Astronauts, adolescents set fashions during soaring ’60s
By Helen Hennessy
Whether a current fashion is a calico look or a velvet look, a hemline, a shape or a topless swimsuit, it is always a reflection of the tempo of the era which gave it birth.
The 1960s have been “Breakaway” years. Man broke away from his natural habitat and went to the moon. The youth of the nation, now half the population, joined together to break away from long-established conventions.
Many thinking young people showed active resentment toward the world they inherited, and parents didn’t know whether to fight ’em or join ’em.
The 1960s will be remembered as the decade that put the words “generation gap” on every tongue. And space travel and youth seeking its own identity were responsible for the clothes that made the fashion hit parade.
Yet the decade started out with a quiet elegance that may well have continued had upheaval not lurked in the stage door. For the first fashion influence of the ’60s was Jacqueline Kennedy.
Her inauguration pillbox hat was still selling in 1965. Her Somali leopard coat started a run on leopard. Her mink sweater was the inspiration for a raft of sweaters in fur. But time marched, and fashion joined the parade.
Alan Shepard was rocketed into space in 1961. In 1964, French Couturier Andre Courrèges said, “I have put fashion on the moon.” His pants, the purity of line of his futuristic architectural little dresses, his white boots and helmets all had the look of a rocket stewardess.
Shortly after the Courrèges showing, an American fashion magazine offered page after page of gilded space maidens in such tortuous positions that the details of the “moon fashions” were hard to define. That issue caused a well-known newsman to dub the fashion mags “comic books for adults.”
But the influence remains even as the ’60s end. The helmet hat, the pants and the boots are still with us.
Spacemen and kids are an odd combo to be fashion trendsetters. And the kids even outplayed the moon men in that role.
Because of the young people, we have had the mod look, unisex, the mini, the maxi, the no-bra look, the see-through, the gypsy dress. And each of these looks was a by-product of social discontent — a flaunting of rebellion against tradition.
The “mod” or London look came early in the ’60s. A few enterprising British designers — Mary Quant the troop leader — foisted on young Americans, already searching for any kind of garb that would set them apart from their elders, ghastly brief garments that looked as though they had been sewed up by mother’s loving hands. The kids went for them. They became an identity for their generation.
But mom, trying to achieve a meeting of the mind with her daughter, slipped into the silly little things, too. This soon killed the “mod” look. The kids’ aim was to break away, not to look alike.
Unisex was another manifestation of the young — a badge bought at first in the Army-Navy stores to distinguish the youth from the establishment. Boy from girl mattered not. Only young from old.
But designers took over and ruined that one for the youngsters, too. At $200 and $300 an ensemble, they offered sophisticated versions of the unisex theme. And mom bought it and wore it, still trying to breach the generation gap.
The little disco dress that could be bought in a boutique for a few dollars was turned out as “the little black slip dress” at a whopping price. Mom bought it and learned to do the “monkey” and “banana,” and made the kids’ scene. She was thinking “young.”
Costumes, not clothes
The flower children of the hippy movement wanted to look different as a social protest. But again, the flung-together hippy clothes were the forerunner of today’s gypsy look, and at least to some extent responsible for the kind of designer thinking that made the ’60s an era of costume rather than clothes.
But their elders won’t let them go it alone.
Still, as designer Vera Maxwell said, “It’s got to stop somewhere. How far can mature people go?
“I like girls to look like girls,” she added. “But women should realize that a girlish look is simply garish after 30.”
Perhaps the ’70s will bring the realization that the generation gap can’t be bridged with a mother-daughter look. The only fashion likely to be helpful in closing the wide abyss between the young and their elders in these frustrating days is a good, durable thinking cap.