It was bound to come around; fifty years later is about the right time for museums to gather their curatorial muscle for reviewing, gathering, documenting, and committing to an exhibition that has now achieved some distance, to allow for some semblance of an objective, informed presentation. Sometimes they are wonderfully subjective thematically, which can make for engaging, fascinating exhibitions. That time has come for America’s personal counterculture, ranging from the 1960s to 1970s. Initially organized by Washington state’s Bellevue Arts Museum, “Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture” is now showing through August 20, 2017, at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City. Another exhibition is cementing that time in current consciousness with “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll,” at San Francisco’s De Young Museum through August 29, 2017. The hippie meme continues spreading its message of love and peace and there are sure to be more exhibitions exploring this iconic cultural framework.
Displayed at the museum is a full representation of the handmade through the techniques favored during this innovative era, yet based on traditional methods put to service in unique ways: crocheting, knitting, weaving, featherwork, leatherwork, dyeing, beading, appliqué, painting, stitching, felting, quilting. Particularly engaging, and so characteristic of the garments, is that the street and ceremonial fashion of the times was an inclusively-based American style, drawing on global sources, consciously, not subliminally, arrived at. They were adapted, personalized and individuated, a new formula for “mixing and matching.” And they were fresh and exciting, especially after the 1950s when post-wartime clothing constraints were set aside and younger people began to use clothes to sartorially express themselves.
Those expecting the works contained in Julie Schafler Dale’s exceptional Art to Wear (1986) will be denied that pleasure. Her extraordinary volume listed works of genius, like that of Jean Williams Cacicedo, but not shown to similar advantage in “Counter-Couture” with a crocheted, quilted wool and velvet vest from 1972. Very few rise to the pinnacles that Dale’s refined selections portrayed. Certainly, there are highpoints with garments by Kasik Wong who influenced others but never received proper acclaim until after his death. There is the much celebrated Welfare jacket by Billy Shire in Levi denim, brass studs, rivets, furniture studs, and desk bell. Shire was the winner of Levi’s Denim Art Competition. An over-the-top tour-de-force of the period’s embrace of an insatiable appetite for surface design, Shire’s jacket glows from the metal and rhinestone studs crossing the denim surface in a carefully designed yet ambling, druggy symmetry.
Before fashion changed a few decades later, this clothing and jewelry still had wearability as its locus, and consciously expressed a basic romanticism for both feminine and masculine genders with its timely tendency for individualistic liberalism and radicalism as its cultural inspiration. Adornment appealed to the age’s sense of theatrics, from the artistic point of origin to wearer to viewer. The effect could be bold and graphic or subtle and suggestive. It strongly identified with aspects of ethnography and primitivism; was emotional in context, to provoke or invoke a response, be it hot or cool; and it celebrated and exposed the body as a form of kinetic sculpture, as living, sensuous flesh. If the idea was to cover the fabric or whatever material was used, maybe improve upon it, possibly deliberatively or spontaneously, leaving nothing untouched; the results often worked, sometimes hilariously so, striking one dumb with appreciation for their incongruous, kaleidoscopic visions.
Clothing was not the only objective for personal adornment. Giving rise to a singularly American lexicon for jewelry construction, Alex and Lee’s works assembled diverse materials like lobster claws, feathers, rabbit fur, monkey hair, leather, clay, glass, in a feast of perfectly arranged assemblage. Deserving of popular culture’s new coinage for one of a kind, their jewelry not only astonished the eye, but was beautiful and elegant, and influenced designers for decades to come.
For all the euphoria, joy and whimsy, a darkness clouded the American atmosphere and showed up prominently in bodily accoutrements, in patches, buttons, body painting, t-shirts, and peace pendants. Riots, wars, marches, rebellions, and violent deaths with the gunning down of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John and Robert Kennedy, marked irrevocably the complicated ways in which we acted and viewed ourselves. All of this was at odds with a deep sense of the necessity to create a better society than born into, even with its overwhelming challenges, such as the one in which we now belong. The idealism of the age may have been splintered by the realities of its time and place, and its clothing and jewelry no longer worn, becoming archival material, but it reflected an Earth-based spirit that was tolerant, kindly and welcoming. Its better nature expressed a sort of mantra deeply woven into the American origin narrative. We the people are here to form an ever more perfect union, rising above and fixing our flaws, and that noble work is constant and never ends. It was a vibrant, passionate search fifty years ago that continues to this day.
Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the United States in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. In the wake of her trip to the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., always a pleasurable encounter, she continued by bus to the Big Apple, to review “Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture” at the Museum of Arts and Design (March 2 – August 20, 2017). Having been in her youth through that hallowed period, Benesh took great enjoyment (and tried not to wallow in nostalgia) in seeing the experimental work pioneered by artists who were her contemporaries.