DMU at 150: Life as a student in the Swinging Sixties

Memories of life as a student in swinging Sixties Leicester – including seeing Jimi Hendrix play on campus – were shared as part of De Montfort University Leicester (DMU)’s 150th anniversary events.

Helen Dunn came to Leicester College of Art to study fashion and textiles and then worked for Savile Row legend Hardy Amies before coming back to Leicester Polytechnic in her ‘dream job’ as a lecturer, launching hundreds of students’ careers in the industry.


She was in conversation with senior lecturer Sally Gaukrodger-Cowan (above, Helen on the right) in front of a packed audience of current students, graduates and former colleagues.

It was a night of nostalgia as she talked about studying under the brilliant Grace Best in the 1960s, the terror of Madame the fiercely strict millinery teacher and riding the paternoster into the cellar in the first Fletcher Building, which was later redesigned as part of the Vijay Patel building.

She was based in the fashion department which had floors four to seven of the Fletcher Building, which at the time had a quadrangle outside the tower, roughly where the reception and Food Village would be today. It was designed as an arena, and students sat on the steps to watch the bands that had been booked.


It was there that she saw Jimi Hendrix. “Hendrix was fantastic,” she said. “He was a great showman. He did play the guitar with his teeth. A lot of people didn’t fully understand his music at that stage, but me and Ann, we loved it. I wore my hand-made Terry de Havilland shoes which cost me five guineas, a lot of money at the time.”

She also remembers the first ‘Fletcher all-nighter’ which saw Rod Stewart – then known as Rod the Mod – and Julie Driscoll booked to play. At that time, the college was surrounded by terraced houses: “I dread to think what they thought,” she laughed.

As fashion students, they would be sent to Paris in their second year to see collections by the likes of Dior, Yves St Laurent and Givenchy. In Leicester they displayed their work in The Salon, which Grace Best had specially commissioned which had floor to ceiling mirrors, gold chaise lounge and a gold jardiniere filled with spider plants.

“Grace Best was the most flamboyant person. She wafted around in silk kaftans, called everybody darling. She wanted the best staff she could get, wanted the best design for the floors and demanded the best from you as her students.”

Dunn pattern

They sunbathed on the roof of Fletcher Building in the summer, eating jam sandwiches provided by the wife of Arthur the security guard, partied but worked long days to exacting standards. Helen had discovered her love of knitwear, of creating the patterns and designing not only the clothes but the materials that they were made from.

In 1969, she was among the first cohort to graduate from Leicester Polytechnic in a ceremony held at Hawthorn Building. Helen refused an offer to work in London to stay in Leicester working for Byfords, producing textiles used by Savile Row’s Hardy Amies.

Then, on a page in the Leicester Mercury one night, she spotted her dream job advertised: Leicester Polytechnic was looking for a lecturer in fashion and textiles.

She was back at the Fletcher Building, this time as a colleague of Grace Best who retired in 1979 to be replaced by Peter Morgan. The Eighties, with its mix of turbulent politics, recession, excess and yuppies was about to begin.

Dunn fashion 2

Leicester Polytechnic’s students were courted by the fashion industry, attending events with top designers including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jeff Banks, Betty Jackson and more. Their work was on the catwalk and Helen’s students were turning out intricate, in-demand designs.

She said: “The era of the 80s was aspirational to say the least. (Then prime minister) Margaret Thatcher encouraged this aspirational feeling and it was the yuppie era. It affected us because high streets suddenly had all these shopping malls being built and fashion was everywhere. Students managed to get really good jobs.”

When Leicester Polytechnic became De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) in 1992, she was there to celebrate as a big party was held in the city’s Victoria Park with cake and Champagne.

Dunn fashion 1

Helen left DMU in 2009 after more than 30 years. She was one of the university’s first-ever Teaching Fellows – a national award for excellence – and retains happy memories of working and studying at the university. She left an archive containing photographs of fashion shows, video from catwalks at the Haymarket Theatre, recordings of TV appearances and a glimpse of the glamour at the Courtelle Awards in 1987.

“I don’t have a favourite memory,” she said. “There are so many. I still think of working here as my dream job.”

Posted on Thursday 5th March 2020

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