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Obituary: John Bates (13 December 1938 – 5 June 2022)

Eric Musgrave
09 June 2022

John Bates, the British designer who put Diana Rigg in a leather catsuit in The Avengers and created floaty dresses for Princess Margaret to wear on Mustique, has died aged 83.

Born into a mining family in Ponteland, Northumberland in 1938, Bates trained for a short while as a journalist. After National Service in the Army in 1952-55, through a friend’s contact he was apprenticed to Herbert Sidon, a couturier in Chelsea, and then worked as a freelance fashion illustrator.

After a short stint at a womenswear firm, he formed his own company, aged 21, in 1959. He called Jean Varon to give it a suitably sophisticated French air. He was to head up the company until the early 1980s.

In the 1960s Bates was part of an upsurge of British design talent that included Thea Porter, Foale & Tuffin, Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark.

He was a central figure in Swinging London, creating some of the shortest micro-mini dresses, introducing trouser suits in 1962, string-vest dresses in 1963, and striped tube dresses with matching stockings.

Diana Rigg in The Avengers wearing a John Bates leather catsuit. Image: Alamy

In 1965 actress Diana Rigg made a huge impact playing sexy spy Emma Peel in the fourth series of television comedy-drama The Avengers wearing leather catsuits and white PVC mini-coats designed by Bates. These looks were widely copied by commercial manufacturers.

His “Bikini” dress of 1965, in which the top and bottom sections were joined with see-through mesh, was named Dress of the Year. Bates is pictured above with a model wearing the dress outside of The Savoy in London in 1965.

Marit Allen, a section editor on British Vogue, promoted Bates’ Op-Art-inspired pieces. For her wedding ensemble in 1966 he created a white gabardine and silvered PVC minidress with a matching mini trench coat adorned with silver PVC lapels.

In 1969 he designed singer Cilla Black’s wedding dress. Julie Christie wore a John Bates dress in the 1975 film Shampoo. Princess Margaret favoured his floaty long dresses on her Caribbean holidays on Mustique.

After his Space Age tendencies of the 1960s, in the 1970s Bates’ style became more refined and classically feminine. Sticking with defined and simple lines, he was associated with Empire Line evening dresses, often embroidered with the ethnic designs popular at the time.

He still did sexy elegance, however, as exemplified in a celebrated backless evening dress in 1973.

Alongside Jean Muir, Bill Gibb, Zandra Rhodes and Gina Fratini, in the 1970s John Bates was one of the major names in the nascent London Fashion Week, staging his catwalk show at upmarket venues such as The Berkeley hotel.

Bates with models wearing silk styles from his spring-summer 1979 collection, featuring cutaway panels that reveal the body

Given his couture training, the softly-spoken and well-mannered designer always presented excellent standards of cutting and make.

Jean Varon went bust in the early 1980s and Bates eventually retired to Wales.

In 2006 The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Costume in Bath staged a major retrospective of his work.

John Bates died of cancer on 5 June. He is survived by his long-time partner John Siggins.

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