Radical Chic

Black berets and leather coats are out, Ski Iraq tees are in

A hippie, Ronald Reagan once famously offered, is someone who "acts like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah." It was 1967, Reagan was governor of California, and these threatening creatures were all around him, on campuses and in the streets: men without ties with the kind of hair you were supposed to see only on girls.

That was a long time ago. The sartorial revolution sparked by those hirsute mavericks—their blue jeans, peasant blouses, untucked shirts, sandals, and thrift store get-ups—were in subsequent decades so thoroughly embraced by the general population that these days, for good or ill, you can't tell a young Republican from an anarchist on the A train. Take, for example, the figure of Ann Coulter, with her long, swingy hair and tiny skirts. Strip away her politics, keep the sharp tongue, and who are you reminded of? None other than Bernardine Dohrn, onetime leader of the radical Weathermen, likewise famous for her long hair and minis, whose flaming rhetoric and no-holds-barred style prompted J. Edgar Hoover to dub her the "La Pasionaria of the lunatic Left."

You may argue until you are blue—or red—in the face about the degree to which the ideologies of the 1960s have permeated American life, but one thing is clear: The kind of repressive clothes people wore 50 years ago, the little white gloves on women, the compulsory suits and shiny shoes for men, have vanished as quickly as a samizdat leaflet. Even if you're a hopeless reactionary, you no longer have to support the war or fight to undermine abortion rights in a girdle and garter belt, or spend your days volunteering for the Karl Rove fan club with your neck choking under a tie.

Panthers at Huey rally in DeFremery Park, 1968
photo: Stephen Shames/Courtesy of Steven Kasher Gallery
Panthers at Huey rally in DeFremery Park, 1968

These thoughts, and many more like them, were occasioned by a superb exhibit of photographs of the Black Panther Party by Stephen Shames at the Steven Kasher Gallery at 521 West 23rd Street (through May 26). Here the bravado and bravura of the Panthers shine not just through their steely eyes and deadly serious expressions, but through their tough black boots and leather coats as well.

Whatever you think about their politics, the Panthers exuded a powerful sex appeal that even enraptured the Park Avenue aristocracy (as captured in Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic). The beautiful Kathleen Cleaver sports oversized sunglasses, a black miniskirt, and boots, and wields a machine gun (Cleaver is currently a Senior Research Scholar at the Yale Law School); a group of men at a "Free Huey P. Newton" rally (Newton was shot and killed in 1989 in an incident considered drug-related) wear what came to be known as the Panther uniform: a black leather jacket and a beret cocked at an angle.

Not just the beret was borrowed from styles first employed by postwar French bohemia, a nonconformist vibe that made its way from the Left Bank to leftists everywhere. Shames photographed ex-fugitive Angela Davis (now a college professor in California), wrapped in a trench coat worthy of the existentialist chanteuse Juliette Gréco and smoking a cigarette during a break in her 1972 trial, and Panther David Hilliard (also currently teaching college) wears the kind of a navy-and-white striped maritime sweater favored by Jean Genet.

All these fashions—the trench, the leather jacket, the beret, the striped polo—would make their way in the ensuing half-century from the outer shores of bohemia to the Gap. They would join with hippie garb, the deliberately slovenly, offhand mixing of old and new, to create a way of dressing now so ubiquitous it's the guy in the suit and the lady in the little hat who occasion the stares.

So where does this leave you? How can you make sure people know what your politics are in this bewildering sartorial landscape, where nearly everyone is wearing jeans and a tee, nearly all the time? If you're really worried that someone will mistake you for the head of the Save Alberto Gonzales committee, maybe your shirt can clear things up. At the young designers market at 268 Mulberry Street (weekends only), Jim Morrison (who was born the year the rocker died) is set up just inside the front door. He calls his business Dangerous Breed and describes his shirts as "political fashion that also looks good" and says the slogans are meant to be thought-provoking, not knee-jerk.

"Now more than ever I think people want shirts that say, 'Tell me something more; confuse me!' Not just, you know, 'Bush equals terrorist,' " Morrison says on a recent Saturday afternoon. He's doing a brisk business in designs that include his famous "Ski Iraq"; his "Saudi Arabia: Sportsman's Mecca" (a pun?) that offers mountains, pine trees, and a leaping trout; his "Gaza Strip Club XXX"motif; and a hoodie featuring an overall pattern of Apache helicopters that is meant to mock the Louis Vuitton logo.

"Most of our designs come out of the classic imagery of the vacation T-shirt. My background is in international relations and foreign policy, and my partner is a graphic artist, so it's a good combination," Morrison, who once ran for State Senate in New Jersey, says. Their first collaboration was a shirt that read: "Jesus hates your SUV." In the beginning, the T-shirts caused some confusion and a number of shoppers were frankly offended. "They would say, 'I don't get it.' They'd look at 'Ski Iraq' and say, 'That's bad taste.' " Once or twice a day, someone would get in Morrison's face about his shirts. "I kind of lived for it," he admits.

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