Stitching a New Paradigm: Dress Codes of San Francisco’s Counterculture.

de Young Museum

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, San Francisco has served as the cultural, commercial, and financial hub of Northern California for more than a century. In the mid-nineteenth century, reports of gold in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains captured the world’s imagination, and as a natural gateway to gold country, the city boomed. By the Summer of 1967, San Francisco had returned again to the international stage—with word of psychedelic happenings, a new sound in music, and campaigns for social change permeating the mainstream press’s account of the city’s “Summer of Love.” 

In 1967, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Haight-Ashbury district teemed with about 100,000 youth who arrived from around the country, drawn by a vibrant music scene and seeking the like-minded individuals. Though their numbers overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure, their energy and enthusiasm for social and political change found its way into every corner of the neighborhood, crowding traditional gathering places and spilling out into the streets.

San Francisco’s 1960s counterculture was unique, namely because it was as much an artistic movement as it was a political one. Led by artists, designers, poets, writers, musicians, and performers, the city’s creatives developed their own visual language along with new forms of communication, ultimately leaving a legacy of material culture that owes an aesthetic debt to the city of its origin. 

Old Timey
Perhaps most characteristic of San Francisco’s emerging bohemian fashion was “old timey,” or vintage dress. During the 1960s, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, led by Justin Herman, waged an urban renewal campaign that disrupted the Western Addition, then one of the city’s largest African American neighborhoods, adjacent to Haight-Ashbury. Some 2,500 Victorian homes were torn down, and as a result, the city’s thrift stores, antique shops, street vendors, and flea markets were brimming with vintage clothes and collectibles.

When the Charlatans, the progenitors of the city’s psychedelic sound, impeccably adopted the nineteenth-century dress of Victorian dandies and Wild West gunslingers, that old-timey styles became an identifier of the counterculture. Founding member George Hunter explained, “Initially, we were searching for an identity. We wanted to promote something that was uniquely American and identified us as from San Francisco as opposed to being an imitation of the British, which is what everyone else was doing.”

Gathering of the Tribes
During the 1960s, Golden Gate Park and its adjoining Panhandle emerged as a playground for San Francisco’s countercultural movement. Youths mingled at Hippie Hill, a sheltered sunny slope just past where Haight Street ends at Stanyan Street, to listen to the sounds of sitar, guitar, and flute or to observe the Hare Krishna chanting. Costumed youth would gather,  bringing with them beads, bells, blankets, cymbals, drums, incense, and flowers. 

Fashions displayed in this gallery include free-flowing clothes and natural fibers, which were an intentional break from the restricting girdles and nylons of the 1950s and early 1960s. Describing her transition, designer Jeanne Rose stated: “It was a revelation to me . . . to have . . . natural foods, natural clothes, natural feeling. I wanted to feel . . . that when I put clothes on me or anyone else that it was freeing—more freeing than it was constricting.”

Love and Haight
During the mid-1960s, artists, writers, musicians, and activists moved into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, lured by inexpensive rent and  an inclusive  environment.  America  was at  a  cultural  crossroads,  and  the  burgeoning social unrest was pronounced in  this  community  of mostly well educated and artistic youth. With hopes of creating a new social paradigm, largely informed by their experimentations with psychedelics and their interest in Native American cultures and Eastern spirituality, they made the neighborhood the epicenter of their activities. 

With many of the young seekers looking to Native American societies for alternative lifestyle models, their quest materialized in new hippie dress codes, such as the adoption of leather and beads. By the late 1960s, leatherwork became so popular in the Bay Area that more than a dozen tanneries were in operation, and two of the most influential leather design houses, North Beach Leather (est. 1967–2002) and East West Musical Instruments Company (1967–1980), opened during the Summer of Love.

Denimocracy
For a generation that rejected the trappings of their middle-class upbringings,  denim, the uniform of the working classes, was a comfortable fit. Easily purchased at thrift stores and the Army Navy surplus, denim was not only affordable, it was durable. By the late 1960s, the all-American blue jean had become the ubiquitous look for the counterculture, with San Francisco- based Levi Strauss & Co. at the forefront. With Levi’s using their hometown as their  incubator, the fashions  of San Francisco’s  counterculture rippled across the nation.

Art Roth, general manager of Levi’s for Gals, told Women’s Wear Daily in 1971, “We’re charged with maintaining quality. Youth dictates this. They clamor for quality in food, environment, government [ . . . ] it’s a tremendous movement for social justice. . . . That’s the essence . . . San Francisco is the capital of the whole youth movement . . . the flare leg, fabric mixtures . . . the way they pull it all together. We learned from them. . . . We’re definitely in the right place, because we plan to learn more.”

Rolling Renaissance
Fashion-forward musicians and their peers took a comparable approach, constructing  unique  ensembles  from  garments and textiles dating to earlier times and deriving from numerous cultural traditions. By sampling such wide-ranging sources as Art Nouveau, Native American iconography, and Eastern religions, the city’s artists and designers generated a multilayered visual aesthetic reflective of the  Bay  Area’s multicultural  spirit  that  was  soon  transported around  the world.

President Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corps in 1961 resulted in a generation of young Americans who were traveling the globe, often bringing back treasures from their journeys. Textile artists such as Yvonne Porcella began actively to collect world textiles and incorporate them into their designs. For many independent artists, the freedom and experimentation found in the growing fiber arts movement dovetailed with feminism because of the common association of women working in more traditional domestic roles, including knitting and sewing.

The Music Never Stopped
A now-iconic music scene emerged from San Francisco’s  rebellious and colorful counterculture in the mid-1960s. The “San Francisco Sound,”  as it would  come to be known  despite it’s lack of a single discernible sound, comprised such groups as Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Charlatans, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. With stages often only a foot or two off the ground, there was little divide between the musicians and the audience, and San Francisco concertgoers found countless ways to express their individuality at shows. In addition to bringing to the dance floor a range of original movements, they also delighted in communicating their creativity through their dress—be it vintage fineries, handcrafted creations, or garments covered with vibrating patterns.
Do Your Own Thing
The diversity of styles represented by the small cross section of Bay Area designers dispels any preexisting — and often limited — notions of sixties counterculture fashions. These wildly individualistic forms of dress showcase personal expression and reflect each designer’s singular philosophy within a culture that encouraged creative freedom. The movement’s influence was also found in garments created by mainstream designers of the time. The continued relevance  of these works of art manifests today in the enduring trope of “bohemian chic” — represented in colorful free-flowing styles, natural fabrics, handwork, and the appropriation of global textile traditions. While the original sources may now be forgotten,  these fashions conjure  memories of a time of liberation and hope, one of the many lasting gifts from San Francisco’s Love Generation.

We hope that this exhibition will provide a renewed appreciation of the Summer of Love and the qualities that it promoted, including peace, community, and idealism. Fifty years on from this pivotal moment in history, we present it as a both an electrifying tribute to the many inspired artists and activists and a hopeful reminder that significant political and social change is possible when people lift their voices and stand together.

Credits: Story

Installation photographs from The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll at the de Young museum (April 8–August 20, 2017).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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