Threads of Counterculture

Until just a bit over a hundred years ago it was against civil laws for women in England to wear pants. Looking at historical snapshots you can’t help but feel distant from the characters you see once you observe the difference in the clothing they wear as compared to your threads of choice.

When I look at how women dressed in the 50s I shudder because waist belts are a nightmare for girls like me. Women’s autonomy has come so far in just the past 70 years and you can see it in mainstream clothing. For this reason, I want to know what role clothing played in the counterculture movement of the 1960s/70s, and how did the appearances of The Hippies and The Black Panthers and other social movements direct the way the world remembers their messages?

I think it’s only appropriate to begin with the 1950s since they came directly before the storm of creativity, chaos, and rebellion of the mind.

1950s Women’s Attire:

This image of four women in dresses speaks to the physical beauty standards of the 1950s. Notice the tight waists and precise feminine updos. The American Journal of epidemiology reports that the rates of bulimia and anorexia saw a significant increase in the years leading up to and in the 1950s.

Now lets contrast this fashion with one a bit more interesting.

The Hippies of the 1960s

Though the revered body type for women was still thin and even moreso skinny, there was arguably less societal pressure since women gained a bit of social autonomy through the cultural rebellion to be away from the home and constraints of marriage. As far as aesthetic in one word it could be summed up as: free. Both men and women wore their hair long and let it down. They would sometimes put it back with headbands or cover it with a headscarf. Women often went without makeup and resistance to bras was common. Dashikis came into fashion for hippie men. Dashikis were tops that covered the top half of men’s bodies. They originated in West Africa and were loose fitting with a V-neck and were always very colorful.

The Black Panthers of 1966 and beyond

The Black Panthers were not only power players in the political sphere, they also impacted the art and culture of the era. As a black liberation and black power movement, the Panthers espoused, among other things, an ideology that embraced and celebrated non-Eurocentric standards of beauty. “Black is beautiful” became a motivating slogan as Panthers actively resisted the Europeanization of beauty standards and encouraged their supporters to wear their hair in natural styles and love their dark skin. The black berets were worn to juxtapose the military’s green berets, further symbolizing the position The Black Panthers held as soldiers on the frontline of social change.The way they dressed supported their political prose, and on top of that it gave them the power of popularity. They were cool by all standard definitions; as an intellectual center of the new left, the attention they gained for themselves through dress aided them in pursuing their uncompromising resistance to the oppression of the established order.

The clothing of these Social Movements is iconic. While the clothing of the 1950s upholds traditional gender roles, in the years following, activists took their beliefs and wore them. One interesting quote on the Hippies comes from the Author Tommy Walker, “When the hippie era ended and the hangover began, as idealism gives way to disillusionment, the hair of the marchers and street-dancers kept getting longer, and soon it began to tangle.” Today we see long hair as an act of rebellion and freedom, it alludes to times of mental exploration, and behavior that made the majority mind of society queerly shy away.

If nothing else, we can conclude the counterculture movements used clothing to rebel with the simple methodology of doing the exact opposite of what the 1950s asked of them, and this is where the real power lies, from the intrinsic ideals to the physical provocative style they imposed on those who preferred the ideals of the past.

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