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
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
- “You’re a liberal or a conservative in America if you think the ’60s were a good thing or not. If the ’60s was a good thing, you’re left. If you think it was a bad thing, you’re right. And the confusing thing for a lot of people that gets a lot of Americans is, when they think of the ’60s, they don’t think of just the sexual revolution. But somehow or other — and they’ve been very, very, clever at doing this — they’ve been able to link, I think absolutely incorrectly, the sexual revolution with civil rights.”
- source: Rick Santorum and repealing the 1960s (Charles Blow for the New York Times)
Girls' swimsuits, Sears 1963
One of the reasons I wanted to write about unisex fashions is that they seem emblematic of a very complicated -- and unfinished -- conversation about sex, gender and sexuality. Rick Santorum's comment from last year is one expression of that conversation, and I thank him for being so honest in putting it out there. Many of us who grew up in the 1960s have mixed feelings about that era, though mine are more positive than Mr. Santorum's. Unlike him, I feel that family planning is good, abortion should be safe, legal and accessible regardless of income and that biological sex is an interesting category but not my be-all and end -all.
But here's the catch: something happens in the coding for feminine clothing in the 1960s that essentially conflates femininity, youth and sexual attractiveness, and it shows up in girls’ clothing. Six-year-olds in bikinis -- thank the 1960s.
More to come, as I am deep in writing mode for the next nine months. This site will also be changing to reflect the widening scope of my work. In my ample free tie, as they say.
I came across some interesting thoughts on unisex fashion in "Looking Good", published in 1976. The author, Clara Pierre, was writing from the perspective of an industry insider observing what she expected to be permanent changes in fashion. In chapter 10 "From bralessness to unisex", she explains the connection between sexual liberation and unisex clothing as a process of increasing comfort various aspects of sexual identity and expression:
"for whatever reason, we began to feel more comfortable first with sex pure and simple, then with homosexuality and now with androgyny"
That was then and this is now, as they say. Clearly, some people thought that the culture wars over sex was over, even as it was just beginning. So, I wonder: what happened?
Want to check out the very beginnings of my next book?
Sex and Unisex: The Unfinished Business of the 1970s
The proposal is on its way to the publisher, so keep your fingers crossed. I have posted the intro -- about 11 pages -- to Google Docs and enabled comments. Please have at it; your comments are important to me! You can post them here or on Google Doc.Link to draft Introduction.
Thanks to @stealthmountain for catching my typo in the subject line. sneak peak, sneak peek, snake Peep, snape poke. Time for a break.