For the first time ever the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) has focused on fashion this spring with a series of exhibitions highlighting dynamic moments in fashion history. How fortuitous that the kick-off, Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, which explores both the ’60s and ;’70s (today through August 20), serves, as its name suggests, as an American counterpoint to The Museum at FIT’s Paris Refashioned 1957-1968 exhibition, which recently drew a crowd of chicly French inspired dressed guests to its opening.
Naturally, MAD attendees also raided the costume archive for this opening (or did they? On the UWS you can’t be sure that this isn’t normal everyday attire lol). At any rate, there were many colorful and fanciful capes, long flowing tunics, crazy bohemian hats, quilted jackets, suede and fringed vests, bell bottoms and a red patent vintage clock purse, whose owner says it actually keeps time, consistently running five minutes slow.
|Barbara Paris Gifford, Michael Cepress|
In opening remarks Assistant Curator Barbara Paris Gifford introduced the idea that the era of Counter-Couture was not wholly dissimilar to the social and political upheaval that we are starting to see today. Perhaps she was referring to the protests –then against the Vietnam War, now over immigration, religion and the war on terrorism; the civil rights movement then, contrasted with the outcry for supporting the ACLU now, and the ongoing struggle for racial, gender and now transgender equality.
The ’60s and ’70s hippie counterculture brought with it individualism in clothing and a rejection of the ideals of the American Dream including consumerism and waste. Fashion techniques of self-expression included hand stitching, tie-dye, batik, embroidery, macrame and crochet, patchworking, quilting, metalworking (in jewelry), and introducing non-animal materials in shoe cobbling. For me this time in history includes precious memories of weekends at Army Navy and resale clothing stores with my equally privileged junior high peers searching for the perfect pair of worn in Landlubbers — later to be customized with patches, magic marker and crude embroidery techniques.
|Scrumbly Koldewyn doily outfit circa 1970|
I was thankfully too young to “turn on, tune in or drop out,” but I do have vivid memories of growing up in an Old-Guard apartment building situated on Philly’s staid Rittenhouse Square which had, ironically, become the site of a perpetual Be-In. Every day my mother would complain that her “front yard” had been invaded by these “dirty, disgusting, long-haired hippies”– firing shots across the establishment bow that decades later “Occupy Wall Street” would try to replicate.
|Star Shields ensemble 1973 R Fred and Candace Kling Elephant Dress 1974|
Anyway, back to the exhibition…Counter-Couture was originally organized by the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington by Guest Curator Michael Cepress and has now traveled here. Garbed in a long, oatmeal-colored tunic complemented by an ornately crafted necklace, he referenced spending “more than half of my life so far researching a period in history that I find deeply inspiring.” This includes crawling around attics, basements, and other strange places in a labor of love to locate many of these special garments and bring them back to their former glory.
|Guests wearing appropriate attire|
Encompassing two floors at MAD, the exhibition is divided into five sections: Funk and Flash (inspired by Alexandra Hart’s 1974 book “Native Funk & Flash: An Emerging Folk Art”), and the Levi’s Denim Art Contest (behind a curtain of love beads), as well as some more spiritually inspired garb, all on four; Couture, Performance, and Psychedelic Style are on five. The Funk & Flash section includes what would today be termed “cultural appropriation” with a presence of textiles and styles borrowed from places such as South America, East Asia as well as First Nations Tribes.
|Kaisik Wong ensembles 1974|
There are some truly ornate and beautiful works of artistry to be seen. From Nina Huryn’s Painted leather jacket (1971), to Anna Polesny’s stitched and embroidered Fancy denim jacket (1974), Wavy Gravy’s 1970 jumpsuit typical of what he wore as the unofficial MC of Woodstock, to Sas Colby’s mixed textiles Ruffle My Feathers cape (1972). There is Mama Cass’s 1967 dyed panne velvet applique dress, Paula “Gretchen Fetchen” Douglas Merry Prankster Acid Test Dress and Boots (1965) and John Sebastian’s tie-dyed cotton and velvet cape, denim jacket and jeans (1967). A musical soundtrack will further transport you back to this fascinating era, adding another dimension to the immersive experience.
|Mary Ann Schildknecht design 1972|
Perhaps one of the most interesting stories concerns the description of an embroidered ensemble by Mary Ann Schildknecht (1972). This spectacular piece was created while Schildknecht was serving a two-year jail sentence in Milan on a hashish smuggling charge. “She was taught to embroider by the nuns who ran the prison. Using torn bedsheets from her prison cell she embroidered this skirt and top, meticulously covering every inch with the satin-stitch. Her design and patterns evoke a psychedelic journey through a fantastical narrative of castles, faces (Jimi Hendrix is one), and natural landscapes. The blouse was designed with a hole in the sleeve, should the wearer need a sudden blood transfusion.” O-kay…
|Levi’s Denim Art Competition|
Several items made for the Levis contest also resonate today including one by Billy Shire, winner of Levi’s Denim Art Competition (1975) — a studded 11- pound denim jacket advertising his studding business featuring hundreds of hand-set studs, rhinestones, oversized upholstery tacks, an ashtray, and a desk bell which chimes when the jacket is worn. Shire has created items worn by Elton John, and rock musicians in bands such as Chicago and the Doobie Brothers.
Tonight (3/2) at 6 p.m. there is an exhibition tour with Michael Cepress and Artist Fayette Hauser as well as a panel discussion immediately following. For information on this and other scheduled events: MADMuseum.org .
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