1960s to 2016: Fashion and Political Culture

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In the wake of this election, I feel a profound, but terrifying truth. How can I come to terms with an administration that has made it clear that hatred and ignorance win? In searching for guidance, I turn, surprisingly, to fashion, and the ways in which it has responded to previous politically fraught times.


My favorite time period in fashion has always been the 1960s. Its vibrant colors, short hemlines, and futuristic designs echoed a new hope for disillusioned baby boomers. The 1960s represented an explosion of radical change and a stark deviation from the previous decade. Young people began to realize that they had the power to reinvent, rather than conform to the world around them. Perhaps in their cultural revolution I could find hope for my own generation.


The 1950s stand in stark contrast to the passionate, beautiful 1960s. The 1950s were a time of conservatism, complacency, and contentment, but also anxiety, alienation and social unrest. Women were treated as material objects, youth at the end of World War II felt disillusioned and confused with the world around them, and the Jim Crow south peaked. Fashion directly reflected this conservative mindset as women reverted to wearing corsets, and a uniformity in American cultural norms prevailed.


Today, we see a new form of tension paralyzing our country. We are at odds with one another on a fundamental level. The media objectifies and ridicules women in power, African Americans are problematized, and policy makers tell immigrants to get out. The growing tension of the 1950s, however, engendered the greatest decade of change in history, both reflected and influenced by fashion.


Feminism became a way for women to overcome their subordinate position to men, and fight for the rights they lacked. “Second-wave feminism” completely transformed popular culture, demonstrated through freedom of dress. By the end of the 1960s, a generation of feminists had legitimized comfortable low-heeled shoes, rejected girdles, and made pants acceptable for all occasions. Skirts and dresses were still beloved staples, but now women had the agency to choose what went on their body. The miniskirt became a symbol of women’s liberation, radicals rejected makeup altogether, and the carefully coiffed hairstyles of the 1950s fell out of style. But this was no rejection of beauty; it was simply a shift in defining the standards of being and feeling beautiful.  Le Smoking, a look designed by Yves Saint Laurent in 1966 shows how feminism strongly influenced fashion. Saint Laurent’s long lined, elegant pantsuit was innovative and emancipating, effectively making the statement: If men can wear this, why can’t I? It was elegant, flattering, but above all, was a call for women to claim the privilege men already possessed.


Not only did feminism effect fashion, but fashion played a pivotal role in influencing women to fight for social equality. The frustration of women with fashion was voiced in the 1968 Miss America Pageant when approximately 400 feminists protested the sexist competition. Their demonstration included symbolically throwing female items into a burning trashcan, including false eyelashes, high heeled shoes, makeup, girdles, corsets, and bras. This influential act of defiance called for an end to the objectification of women’s bodies, and helped emancipate women from unrealistic standards of beauty.


Both in the 1950s and today, the public is told that a powerful woman is “cold,” not strong. Unable to shatter the greatest glass ceiling, women are in a critical place to redefine the feminist movement in 2016. How can we sit and watch our reproductive rights be stripped from legislature? Now is our time to take note from the feminists of the 1960s and demand equality of genders.

Along with women, young people contributed to the wave of change in the 1960s.

One of the most identifiable groups of the 1960s were hippies. For hippies, fashion was a way to not only rebel against societal norms, but a way to experiment and individualize themselves. Hippie’s influence on fashion created a new era of “anything goes” that mixed ethnic and psychedelic influences. Flower power was a slogan used as a symbol of passive resistance and nonviolence. Hippies dressed in embroidered floral clothing, wore vibrant colors, flowers in their hair, and distributed flowers to the public (becoming known as flower children).


Millenials in 2016 are handed down a broken country that is in dire need of reform, just like in the late 1950s. Yet, in this moment of societal reversal we can choose to take notes from the hippies of the 1960s and embrace each other with empathy, instead of taking note from older generations that have turned to hatred. In 2016 we have many new ways of defining gender, sexuality, and race, and should continue to embrace the notion that our differences are what make us beautiful.  Women, African Americans, Muslims, disabled people, Hispanics, and illegal immigrants have been marginalized and essentially told conform or get out. America, the land of embracing our differences, has called for a homogeneous identity.


Another marginalized group in the United States that used fashion as a tool for equality were African Americans. In the 1950s they were forced to conform to white beauty standards and trends, pressuring them to let go of African heritage to try desperately to match the beauty ideals of white people. However, in 1960s, African American frustration erupted and the civil rights movement was born. Tribal patterns and kente cloth reflected a growing acceptance and celebration of African heritage. Kente cloth is a brightly colored stripe of cloth that is woven and pieced together to create a beautiful mosaic of colors and patterns. The rejection of white beauty standards and subsequent reaction, made the afro an effective symbol of black pride and became a popular hairstyle for members and supporters of the Civil Rights and Black Power movement.



The power of fashion on the civil rights movement is also prevalent in the radical black group, The Black Panthers. Members wore black leather jackets, powder blue shirts, black pants, black shoes, black berets and sometimes black gloves. The Black Panther uniform sent a powerful message that African Americans were fully embracing their “blackness” and were committed to their cause. Fashion became a symbol and tool to represent something greater than just a glove or beret.


2016 draws scary parallels to the 1950s and the Civil Right Movement. It has become a struggle to be both black and American, and that is not right. Perhaps the only difference today is that racist legislature and policy is not outwardly visible. We may be entering a time of deeper racial divides, but in truly embracing the “Black Lives Matter” campaign, perhaps we can create a new-wave civil rights movement.


However, in history, we can see that if we fight courageously and with conviction, we can define the years to come. Like a mirror, fashion reflects and influences culture, while culture also reflects and influences fashion.


Civil rights groups, feminists, and hippies saw fashion as more than just an indicator of time, but as a tool that could be used to advance their goals (and as a tool to define who they were both individually and as a movement). What will the future of social change through fashion look like? Will we be wearing androgynous clothing or taking back the Hijab? Will we be reclaiming our sexuality with a dress or proclaiming Black Lives Matter with a totally new article of clothing?


We can manipulate our cultural actions to match the historical event that has preceded, thus letting history be in the hands of people, and not fate. We can define the next decade of profound change. Who is to say that the 2010s will not be the next 1960s? History has its eyes on us, and seems to be saying millennials, now is your time.

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