When DIY Fashion and Couture Were the Same Thing

John Sebastian’s 1967 performance cape, jacket, and pants, which he tie-dyed himself

Imagine a time before designer logos, no one asked “who you are wearing,” and your sartorial status was ranked according to DIY embellishments and colorful, theatrical approaches to materials that telegraphed a strong social-political message.

The current show at Museum of Art and Design (MAD), Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, on display through August 20, is a tribute to the Sixties and Seventies when Hollywood, rock royalty, rich kids, hippies, and living-off-the-land types all marched to their distinctive fashion beats.

At Columbus Circle, two floors of fashion take you on a journey through hand-crafted masterworks of several copacetic subcultures who carried out the youth revolution over sixty years ago — acid trippers, antiwar protesters, peace-and-love advocates, commune dwellers, hashish users, Dashiki wearers, and the all-nature/all-natural advocates.

100% Birgitta’s crocheted 1969 Rainbow Ensemble with Large Pendant

In a war on conformity and Mad-Men style, the counterculture of Southern California, the San Francisco Bay, and the Village turned to wild color, hand-dyed fabric, tribal inspiration, oversize accessories, personalized embroidery, and repurposed materials to declare individuality and a better, more peaceful world.

John Sebastian’s tie-dyed cape, shirt, and pants on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame remind you that long before Gwen Stefani, rock stars once styled themselves and made their own clothes. Theatrics and performance was important, whether it was Woodstock, street theater, or East Village happenings.

Apple Cobbler’s Mickey McGowan made custom shoes and boots from brocade (no leather) and traveled with a suitcase full of client foot patterns, ready to spring into action whenever a rock drummer needed to replace his favorite footwear. In the late Sixties, the must-have item for starlets was a colorful crocheted seaside ensemble by 100% Brigitta.

Nina Huryn’s 1971 painted tooled leather jacket, typical of custom pieces she made for rockstar clients

Take a look at the installation views on MAD’s website, and then go in for a closer look on our Flickr album.

By the late Seventies, some clothing artists, such as K. Lee Manuel, were making one-of-a-kind pieces and selling them through small wearable-art-style shops. Others like Nina Huryn continued doing custom pieces for Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and other rock superstars. At least one — Christopher Crookedstitch — had a team of craftspeople staining homespun cotton, making self-fringe, and applying beads in a teepee workshop.

On the other hand, you might just do your own thing, such as the hand-embroidered, appliqued U.S. Army coat made as a protest or the highly studded and embellished Levis jacket that transformed a machine-made uniform into a work of art. MAD shows a small collection of winners from its 1973 Levis contest (when it was still named the American Craft Museum).

1970 man’s vest from a rice sack by Sandra Van Meter, who dressed her family in humble handmade clothing

Although the clothing isn’t as flashy, the exhibit showcases the caftans and simple linen clothes favored by less-is-more commune dwellers. Although the curators feature some fairly fancy embellished pieces by designer Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, they also note that she founded the home-sewing pattern company, Folkways, which offered a template for anyone to take a slightly historical style (think pioneers and buccaneer shirts) and craft it into their own personal statement.

The do-it-yourself component is only emphasized by a framed Simplicity pattern from the Seventies.

Don’t miss the spectacular tie-dyed panels by Marian Clayden, who also had a fashion label and designed all the textiles for the original production of Hair. Although it’s not a technique in fashion today, confronting work by this master will let you experience why the mystery and transcendence of her craft led so many to get out the Rit dye and try it at home.

Close up of tie-dyed hanging by Marian Clayden

Thanks to the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington State, who originated the show.

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