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