The Way We Dress Now


“For those of you who associate this collar with the status quo, please be advised: I want us out of our undeclared war in Vietnam, I founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, I registered voters in Mississippi, I’m a pacifist and I believe in social protest, and I’d like nothing more than to turn you on to the possibility that you can make a difference!” declares the priest-professor character in NBC’s miniseries The ’60s (Sunday at 9 p.m.). Not only does Father Dan rabble-rouse the freshmen, he wears an army surplus jacket over his clerical garb, a scandalous addition to his vestment and a harbinger of social upheaval as significant as the worthy causes he has ticked off.

In 10 short years, from 1960 to 1970, the way that Americans dressed changed forever. Not since the early 1920s,
when whalebone corsets and floor-dusting hems gave way to flapper frocks, had a fashion revolution so starkly altered the way people thought about clothes. Not only were quaint notions of suitability and appropriateness thrown out the window— people born after 1960 hardly know that once there were strict rules about what could be worn where and by whom.

The clothes of the last 30 years, which make a fetish of comfort and practicality, constitute an asexual, age-blind,
classless, profoundly transgressive way of dressing, as shocking at its inception as it is taken for granted today. Remnants of the old rules leave the historian incredulous: Can it really be true that the leadership of a seminal 1965 gay rights rally imposed a strict dress code? (“Clean-scrubbed demonstrations will get us ahead . . . FAR, FAR faster than court cases. . . . The man in a suit is STILL the overwhelming norm in this country,” opined an organizer.) Did Mademoiselle magazine, as late as June 1967, really run a feature called “June Week at Annapolis” with student-models sporting boater hats and little white gloves?

Whatever the failures of The ’60s, it chronicles the sartorial revolution neatly. When the Beatles turn up on the family’s TV (the program weaves documentary footage throughout), Dad utters predictably, “Look at the hair!” (What’s surprising to contemporary viewers is how short the Beatles’ hair really was.) The dissoluteness of son Brian, a gung ho marine who returns from his Vietnam tour semi-psychotic, is signaled by his David Crosby walrus mustache and the longest locks of any character on the show.

Sarah, the levelheaded activist­pretty girl in The ’60s, is a walking billboard of the decade’s fashions. For a 1964 antiwar teach-in— the guys are still wearing ties— she dons pearls and a sweater set; a few scant years later she’s wearing a waistless shift printed with Mondrian color blocks and listening avidly as the boys discuss Franz Fanon and pass around marijuana brownies. By the 1967 march on the Pentagon, Sarah’s in a fringed cowgirl jacket; to cover the trial of the Chicago Seven she chooses an Indian pink silk kurta with gold embroidery.

The other female character in the production (excluding Mom) traverses wilder terrain. A harlot with a heart of gold, Katie gives birth out of wedlock in Haight Ashbury, dumping the last remnant of middle-class morality in favor of tie-dye, fringe, headbands, puff-sleeved peasant blouses, ponchos, beads, and body paint. Through it all, despite the adventuresomeness of the rest of her costume, she never takes off her little gold cross. (The sleazy proprietor of the topless bar where Katie bumps and grinds to make money for little Rainbow’s medicine has a huge peace symbol hanging around his neck.)

The funny thing is, as these characters rapidly metamorphose— every year brings more startling social theories and more outlandish outfits— by the end they’re dressing like a lot of people do in 1999. But fashion often proceeds in such fits and starts: long periods of relative tranquility are suddenly burst apart by a tornado of creative activity.

The radical fashion ideas of the late ’60s— the collapse of the categories of different clothes for day and evening, work and play, weekdays and Sunday— ended up being embraced by the entire population. Plundered from an enormous range of sources, including the military, sports, blue-collar industries, and the farm, 1960s clothing was rapidly co-opted by fashion designers. Three decades later, we’re left facing the millennium all dressed alike in cargo pants, sweat suits, ski jackets, running shoes, T-shirts, and messenger bags. (Even Ken Starr wears a windbreaker and a sports cap on the weekend.)

There are those who would argue that the right-wing stereotype of a ’60s protester— a spoiled, slovenly, Dr. Spock­coddled baby boomer who demands immediate gratification— was responsible for a sweeping cultural infantilism, of which clothing is only one manifestation. At any rate, fashions once reserved for kindergarteners have overtaken all levels of society: pull-on stretchy pants, comfy sweatshirts with hoods, sneakers that close with Velcro tabs, silly little baseball hats that make grown-ups look like Peanuts characters, have made of us a nation of toddlers. The only thing missing is a bib.

Of course, things could have been worse. Things could have stayed exactly as they were. The woman of 1999 could be facing the millennium in a girdle with garters, a little hat with a veil, and a circle skirt over a crinoline, tottering off in compulsory high heels to a segregated lunch counter, all ready to share a Coca-Cola float with a sad sack in a gray flannel suit.


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