Tune In, Turn On, Dress Up: Hippie Chic at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there, the mantra of that weed-filled decade goes. For those who missed it—for pharmaceutical reasons or otherwise—the Museum of Fine Arts Boston opens its Hippie Chic Show on July 16. It will run until November 11, 2013.  Editor at Large Cathy Newman spoke to Lauren Whitley, MFA curator of textile and fashion arts, about the upcoming show that promises to leave everyone feeling groovy.

What are the origins of the hippie movement?

It’s the whole youth movement, a post-war baby boom generation pushing back against convention. There’s the ”summer of love,” in 1967 in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco and the backdrop of Vietnam War protests, civil rights, the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, questioning authority, and a counterculture that rejected consumerism and wanted to embrace different ideals.

Where does it take place?

There are several hot spots. London has King’s Row, Chelsea.  San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. Greenwich Village in New York.

How does it get reflected in fashion?

It’s anti-fashion. Not pandering to couture. Rejecting buying clothes off the rack. Instead, it’s about buying vintage or Salvation Army or making it yourself, because it was cheap and fun and unusual.  It incorporates elements of fantasy, craft, trippy psychedelic, and the ethnic look.

And then?

It trickles up from the street and gets picked up rather quickly by the fashion designers because the ideas were so strong and had such interesting messages. You start seeing the gypsy and ethnic look in fashion magazines like Harper’s and Vogue. On Seventh Avenue Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta appropriate the style for the “rich hippie look.” One of the most extravagant examples in the show is Yves St. Laurent’s haute couture patchwork skirt and top of silk, satin and velvet.

Let’s talk about men’s fashion. One thinks of Jimi Hendrix and his beads, the Beatles in their “military” jackets on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, guys at Woodstock wearing caftans.

The late ‘60s for men was liberating.  It’s romantic, feminine. There’s the mod Austin Powers look with crushed velvet suits and ruffled shirts. Prior to that it was all about sober suits. In his memoir, Keith Richard talks about how he became a fashion icon because he stole his girlfriend’s clothes. They wore the same size.  In addition to his extraordinary talent with the guitar, Hendrix was a dapper dude. The Sgt. Pepper military look offended some. The older generation had been through the war and did not appreciate the tongue and cheek send-up. For them, the military tradition was not something to be spoofed. But it was about re-thinking clothes so that they made sense for the wearer.

Was there a difference in the hippie look in London as opposed to San Francisco?

I think London was more fashionable. The West Coast was more apt to be tie-dye jeans and a t-shirt. I read that when the Beatles came over to the US they were shocked at how boringly people dressed. Britain has tailoring tradition, as well as dandyism. The King’s Row shop Granny Takes A Trip was about channeling Oscar Wilde. By the way, the Beatles owned a boutique called Apple that didn’t last eight months. I think there was more stuff stolen than paid for.

Will there be lots of hair on display?

Yes!  Long hair was defining.  If you had long hair, you were called hippie, even if you weren’t.  Our department has these minimalist mannequins, very stylized with bald heads that work great for a contemporary fashion show, but not this, so we hired a guy who does wigs for the Boston Ballet. He’s very happy. “They stand still,” he said about the mannequins. “They don’t move around [like dancers].” We will have awesome Afros; and the classic long, center part hair for women, and a few vampy, druggy curly looks. I’m also hoping for some serious muttonchops.

When and why did it end? Was it just that the baby boomers got old?

By 1972, the New York Times was reporting, “the peacock has folded his feathers.” The movement came out of optimism and idealism. That buoyancy took a hit. Cynicism kicked in. Also, fashion can’t stay still. It is constantly recycling, pushing in new directions, rejecting the old.

What is its legacy?

What I liked about it was that people were having fun with clothes. You don’t think of fun when you think of grand couture. Nothing was sacred. You could wear whatever you wanted and create a look to express yourself. We live with that legacy of personalized fashion today, but the boutique culture doesn’t exist on the streets anymore. Now it’s on the Web.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Cathy Newman began her career writing for the Miami News, before joining the staff of National Geographic Magazine where she was Editor at Large. In addition to dozens of articles for the magazine, she is the author of three books for National Geographic. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent, Women Photographers at National Geographic, and Fashion. She is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Journeys.