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The Radical Roots Of DIY Fashion Have Never Been More Relevant

Handmade fashion flourished during the 1960s and 1970s, mainly as a response to political unrest. Is it possible to be that radical today?

It’s fair to say that the “pussy hat”—those pink, cat-ear knit caps that have been making mass appearances at political protests—is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. The hats came to life in an L.A. knitting store, but they took off on a global scale thanks to the viral power of social media. The design speaks directly to our current administration, and its promise to curtail decades of progress for reproductive rights.

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[Photo: Flickr user Mr.Wonderful]

The spirit of the pussy hat, however, and the process by which it was made, finds its place in a long tradition of scrappy, DIY fashion choices that have been used as tools of political resistance. Counter-Couture, a new exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, explores how this sentiment manifested itself in the 1960s and 1970s, in a movement of handmade fashion that expressed personal style and individuality with a pointedly anti-capitalist ethos. It was a movement born out of the margins of society, a rejection of both the homogeneity and consumerism from the decades preceding it, and a radical response to the political tumult of the time.

Yet as MAD’s chief curator Shannon R. Stratton points out, even the wild colors, heady self-expression, and deeply original craft during Vietnam protests and the fight for civil rights were influenced by prior movements. “There has always been, throughout time, a generation of people who express their difference through dress,” says Stratton, who organized the exhibition put together by guest curator Michael Cepress. “It’s not unique to the counterculture of ’60s and ’70s: People living in the Village in the ’20s did it. Oscar Wilde did it.” Queer communities, meanwhile, have long been political in their attire, paving a path for vibrant, artistic, and performative fashion.

Still, the year 2017 has already prompted many to draw parallels to the political unrest of the 1970s. The counterculture movement of the time was a response to a widespread distrust in the government, rampant consumerism, and a growing anxiety about the environment, all of which can be felt today. Co.Design talked to Stratton about the social, political, and cultural factors that gave rise to the counterculture movement explored in the show, as well as the parallels to today’s fashion movements.

Radical Fashion, With Nationalist Roots

Fear and frustration of the political apparatus can lead to a deeply nationalistic response, as we’ve seen in the rise of populism over the past few years. But Stratton points out that nationalism can also manifest itself as “a desire for a sense of rootedness and safety,” as it did in the back-to-the-land movement. While the movement has had various spurts of popularity throughout history, it is most commonly associated with counterculture in the 1960s, with its promotion of homegrown food, sustainable living, and an independence from society and market capitalism by being as self-sufficient as possible. Today, tropes like only buying organic foods, learning carpentry, and cabin living escapism hold a certain back-to-the-land ethos.

In terms of fashion, the movement in the ’60s inspired a return to craft. Self-sufficiency meant learning to sew, knit, and embroider, and people took a renewed interest in Native American craft and design, as well as Asian and ancient Egyptian aesthetics. Having those skills opened up the opportunity for a surge of creativity and self-expression. “It’s unavoidable that for some makers recycling was about economy,” Stratton says. “Reuse often comes out of making do, but it can be done in a fabulous way. You don’t need a lot—[these artists make] some extraordinary things from very little.”

The Source Family. Detail of Father Yod Ensemble, c. 1970. [Photo: Rex Rystedt/courtesy Bellevue Arts Museum]

The jewelry makers Alex & Lee, for example, collected shells, flotsam, stones, and feathers along the beaches of Fire Island, New York. They created dazzling beaded and macrame jewelry that soon made it into the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and eventually into a couture collection by fashion designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo. Another New York artist in the show, Dina Knapp, started crocheting intricate designs as a student at Pratt in the late 1960s. Her Multicolor Beret and Rasta Tam were examples of the vibrant wearable art that she and fellow Pratt students helped popularize on the East Coast.

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In 1974, Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, a textile artist herself, published the book Native Funk & Flash that catalogued many of the designers pioneering the wearable art movement, which championed fashion created outside of the traditional fashion world. The movement was most prominent in San Francisco, where designer Kaisik Wong was creating sculptural, surrealistic works of art to be worn by the likes of Tina Turner and Elton John. In 1974, Salvador Dalí commissioned from Wong the “Ray” series, an otherworldly collection of dresses created from dazzling materials and intricate designs. Wong’s works were largely forgotten until Balenciaga spurred controversy for ripping off his “Parrot” jacket in 2009, which designer Nicolas Ghesquiere saw in a copy of Native Funk & Flash, now a cult item.

Other artists of this movement, like Birgitta Bjerke, made a seamless transition from the homegrown fashion scene in San Francisco to the runways of Paris with her psychedelic crocheted pieces. But even when art to wear reached outside of the subculture in which it originated, radical self-expression allowed it to become a political act in itself. The avant-garde theater group The Cockettes, for example, rejected conservatism and outmoded values with their wild and risque handmade outfits, like one made out of doilies. “The idea of being out and proud, and the queering identities became much more a public performance,” says Stratton.

Is There Still A Place for DIY Design In Resistance Movements Today?

Stratton says that today, she sees that handmade, self-styled expressionism is still most alive in the queer communities, within the drag and rave scenes, and the experimental clothing associated with nightlife. The “pussy hats,” meanwhile, seem to be a direct heir to the back-to-the-land movement. The hat came out of a small knitting community in L.A. and has mostly prospered by virtue of an online pattern, and one that can be accessed universally and used locally. The power of the hat was that it wasn’t, for the most part, a commercial product—anyone who could knit could make her own, and was encouraged to make extras to give out or mail to others who expressed interest.

Still, the hats have been controversial for excluding gender nonconforming individuals and for being pink, a symbol many associate with whiteness. It’s a sign that DIY fashion, particularly when done on a mass scale, will have to continue to evolve with the context of the time. “People are really critical about symbols right now because we’ve learned to be critical of media and political messages,” says Stratton. People are also more thoughtful when it comes to appropriating other cultures, as the art to wear movement did with Native American and tribal style.

Perhaps because we are more critical about symbolism, political fashion has also become more subdued. T-shirts like “The Future Is Female“—which, it should be noted, was a design that originated in 1975—do convey political messaging, but with a more toned-down aesthetic than many of the ’60s and ’70s wearable art pieces. The original shirt was designed for Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City, and is now made by the L.A.-based graphic design studio Otherwild. The simple, understated design—unembellished text against a solid background—resonates with the dominant style of today, and the shirt has even made its way up the ranks of celebrity.

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Meanwhile, reactive merchandise that sprung up during the election—like the Nasty Woman T-shirt and pins—were in many instances grassroots efforts, but not quite DIY. They are products, bought and sold, firmly as a part of a capitalist system. Even when the proceeds go straight to advocacy organizations, the process is still transactional by nature.

Arguably, our tools of resistance have gotten less unique because our tools of design have gotten more sophisticated. Knitting and sewing aren’t the only ways to make our own clothing now; we can whip up a design on a computer and print it on a T-shirt relatively inexpensively. These pieces still communicate a political message, but they are not as radical in aesthetics or process.

In that way, this is an ideal time to revisit counterculture fashion of the ’60s and ’70s, if only to remember the power of working outside of the system.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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