There’s nothing I like better than a good research project (besides PERHAPS talking about said research over a platter of scones). And so, I am very pleased to be continuing my exploration of 1960s New York fashion with an analysis of “Mod New York” at the Museum of the City of New York. Last week I had the pleasure of attending both the exhibition and the subsequent lecture, “60s Fashion with Anna Sui and Andrea Aranow.” These provided me with excellent context for my research on designer Tiger Morse. (Not sure who that is? Check out Part 1 of my research here).
Curators Phyllis Magidson and Donald Albrecht divided the exhibition into four sections that represent four overlapping aesthetic movements. The first, “First Lady Fashion,” is the epitome of the Jackie O aesthetic. This 1962 Chanel suit (far left) and 1961 Marc Bohan for Christian Dior set (near left) demonstrate the First Lady’s refined elegance, while also signaling the stirrings of change. Gone were the exaggerated hourglass silhouettes of the previous decade. In their place were fitted skirt sets and slim linen coats. This new look allowed the American woman to move with more flexibility- the physical representation of independence. However, muted pastels and demure ladylike flourishes ensured the wearer stayed close to femininity’s ideals. After all, a string of white pearls completed the Jackie look. The First Lady herself owned a version of this pink Dior set in an apricot hue.
(On a separate note, I think bows ought to come back in a major way. I’ve never seen a bow at the neck and a bow at the waist before- heavenly).
Several things happened in the early 1960s that spurred changes in the fashion industry. In 1962, President Kennedy was assassinated. During the lecture, Magidson explained that being different became an appealing notion in the year after this tragedy. It was a form of emotional escapism for young people in New York City.
In 1964, The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, signaling the start of the British Invasion. The Beatles brought with them a playful British energy that was absorbed quickly into the New York scene. “Everyone was walking around with a British accent,” joked Magidson. Anna Sui recalled seeing model Jean Shrimpton in her hometown of Detroit and being shocked at her shaggy hair. Prior to the mod movement, slick, neat hair had been in vogue. Twiggy would be the next model to revolutionize how women wore their hair- in a cropped pixie cut.
The early sixties also bore witness to a textile revolution. The advent of synthetic fabrics allowed designers like Tiger Morse to create their structured garments. The central dress (1965) in the photograph at right is a rare Morse garment to survive the passage of time. It embodies the Youthquake- a term coined by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and used in this exhibition to describe the second prominent aesthetic movement.
Vreeland noted in the January 1st, 1965 issue of Vogue that there was a vast market of potential buyers under 24 who were hungry for experimental fashion. This generation was coming of age amongst the emotional turmoil of the Assassination, the proliferation of psychedelic drugs, and the British Invasion. Not to mention the turbulence of the Civil Rights Movement, the overwhelming fear of nuclear war, and the triumph of the Space Race. This was not a generation of women (and young people in general) who were happy to sit still and speak when spoken to. Designers responded, providing the young and the restless hiked up hemlines in bold new patterns and fabrics. I personally say a daily prayer to British designer Mary Quant for giving mankind the mini skirt.
The list of influences is infinite. Andy Warhol, a good friend and collaborator of Tiger Morse, gained recognition for his Campbell’s Soup Cans series. His commentary on capitalism and consumerism was a popular trend in pop art, a 1960s movement in contemporary art. The company capitalized (no pun intended) on the series with the creation of “The Souper Dress,” made from cotton and cellulose from 1966-1967. It could be purchased for $1 and two Campbell’s soup can labels, once more proving that capitalism conquers all even when everyone is making fun of it.
The mannequin on the near right is wearing another rare Morse design, this one made of metallic, mylar-coated paper. Made in 1967, the “Teeny Bopper” demonstrates the era’s preoccupation with outer space and technological advancement. Metallic fabrics represented a Jetsons-like view of the future. In a world of rocket ships and men landing on distant planets, clothing would be stiff and shiny, mirroring the physical nature of the surrounding technology.
By 1967, the sexual revolution and the protests against the war in Vietnam had ushered in a new aesthetic movement: The New Bohemia. Youthquake fashions, once radical and rule-shattering, were no longer adequate vehicles through which young people could express their non-conformity. Instead the new generation of rule-breakers gravitated towards clothing that made a fresh political statement- kaleidoscope patterns screamed as loudly as those wearing them. Long, draping clothing embodied the spirit of Free Love. Fabrics from India and the Middle East signaled a desire for a global, peaceful world.
The clothing in this section of the exhibit demonstrates the aesthetic of the late 60s, and also helps make the jump cognitively from the Youthquake to the New Bohemia. It’s clear from the Geoffrey Beene evening dress at far left that the change was overlapping. It’s stiff shape is reminiscent of the mod look, though the beaded fabric recalls the global perspective of the New Bohemia. The James Galanos trouser and jacket set (2nd to left) is decidedly 1968. The curators compare it to “an Op Art canvas,” citing the mathematical precision of the diamond motif on gauze, and the dazzling effect of juxtaposing complementary colors.
Just as bright is the pantsuit to its right, a Norman Norrell pajama set from 1968 made from crepe and bearing a jeweled Maltese cross. If that doesn’t make you embarrassed about the state of your pajama drawer then I don’t know what will. The cross adds an exotic element to a the vividly pink pantsuit, tying in the different elements of the New Bohemia. Lastly, on the far right, we have a dress printed on paper by Elin Daggs. Paper had been used on fabric in Youthquake fashions, proving that the movements were not entirely distinct in every regard. However, the flowing garment would have been quite out of place in 1965- shapeless maxi dresses evoke the spirit of free love in the late 1960s.
It was during this time that designer Andrea Aranow opened her boutique, Dakota Transit, in the East Village. Aranow made custom snakeskin suits for Jimmy Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Betty Davis. It was fascinating to hear about her origins- she opened the shop because she didn’t have enough space in her apartment for her sewing machine- and to contextualize her work within Mod New York. In 1969, Aranow’s “exotic” glazed Cobra-skin patchworks reflected the New Bohemia’s colorful extremes. The designer’s use of fabric from China, Burma, and Afghanistan also signals a problematic issue in the study of this aesthetic.
The caftan at left, designed by Ellen Toby Holmes for Serendipity in 1967, embodies the culturally appropriative nature of the New Bohemia. In the 1960s it was viewed as progressive to don the clothing of Middle Eastern countries, and in vogue to manufacture clothing inspired by them. Perhaps it made the wearer feel in touch with the world politically. Reduced plane fares also made it easier for the middle class to travel and bring back foreign goods. In retrospect, we must be critical of all instances of fetishizing behavior and evaluate its harmful repercussions. One could argue that this period paved the road for the appropriation of other cultures by normalizing appropriative behavior. Literature also states that cultural appropriation “perpetuates the value of white colonialism” and distracts us from the issues plaguing the cultures we take from.
Where to situate Aranow amid this controversy? The designer possesses an encyclopedic collection of samples and an enormous breadth of knowledge regarding the history of textiles. Her research has contributed to museum collections. At the same time, this does not exempt her from colonialist criticism. I am open to hearing your thoughts on the subject- please drop me a line if you’d like to discuss.
The transition to the “New Nonchalance,” the final aesthetic in this survey, occurred around 1970. It was at this time that women’s liberation took off in a major way, prompting designers to create outfits that would help women “look the part” in their new workplaces. The shift was swift, but if you look closely, you can see the transition on the pages of Vogue. Moderator Hazel Clark recalled a tribal photo shoot in the fashion magazine featured right next to a spread of Lauren Hutton for Halston. In a matter of seconds, Sui added, the viewer went from looking at nonwestern fabrics to ultra-suede tops.
The New Nonchalance was characterized by featherweight fabrics, muted colors, and the influence of menswear. Garments made in the early 1970s were often meant to be worn braless, a benefit of tight fabric as well as a nod to women’s lib.
The matte silk jersey Arnold Scaasi dress on the far left exemplifies the 1973 aesthetic. The low neckline and the tendency of jersey to cling to the human form make this dress very sexy, while the bottom half is loose and flowing. James Galanos’ 1972 dress shares this elegant balance. The fabric clings to and accentuates the female form while hiding the legs behind a sheath of opaque color. At the far right, this Pierre Cardin suit from the same year is a fine example of the aesthetic women in the workplace strove to achieve: elegant yet assertive. The diamond cut-outs on the jacket pockets lend this suit an added layer of visual interest, without resorting to traditionally feminine motifs like bows or flowers.
The history of fashion is the history of what people want. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, women wanted more freedom, but they wanted to feel elegant and refined. Designers heeded their call. When life imploded all around us, designers made it easier for people to express their anger in a positive way. As women prepared to take jobs alongside men in the workplace, fashion was there to make them feel strong and empowered.
Hazel Clark asked Anna Sui, Andrea Aranow, and Phyllis Magidson to speak about what fashion is responding to TODAY. Magidson remarked that right now, in 2018, young people are angrier than they’ve been since the late 1960s. It’s not surprising then that we are seeing a “resurgence in the vocabulary of the late 60s and bohemian looks,” she added. Those “boho” Coachella outfits you’ll start to see this coming month have their roots in 60s fashion. Aranow and Sui also commented on fashion’s increasingly global nature. It’s harder to tell where someone is from when you see them on the street. Gone is the separation of “The London Look” and “The American Look.” In its place we have an international fashion vocabulary that allows people from all over to dress in style. After all, Aranow said with a wry smile, “People still love dressing and they like the fact that it expresses who they are.”
Couldn’t agree more.
Until next time!
P.S. Mod New York is open until April 1st! Definitely check it out if you can- it’s pretty groovy!