There was a cultural war raging in the pages of McCall’s magazine in September 1967. Alongside advertisements for Cool Whip, a page of jokes from Johnny Carson, and fashion spreads featuring crisply tailored polyester shift dresses that would put a smile on Marlo Thomas’s face, there was a story introducing readers to a revolution happening outside their living room. In a word: hippies.
“I’m not on your trip,” read the headline, describing a “strange new breed with a strange new creed.” The story was accompanied by dozens of pictures of unkempt looking men and women wrapped in wildly patterned, ill-fitting ensembles. Was it a coincidence that the next story in the magazine was about the dangers of pregnant women using LSD?
This issue of McCall’s was a seismometer of the international youthquake that had already begun. A year later, the concept of the free-loving hippie would not be a curiosity in a magazine but a permanent and unshakable part of pop culture.
The hippie movement also tenaciously grabbed at fashion and refused to let go. In 2013, hippie fashion has been reduced to stereotypes: elephantine bell-bottoms, fringe vests, Goldie Hawn body paint, and ragged peasant dresses.
The Museum of Fine Arts’ smartly conceived “Hippie Chic” offers a more accurate depiction of counterculture fashion in the late 1960s and early ’70s. More specifically, it shows how the hippies bulldozed longstanding traditions by eliminating the 100-year history of trickle-down haute couture.
Looking to cut themselves off from the mainstream, the hippies raided thrift shops, made dresses from bedsheets, or lifted fashion cues from exotic cultures. They didn’t trust anyone over 30, and they certainly didn’t want to dress like them. Upending the formula, Paris designers reacted by copying hippie looks.
You won’t remember any of this when you walk into “Hippie Chic” and find your eyes bombarded — assaulted is probably more accurate — by purple crushed velvet, acidic citrus synthetic knits, and psychedelic saris. These clothes battle for your attention. There are peacock dandy suits next to interplanetary dresses on rotating shag-covered platforms with a muted psychedelic light show unfolding on the floor. The effect of “Hippie Chic” is the same as walking out of a dark room and into the sunshine. Shield your eyes.
What separates “Hippie Chic” from a series of Sonny and Cher Halloween costumes is the workmanship.
As silly as it all looks in the present day, this movement was not taken lightly. Luxury designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Arnold Scassi, and Geoffrey Beene worked hippie flourishes such as patchwork patterns, tie-dye, gypsy-inspired skirts, and sidewalk-dusting granny dresses into their collections.
MFA textile and fashion arts curator Lauren Whitley shows examples of how the establishment adapted. But the real strength of “Hippie Chic” is the re-introduction of the wildly influential designers of this era, many British, and many whose commercial successes slowly evaporated as Watergate crushed the buzz from the Summer of Love.
Designer Thea Porter, featured prominently in the show, introduced exotic ethnic looks to stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and the Rolling Stones before a series of failed commercial ventures put her career into rapid decline. There is exuberance to her clothes. Like the hippies, her sartorial perspective was optimistic about the future. Her graphic 1970 butterfly dress looks like a pop art Peter Max painting come to life. And yes, there are ensembles featuring the work of that emblematic artist. What’s sorely missing near that butterfly dress is the work of Emilio Pucci, king of the bold print.
But it is heartening to see multiple pieces from forgotten master Ossie Clark, “the king of King’s Road,” who designed voluminous caftans as well as smartly tailored, geometric prints with his wife, Celia Birtwell. An Art Deco-inspired, body-hugging black-and-white dress from Clark and Birtwell stands out as timeless, particularly when juxtaposed in the same gallery against a pair of leather renaissance pants.
Also properly memorialized is Giorgio Sant’Angelo, the mercurial Italian designer whose silk fantasy dress, in a flower print with actual silk flowers flowing down from the shoulders, has all the charm and romanticism of a Renaissance painting. The more cynical will think the frock is tackier than a Capodimonte porcelain vase, but his designs were championed by legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. What Whitley has done, intentionally or not, is create a crash-course in designers whose names would still be in wide circulation in 2013 had they pursued mainstream commercial success — or at least resisted the era’s hedonistic distractions.
Many of the recent acquisitions for the MFA show were once sold at the London boutique Granny Takes a Trip. The store served as retail establishment, celebrity drop-in center, and art gallery before shuttering in the mid-1970s. The man responsible for many of the riotous Granny looks was Saville Row-trained tailor John Pearse. In the UK, this explosion of color in menswear was as revolutionary as bra burning.
Artistic intentions aside, you will giggle as you walk through the show. A jukebox in the gallery plays 1960s hits, and some of these ensembles are a bit too reminiscent of the “Brady Bunch” episode when Greg takes over his father’s den and ditches his Sears Toughskins for a wardrobe of fringe vests and striped bell bottoms while repeating the word “groovy.” This was rebellion (you boomers know what I’m talking about), and the further away these kids could get from what their parents wore, the better.
What separates “Hippie Chic” from a series of Sonny and Cher Halloween costumes is the workmanship. The illusion of a parrot created in a 1970 jacket by multicolored leather and suede applique is more entrancing than it should be thanks to the details. One generation’s groovy is another generation’s tacky.
Sadly, Yves Saint Laurent’s androgynous suits and safari wear for women, which caused a sensation in the late 1960s, are nowhere to be seen. It could have served as a proper palate cleanser amid the constant colors and patterns, as well as given another view of the androgyny of the moment.
Still, “Hippie Chic” succeeds because it takes what could otherwise be seen as a series of drug-fueled fashion catastrophes and puts them into context. It treats these clothes with respect. Thankfully, there is also a knowing wink to the audience, and that wink validates the need to occasionally shake your head and ask, “What mixture of hallucinogens could have possibly inspired these pants?”Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.