Richard Avedon, Janis Joplin for Vogue, 1968. Courtesy of rosegallery.net

Countercultural Fashion:

Rock Music and Style in the 1960s

 

by Philip Auslander

The relationship between rock music and fashion, while often acknowledged, is actually discussed in detail relatively seldom even though this relationship encompasses the entire history of rock, beginning perhaps when Elvis Presley started purchasing the same clothing African American musicians obtained from Lansky Brothers Tailors in Memphis in the 1950s. By the 1970s, some rock musicians openly proclaimed their involvement with fashion and collaboration with specific designers: David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, then of Roxy Music, are notable examples. However, during the 1960s, between Elvis and Glam, this relationship was more problematic.

Elvis at Lansky’s in Memphis. Courtesy of Graceland.com

Rock musicians of the 1960s adopted a posture of “we’re all in this together” relative to their audiences. It was assumed that musicians and audience shared a common worldview and were in that sense on equal footing, a stance reflected in their garments. In the words of Joel Lobenthal, author of Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties, “The performers both mirrored the taste of their listeners and subtly warped or boldly advanced it”; the musicians’ stage wear reflected their audiences’ sense of style back to them. Taste and style are not the same thing as fashion as a cultural institution, however. Although hippie clothing reflected distinctive stylistic preferences, the fashion industry was anathema to the hippie ethos.

 

As fashion historian Valerie Steele, author of Fifty Years of Fashion, suggests,

 

Fashion, the hippies believed, was a “system that Society imposes on all of us, restricting our freedom”. Fashion change turns us into “consumers” who have to buy new clothes “even if the old ones are not worn out”. . . . Fashion is damaging, because “this uniformity and this change keep us from being ourselves. Clothing is a means of communication about the self, but we are not allowed to be honest and individual.” The solution to this dilemma, according to the hippies, was “to abandon received fashion, in order to invent our own personal fashions”. Theoretically, each individual would create his own unique style. He would “express himself” and “do his own thing”. . . .

Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Swedish Rock Band), 1969. Courtesy of YouTube.com

Nevertheless, a closer examination of the 1960s reveals a deeper engagement with fashion on the part of the counterculture than the hippies’ anti-fashion ideology would suggest. Much is made of the way hippie fashion was expropriated and mainstreamed by the industry, which is true enough (I can recall “granny glasses” being on sale at my local Woolworth’s, for example). However, little attention has been paid to the fashion entrepreneurs who were at the interior of the counterculture. For example, according to Pamela Des Barres and Carl Franzoni, quoted by Michael Walker in Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll’s Legendary Neighborhood, a woman named Szou “was the first person in town [Los Angeles] to sell vintage clothes, to put them in a hip, boutiquey situation and combine them. . . . She would take them apart and create other pieces of finery. That was real innovative at the time. . . . She started the see-through look. May Co. would come over and buy a dress from her and then you'd see [a copy] on their racks.”

Linda Gravenites, Dress Design for Janis Joplin. Source: Joel Lobenthal, Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties

Indeed, there is a largely unexplored, if not entirely erased, history of the counterculture’s and psychedelic rock musicians’ involvement with fashion. The reason why this history remains mostly unacknowledged presumably is ideological: the “do your own thing” hippie ethos does not leave room for the possibility that some of the most iconic figures in rock of the 1960s commissioned their stage wear from designers and stylists. Even as redoubtable a commentator as Ellen Willis falls into this fallacy as she describes Janis Joplin, in a clear-eyed essay of 1976, as having “invented her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor.” This is an evocative description of Joplin but, in fact, Joplin did not invent her own costumes. After her breakthrough performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1967, she engaged the services of a woman named Linda Gravenites to be her designer and stylist (and long-term roommate). It was Gravenites, a designer and seamstress well known in San Francisco’s countercultural circles, who created Joplin’s signature hippie style and also designed for other musicians. From the hippie perspective, there was no contradiction between the dictum that one’s clothing should be an authentic expression of one’s individuality and having someone else design those clothes as long as the designer in question was in tune with the counterculture and not part of the fashion establishment. As Gravenites (quoted by Lobenthal) put it, "we got pretty scathing about store-bought hip that didn't come from the soul.”

Jimi Hendrix in London, 1967. Courtesy of blackcablondon.net.

The same is true of that other iconic figure of 60s rock, Jimi Hendrix. While still living in London, Hendrix frequented Carnaby Street, where he purchased the military style jacket in which he was frequently seen at the shop I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. As of 1968, when he had moved back to the United States, Hendrix’s clothing and stage wear were designed by Michael Braun, a clothing and costume designer in Tampa, Florida who seems to have been largely responsible for defining Hendrix’s so-called “gypsy” look. (Braun also made clothes for Sly Stone, Gregg Allman, and many others, including professional wrestlers.) Another important point is that neither Joplin nor Hendrix hesitated to model for the pages of mainstream publications, such as LIFE Magazine, which featured a pictorial essay on Hendrix, dressed by Braun, in 1968, or even fashion publications like Vogue, in whose pages Joplin appeared in both 1968, photographed by Richard Avedon, and 1970.

Jimi Hendrix in LIFE Magazine, 1969. Courtesy of Vintage Everyday (www.vintag.es).

In short, figures like Joplin and Hendrix, avatars of both the counterculture and psychedelic rock, hardly shared in the supposed hippie allergy to fashion design. In fact the further one investigates, the more examples of iconic 60s music figures’ being dressed by fashion designers one finds. The Mamas and the Papas, for example, were styled by Antoinette Searles, who had a boutique in Beverly Hills called Profils du Monde. Admittedly, they were a more pop-oriented group than either Joplin or Hendrix, and therefore perhaps more expected to be connected with the fashion industry, but they also had substantial countercultural cred, especially Mama Cass (Cass Elliott) who was known as a doyenne of the Laurel Canyon hippies and the Los Angeles music scene. Joplin’s and Hendrix’s respective use of designers to produce their stage wear and their appearances in the pages of fashion magazines and other publications, for which they were specifically styled, suggest that they embraced fashion as part of their respective public images.

The Mamas and the Papas at the Monterey International Pop Festival, 1967.

Courtesy of www.60sblog.com.

One key aspect of hippie fashion is the use of color and unusual fabrics in constructing clothing. As I mentioned earlier, Pamela Des Barres describes the Los Angeles-based hippie clothier Szou as dismantling vintage clothing to make new apparel. This repurposing of existing materials was widespread in hippie fashion: Gravenites famously made an outfit for Joplin out of old tablecloths, while Braun similarly ordered shawls intended to be used as table coverings from Spain in order to use the fabric in shirts. Lobenthal points to one reason for this practice: “The hippies generated an ecological consciousness of fashion by their recycling of vintage clothes as well as their cannibalizing of old fabrics and hangings, out of which they cut new garments.”

But there was another reason as well: to expand the palette of colors and patterns available to clothiers. The fashionable colors of the 1950s and early 1960s had been subdued and basic: pastels, beige, browns, black, and hunter green. Patterns were old-fashioned florals, checks, and stripes. Mainstream Mod fashion imported from Swinging London in the first half of the 1960s had brought bright colors and bold patterns to ready-to-wear, but mini-skirts and dresses in vinyl and other synthetic fabrics did not appeal to hippies whose tastes ran to natural fabrics and prairie skirts. Designers and clothiers like Gravenites and Braun therefore looked elsewhere for bright colors and bold patterns, hence the turn to fabrics intended for interior decoration rather than clothing.

At the heart of the hippie worldview was a desire to believe that the hippies were not so much in opposition to the mainstream as that they constituted a world apart, a separate and autonomous community in no way beholden to the mainstream. Inevitably, this worldview was rife with contradictions. One need only glance at the music industry to see this: both the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, two of the mainstays of the San Francisco hippie scene, recorded for Warner Brothers and RCA, respectively, old-line companies with deep roots in capitalist America and the traditional entertainment industries the hippies rejected. The case of the counterculture’s relationship to fashion may be a little different, however. On one hand, adherents of the counterculture looked past the fact that professional stylists and clothiers created the supposedly personal styles of iconic performers just as they looked past their archetypal musicians’ relationships with giants of the entertainment industry. On the other hand, these stylists and clothiers did not come from the fashion houses of New York or Paris (the fashion equivalents of Warner Brothers and RCA). Rather, they were small-scale entrepreneurs and artisans who handcrafted clothing themselves rather than having it manufactured and whose approach to fashion could be seen as sharing in cherished hippie values.

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. He writes on performance, music, and art. His most recent book is Reactivations: Essays on Performance and Its Documentation.