It’s not often that a fashion exhibition in New York City presents vintage garments against a backdrop of faux-wood laminate paneling, or accessorizes select pieces with clusters of hanging plants in macramé holders. But Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, takes aim at the contested territory that separates DIY practice from luxury craftsmanship. The stretch of time between the late 1960s and early 1970s is a rich moment in which to examine this theme. Though steeped in protest, the fashions and fads of this era were also frilly and decadent, luxuriant in materials and elaborate in construction — a sartorial mode that deftly underscores the exhibition’s “queerness,” both in the broad, countercultural sense, and in the more specific sense of sexual identity.
Some of the works on view could have been runway looks, had the powers-that-be at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture decided on a whim that studded denim was suddenly an acceptable medium. The broad message of the exhibition seems to be that do-it-yourself doesn’t have to mean making something sloppy or shoddy. Contrary to the punk aesthetic, which valorizes a certain duct-taped, improvised nonchalance, many of the garments and accessories displayed in Counter-Couture are exquisite, even obsessive in their design and fabrication, like the embroidered ensemble that Mary Ann Schildknecht created while serving time in an Italian prison, where skilled nuns taught her to stitch. These pieces may be labors of love, but they don’t say “amateur hour.”
Counter-Couture premiered at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington in the fall of 2015. It was organized by guest curator Michael Cepress, a Seattle-based fashion designer who specializes in menswear. Quoted in the exhibit’s press release, Cepress points to his discovery at age 15 of Alexandra Jacopetti Hart’s 1974 book Native Funk & Flash, which captured his imagination and inspired him to launch what would become a 15-year process of researching counterculture fashion. Since the late 1990s, Cepress has personally reached out to scores of makers across the United States and painstakingly assembled the garments and collateral material on view in Counter-Couture.
The exhibition, displayed on two floors of the museum, is divided into five sections: “Funk & Flash,” “The 1974 Levi’s Denim Art Contest,” “Couture,” “Performance,” and “Psychedelic Style.” Each section exudes what Cepress characterizes as a “vital stream of passion, ideas, and artist activists who chose fashion to help create a better world for us all” — a sentiment that rings as true in 2017 as it did in 1967. The visual language of protest appears here in overt forms, like Michael Fajans’s frenetically colorful and aggressively stitched “Hand Embroidered and Applique Army Coat” from 1967, which I read as symbolic of the countless battlefield injuries occurring in Vietnam. Other pieces are subtler, like the bright red dashiki dress from 1970, a symbol of Black pride, which is displayed next to one of the exhibition’s priceless finds: a Simplicity pattern for dashiki shirts from 1972, with an illustration that shows a young black couple in the foreground and a white couple in the background.
The counterculture-ness on display here is ultimately about fighting conformity, which comes across most powerfully in terms of gender and sexuality. The artists and designers who made these garments were, for the most part, raised in the 1950s, on a steady diet of postwar suburban etiquette and ideals. In one of the exhibition’s displays of printed ephemera, a 1967 photograph of Hibiscus (born George Edgerly Harris II), founder of The Cockettes, shows a relatively clean-cut young man with blond hair wearing a turtleneck sweater, gently placing a flower in the barrel of a military police officer’s gun. As associate curator Barbara Paris Gifford notes, Hibiscus was almost “preppy” in his youth. It’s bittersweet to note that just a few years later, in full hair and makeup, he would radiate androgynous, psychedelic splendor — which is captured in the magnetic films that are projected in a continuous loop on the opposite gallery wall — and a few years after that, in May 1982, he would die of AIDS. Hibiscus has long held cult status among fashion cognoscenti, and a 2003 profile in T Magazine by Horacio Silva counts Viktor & Rolf and John Galliano among the contemporary designers who revere his creativity and talent. (The article was published prior to the 2011 anti-semitic tirade that cost Galliano his post at Christian Dior.) And this is far from the only connection between the hippie commune and the runway: Another example is Yvonne Porcella’s patchwork gowns from 1972, which appear to presage the peasant silhouettes in Yves St. Laurent’s much-beloved 1976 “Russian” collection.
Most of the works in Counter-Couture are visually of a piece. Fur collars, body jewelry, a faintly Biblical ensemble worn by Father Yod from the Source Family, and the album cover from the original cast recording of Hair all set the scene in a cohesive way, along with some smart atmospheric touches from MAD’s team, like walls of hanging beads and a lush classic-rock soundtrack. Gifford also added works from MAD’s permanent collection that predate those in the show, which adds visual and temporal layers to the installation. One particular work that seems ahead of its time is Mildred Fischer’s linen wall piece “Daydream,” from 1965.
For me, though, the highlight of the exhibition is the work of San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong (1950–90). Wong’s aesthetic, which could best be described as “outer space/regal,” stands apart from the hippie coats and peasant dresses on view, and it easily passes the test of time as a thoroughly original body of work. Try to imagine that someone crossed highly structured examples of Elizabethan court dress with costumes from the movie Xanadu, and you’re almost there. Indeed, Wong’s creations read as cinematic costumes more than fashion: They’d look right at home in Logan’s Run, Labyrinth, or, if you squint a bit, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Like Hibiscus, Wong died of AIDS at a tragically young age, and although his clients included the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John, and Salvador Dalí (who commissioned his 1974 “Ray” series), his work didn’t enter the mainstream fashion world during his lifetime. This could well be for practical reasons: His 1974 “Yellow and Green Ray Dress and Headdress” from the “Seven Ray” series, a Paul Poiret–like garment that resembles a glittering peapod, seems more likely to influence moviemakers and stylists than merchandisers looking for the next workaday, wearable look. (Although one of Wong’s jackets was notoriously plagiarized by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga in 2010.)
From Wong’s work, to the wild, androgynous jewelry of partners in love and life Alex and Lee, to Billy Shire’s studded “Welfare” jacket (winner of the Levi’s Denim Art Contest) — it all reads a bit like the left-behind artifacts of a final Summer of Love, just before AIDS destroyed a generation of gay men. This isn’t explicitly referenced in the exhibition, as its chronology stops just short of the end of the disco era. But Counter-Couture offers a new way to think about the lasting legacy of the counterculture movement. To be sure, there were plenty of middle-class American teens for whom long hair, casual sex, drugs, concerts, and macramé were understood in the context of pleasure, suburban rebellion, and cool-kid trends. But the ’60s and ’70s also set the stage for a genuinely radical transformation in the way we read and understand the visual cues of gender and sexuality, many of which are, in part, fashion choices. Only an exhibition that considers vernacular material could do this: It wouldn’t make sense at a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute show about the ’60s and ’70s that featured Pucci shifts, space-age Courreges hats, or Halston ultrasuede wrap dresses. Fashion’s queering during the counterculture is an overlooked preamble to so much of what we think and talk about with regard to gender and culture today. Men with long hair may have been sporting a visual rejection of “square” society, but they were also (perhaps unwittingly) paving the road for queer identities to be seen, recognized, and even celebrated in fashion and society at large.
Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Midtown) through August 20.