says:

    Wow, I have 5 of the 8 original Butterick Betsey Johnson for Alley Cat patterns! So cool, I’ve always been a fan but didn’t realize she started back in the 60’s. I will definitely be framing these!

  7. Zet says:

    So fab. Was getting more research done for my Alley Cat maxi dress out of curiosity. This is a cool article! 🙂

  8. Leesa says:

    I own this same coat. One of my favourite things about it is the lining inside the sleeves, which is hard to see because of the fun fun makes it hard to turn them out a bit. But the coat I have the lining is the ‘have a nice day’ with coffee/tea cup pattern Betsey drew for another Alley Cat quilted separates (blazer, skirt, etc.). The lining is in pink, blue, black and so unique.

  9. Diane Laag says:

    This article is so cool and so heartwarming as it brings back so many fond,fun memories of Betsey’s Alley Cat clothing.
    I found her designs in Philly at a store called Sweet Fanny Adams, also at an Alley Cat outlet also in Philly.
    We wore her clothes mixed with vintage pieces and our gigantic wooden Goody Two Shoes from NY.
    Looking back, we may have looked a bit silly but at the time, we were thrilled to have Alley Cat clothing in our closets. Diane

  10. I modeled the plaid peplum coat with brown faux fur sleeves back in 1972 at a trunk showing in Kansas City and met Betsy Johnson at a private event afterwards. I traveled with her salesman modeling that coat in New Orleans and Houston that same year and worked the very exciting Dallas Apparel Mart. That coat was my favorite and another coat in corderoy polka dots with faux white fur sleeves. What I wouldn’t do to have either one of those peplum coats today.

  11. Lauren says:

    I was born in ’70, so I missed out on these amazing pieces, but was blessed to have a boss who was a fashionista and my style icon/ fashion guru. She passed some of Betsey Johnson’s Alley Cat pieces on to me and I still cherish these wonderful, quirky, FABULOUS items to this day! As a buyer for a boutique, I was lucky enough to meet Betsey at a trade show in NY, while wearing an Alley Cat sweater ( a cropped, zip cardigan with green/ blue stripe sleeves and a yellow/ black angelfish on the back!), and she insisted on a picture together!

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