Woodstock 50th Anniversary: When Festival Style Still Had a Political Spirit

Woodstock 50th Anniversary: When Festival Style Still Had a Political Spirit

“Dear couple,” Jimi Hendrix scrawled to his designers, circa 1969, on a scrap of hotel stationary, “I would like to have at least 4 of everything, including diffrent [sic] but comfortable arm bands.” He went on to suggest a “fine fur black suit,” “more shirts with odd sleeves,” “large flowing collors [sic],” “flowing ruffles down the front,” and “try working stones and jewelry in vests and pants.” He concluded: “Any other things you come across, please don’t be hesitant to take and make something. Anything to your fancy, as long as it’s specially made as art.”

Hendrix was writing to Michael & Toni, the Florida-based design duo of Michael Braun and Toni Ackermann, who made the musician’s clothing from 1967 until his death in 1970. Hendrix wore their designs almost exclusively: for the Monterey Pop Festival, in a 1969 story for Life Magazine, and of course, onstage at Woodstock, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. In his blue bell bottoms, belly-baring poncho top with blue beaded fringe, and red headband, Hendrix’s Woodstock outfits is one of the most iconic in rock history, the paragon of a style that mixed multiple cultural references, sexy gender fluidity, and self-expression above all else. “If you’re making clothes for Jimi Hendrix,” Braun tells me on the phone, “it’s like making clothes for God.”

Hendrix’s style, and the hippie style it came from, is one of America’s most mimetic, but it was also one of the first moments at which clothing was intrinsic to the politics and social concerns of its wearers. Music icons like David Bowie and Madonna have made high art out of their image, proposing the wardrobe as a requisite for understanding the music. But if those musicians were about control, Woodstock was about a lack of it. Only punk can compete with the urgent premium hippie fashion put on self-expression. For hippie style—and its wicked descendent, festival style, who we’ll get to in just a bit—the clothing was intrinsic to a new political fervor a new social agenda of acceptance and global curiosity, and a new lifestyle of possibility and freedom, sexual and otherwise.

Hendrix was as demanding and free-wheeling about the expressionism of his clothing as he was about his playing. After seeing another band in Michael & Toni’s clothing in early 1967, Hendrix became obsessed with working with them; he soon had a series of concerts lined up in Florida, and he got off the plane and immediately asked: “Where are the clothes people?” Braun bought fabrics from “proper ladies stores,” using silk chiffon to make blouses with six inch-long ruffles and what Hendrix called “witch sleeves or wizard sleeves,” and crushing rayon velvet by hand, with an iron, to make too-tight pants. “All you can do is take pictures in ’em and stand around,” Braun recalled telling Hendrix. “Don’t drop your ass all the way down to the ground with your guitar out in front of you, because you’ll split these pants.”

“If you were making clothes for Jimi Hendrix, you were making clothes for God.”

Of course, he did, and the reason that Hendrix wrote, “Please have them ready EXPRESSO” was that the crotch of his pants kept blowing out. Plus, women were always stealing the clothes. Perhaps that’s why he made bell bottoms for Hendrix with a button fly that unfastened further down the crotch than a zipper would, so “that the man can have sex in the car and be like, inhibited. He didn’t even need to take his pants off—all he’d have to do is button-button-button-them. You get what I’m saying?”

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Hendrix may have been the best-dressed person at Woodstock, but he wasn’t the only person there whose clothing had as much to say as the wearer. Hippie style flowed (literally) from the passions and politics of its progenitors, explains Lauren Whitley, senior curator of textile and fashion arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she staged the exhibition “Hippie Chic” in 2013. They were for the most part “fairly educated, white suburban kids, but they had a different idea of the way that they wanted to live in the world,” Whitely says. Fashion became “a dress-up box,” where its participants pulled from various cultures, time periods, and movements. If just a few years ago, young people dressed in Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges’s mod fashions to channel the promise of the future, hippies were particularly interested in Renaissance fashion, Whitely explains, making them one of the first subcultures to “look back.” As she puts it, “The past had this richness, where the future didn’t look so bright anymore.” The political unrest and tug between social change and stagnation meant that the past seemed “like a utopia, and a better place.”

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Ralph Ackerman

If their parents, in the post-World War II boom, aspired to own a home, hippies aspired to a nomadic existence, one attuned to global cultures, which manifested in their clothing—Indian textiles, Native American jewelry and garments, and Mexican smocks. “It was for them a way to connect with cultures they admired that were much more in tune with nature in a pure, better way than we were,” Whitley says. “There was very much an idealism around wearing that stuff.” The men grew their hair long: “Long hair was really hard for an older generation to see. It freaked them out more than the clothes.”

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The reason hippies were drawn to DIY fashion—like tie-dye and crocheted garments—was “so that you’re outside of the system. You don’t cater to the establishment of retail and consumer buying.” If they weren’t making their own clothes, hippies were drawn to vintage clothing, which became fashionable for the first time as a means of “reusing and recycling,” Whitely explains.

It was also the first era that put a premium on vintage clothing: Before the ’60s, wearing old clothing meant you couldn’t afford new clothing, explains Whitely, but afterward it seemed “wacky and creative.”

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When they weren’t making their own clothing or buying vintage, hippies gravitated towards independent brands like Michael & Toni as well as stores like London’s Granny Takes a Trip and Los Angeles store The Chariot, with its in-house brand Cosmic Couture. It meant that this was a rare moment in pop culture when the clothing of the icons was as accessible as the clothing of the fans. Joe Cocker’s Woodstock outfit, a tie-dye shirt and striped jeans, looks indistinguishable from the clothes worn by the festival attendees. (If they were wearing clothes at all: another “touchstone” of Woodstock style was nudity. “It was a political statement” for women not to wear bras, Whitely reminds me.

But generally, “If you were a real hippie then, it was an entire rejection of consumerism,” says Whitely. Buying anything by a big brand “would be so uncool.”

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Which makes the current iteration of the style epitomized by Woodstock so surprising. “Today, it’s so branded, which is so not 1969,” says Whitley. Festival style has become a cornerstone of the influencer universe, with events like Coachella carrying a cultural resonance as sweeping as Woodstock (for better or for worse). That phrase conjures images of denim cut-offs, neon spandex, and culturally insensitive flourishes like Native American headdresses, all dictated from fast-fashion and high-fashion brands alike as a part of a consumer package. (Some stores even have “festival style” sections on their websites.) “They certainly include a lot of these touchstones that recall Woodstock,” Whitely says, but the packaged aspect of it runs anathema to its ethos. And the hair: “Look at how coiffed everyone looks at Coachella,” Whitley says. “It’s very self-conscious people, who look very self-conscious. In ’69, there’s a lot of dirty hair and a lot of grubby people.” And what the hippies wore to Woodstock was no costume—it was their daily uniform.

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Still, hippie fashion wasn’t immune to cooption, even in its own time. Whitely points out that Yves Saint Laurent was quick to use the style as an inspiration on his collections. (In fact, a bohemian, globalist view, with a pastiche of styles and references, would be a defining quality of the rest of his oeuvre.) Hippie style’s exuberance accounts for some of the desire to imitate, but why has it become lodged in the style consciousness so firmly? “The success of the original Woodstock is that 450,000 people got together for a weekend and nothing bad happened!” Whitely says. “People had an extraordinary experience, and it really did fulfill the idealism of that period.” And, without being too noble about the motives of hashtag lifestyle, that attitude“is what people want to recreate.” A three-day break from the hustle and grind of working life, the modern music festival is a kind of utopia, however twisted that may seem.

After all: who wouldn’t want a pair of those Hendrix jeans, even if just to brag about them?


Source : Rachel Tashjian Link

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