Everyone who knows fashion has heard of Carnaby Street, the crucible of youth style during the "Youth Quake" of the 1960s. But how about King's Road in Chelsea, which Rodney Bennett-England dubbed "the perfect microcosm of contemporary British male fashion"?
In 1968, that bastion of American middle-brow style, debuted its King's Road collection for young men. It's not Chelsea, but it will do. The King's Road fashions are pretty much the high water mark of the flood of "peacock styles" in mainstream fashion. These examples of "total color harmony" are from the spring, 1970 catalog. More to come, I promise!
And here is a TV ad
from 1973. Football stars wear them, so you know they are manly!
Need to get your own? There's Ebay
Men's fashions of the late sixties are a fascinating mix of dandyism and exotic cultural appropriation. (Think of the Sgt. Pepper album cover.) How wonderful for posterity that fashion journalist Rodney Bennett-England decided to capture the moment in Dress Optional: The Revolution in Menswear (Dufour, 1968, now lamentably out of print). Sir Mark Palmer, who dropped out of the upper class to travel in a caravan with various pop stars and dress in Druid robes, offers a succinct explanation of the appeal of the hippie culture:
"It is not escapism leaving a bad scene to start a new one."
It strikes me that the vivid, revolutionary nature of men's clothing in this period is evidence that the time was ripe for a rejection of the "masculine mystique" along the same lines of second wave feminism. Instead, men got a brief escape into an alternate life before John T. Molloy rang the closing bell with Dress for Success in 1975. I think this parallels the short history of the "American costume" (aka the Bloomer costume) for women at the very beginning of the feminist movement. Which means there's always hope for men's liberation.
How could I not like 1974?
And if you were feeling down, all you had to do was spend a few minutes in the men's section of your local department store.
I was setting out my tomato plants this morning, at last. It's late, because the Maryland weather this spring has been fickle, and I only had four plants, too few to risk losing any. While I worked I listened to a podcast sermon on creativity and the divine. In it, the minister suggested that humans are driven not to "get back to the garden" but to create the garden anew, to complete our world.*
As often happens while I putter, or walk, or shower, a flash of insight hit me. I study gender because it is what I must understand to understand my own life. For others, the puzzle may be race, or death, or something else, but my deepest questions have always been about this paradoxical thing we call gender. I call it paradoxical because the term was invented in the 1950s to describe the social and cultural expressions of biological sex, yet in everyday usage sex and gender are almost always conflated, inseparable in many peoples' minds.
You see me here in two very different childhood pictures. The formal portrait (above) is me at about 3 and a half, in a velvet-trimmed dress I still remember fondly. My mother's red houndstooth check dress was also trimmed with velvet, and my father and brother wear nearly-identical warm gray suits. The very model of a gender-appropriate family in 1952. At the right is a snapshot of my brother and myself taken around 1955 in our back yard. My hair is in its natural state, and I am wearing my brother's old T-shirt and jeans. This was my world in the 1950s: dresses and pin curls for school, church and parties but jeans for play.
I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up, and my parents humored me with a cowboy outfit with a two-gun holster for Christmas (along with a dollhouse). I adore all of these pictures because they are all so very me
I got my first period the year after the Pill was approved by the FDA. In 1963, when The Feminine Mystique
was published, I was just starting high school. Like so many young women who were swept along in the sexual revolution and the cultural shifts of the 1960s, I was promised much and given -- well, not little, but less than "revolution" implied.
The more I pursue the idea of "gender", the more it gets tangled up in sex. This gets ever clearer as I explore unisex and gendered clothing from the 1960s and 1970s. So many dead ends, so much confusion and so very much unfinished business! Turns out the sexual revolution may be the cultural Hundred Years War. Researchers thrive on open questions; gender is mine, because it is the aspect of my own life that puzzles me most.
*The sermon is available
to read or hear at the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship website.
As I finish the chapter on children's clothing, I'm sorting through my images and videos about adult fashions. Here's one you'll enjoy, from an early Soul Train episode. Notice the range of gender expression, on both men and women. A thought: did African American men have more or less leeway in this realm than white guys? My first impression is more, but also that I may be dazzled by the flashiness.
I'm working on a careful description and analysis of the children's styles fro the Sears catalogs, and decided to get reactions from my readers. These images (211 of them!!!) are arranged in chronological order, by year and then season (Spring-Summer, then Fall-Winter). You can view them as a slide show and add comments here or on Flickr.
What do you see? (patterns, trends, surprises, memories)
Here’s what I detect in the pages of the Sears catalogs from 1962 to 1979:
- dressier clothes are more gendered
- girls looking boyish=ok
- babies are not toddlers are not children (toddler images to come)
- pants are for casual wear only, for girls
- flowers are ok for all babies
... protounisex? In every Sears catalog from the 1950s and early 1960s, there were several pages of neutral play clothes for boys and girls in the size 2-6X range. They are pretty much boys' clothes in a variety of colors, but they are modeled by girls as well as boys with not a peep of comment in the catalog copy. This example is from fall, 1964, but typical of styles worn by children for years before "unisex" fashion was invented.
Before you start thinking how awesomely gender-free we were back then, keep in mind that this is also the "Mad Men" era and the year after The Feminine Mystique rocked the domestic scene. So why was boyish clothing for girls ok? And why did unisex clothing for adults seem so revolutionary?
I have been pretty fascinated by the use of the term "boyfriend" to describe women's styles borrowed from menswear. First of all, it's kind of heteronormative . Then I came across this article
from Canada that puts a different spin on the styles. The author, Rachel Matlow, reports on the emergence of brands catering to female customers who, 50 years ago, might be called tomboys. That term strikes me as rather archaic these days. About 25 years ago, my daughter asked me what a "tomboy" was and I tried to explain that it was a girl who liked to do "boy" things. "Like what"", she asked. "sports, bugs, being outdoors...um..." I struggled. "Those are all girl things," she said.
How many decades until a plain tailored blazer or classic banded cardigan is no longer menswear?
I've done a flurry of interviews -- three in under two weeks -- and all of them for radio stations on the other side of the world. Here is the last one
, a short segment with Radio New South Wales in Australia. Enjoy!
For my friends in the Washington, DC area, I will be giving a "Pink and Blue" talk this afternoon at 4:30 at McKeldin Library on the U of Maryland campus.
I have learned so much since I finished the book, not only about gender and clothing but also about "common knowledge". If I only had a dollar for every time I've been asked if it's true that the colors "used to be the opposite". In the book, in every article I have written and in every talk and interview, I've been careful to explain that the current rule is unusually strict compared to the way pink and blue were used in the past, and that the rule was reversed in some places (Belgium, for example). In the US, there is a l-o-n-g period of time where there is no uniform rule, before the current symbolism is completely incorporated. Is it so difficult to imagine a world where pink and blue did not signify gender?
My Radio New Zealand interview is now available online
. It runs nearly 30 minutes. The host asked some very thoughtful questions. Enjoy!