rediscovering radical 70s fashion in san francisco attics
Fashion designer Michael Cepress spent decades collecting handmade artifacts of hippie counterculture for an upcoming exhibition at New York's Museum of Arts and Design.
"The Cockettes in a Field of Lavender," 1970. Photo by Fayette Hauser. Courtesy of Museum of Arts and Design.
"It came together in a very 60s kind of way," says curator Michael Cepress of the upcoming show Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture at New York's Museum of Arts and Design. "Someone would say, 'Oh, you have to go to Petaluma and talk to Sunshine, she used to live in the canyon and embroider shirts.' It was nearly all word of mouth."
"One of the first people I met was Scrumbly," he says.
Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn was a founding member of the radical San Francisco drag theater troupe The Cockettes — a group of pioneering hippie artists who experimented freely with LSD and wore brilliantly florid handmade outfits. Cepress made a coffee date with Scrumbly in San Francisco several years ago, and asked if he'd kept any clothing from his psychedelic heyday. Scrumbly probed the depths of his closet and, to everyone's surprise, found his iconic "doily suit," a trio of pastel crocheted garments (flared pants, jacket, vest) made with couture-like skill and creative vision.
Scrumbly had worn the suit in a photograph included in the now-iconic fashion resource book Native Funk & Flash, a 1974 survey of what author Alexandra Jacopetti called "the contemporary folk art" emerging from the counterculture movements of the California Bay Area. It collected images of lovingly flower-stitched dresses, tie-dyed tunics, beaded jewelry, patchwork blankets, and every kind of embroidered denim. Nicolas Ghesquière (controversially) based pieces from his spring/summer 02 collection for Balenciaga on an ornate jacket by the artist San Francisco artist Kaisik Wong pictured in Funk & Flash's pages.
The book was also the starting point for Cepress's show. As a 15-year-old high schooler in Wisconsin, Cepress chanced upon a copy of Funk & Flash and had a lightning bolt moment. "It made me realize that clothing is more than a commodity, it's a tool for showing who you are on the inside," he says (he now designs his own line in Seattle and teaches fashion at the University of Washington). "For the last 10 or 20 years, I've been trying to find all the people who made this happen 40 or so years ago — literally crawling into people's attics," he says. "This history is all around us. It's just somebody's job to find it and pull it out — my job!"
The MAD show, which opens on March 2, brings together an unprecedented collection of clothing, costumes, textiles, and ephemera from the hippie era. There's a floor-sweeping crochet gown made by designer Birgitta Bjerke (aka 100% Birgitta) for the wife of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. There are vividly patterned hand-stitched leather boots sewn by the Mickey McGowan, the owner of Marin County's legendary Unknown Museum, who back then went by the name "the Apple Cobbler." And there are scores of touchingly personal garments created by unknown young people from across the States during the height of Flower Power.
Cepress believes passionately that this clothing is not just beautiful but also politically important. "The Vietnam War is a massive backdrop to this story," he says. "In part, I think these colorful expressions were acts of resistance to war. To sit down and lovingly embroider flowers on the garment of someone you care about — what could be more peaceful?"
He also sees the return to traditional handcrafts like weaving, embroidery, and hand dyeing as an anti-capitalist gesture. "I think there was a realization by young people that capitalism was failing them, that there was a lack of meaning and richness in this push to buy, buy, buy." It was a time when self-sufficiency and self-expression became acts of resistance. The idea, says Cepress, was to "take what you had, and let it out, literally wear it on your sleeve. There is only one you so why not celebrate that in whatever colorful, weird, and wonderful, way?"
Counter-Couture arrives, in 2017, at a time when many of the grandchildren of these counterculture artists are coming of age, in equally turbulent times. "That grandparent-granddaughter relationship is especially potent," Cepress explains. "This show is about bringing those people together, and listening to the voices of elders to help us move on. In so many ways, I feel like we're living the 60s again. A lot of the problems in the civil right's movement in the 60s are back in view — they never really went away."
"The clothes in this show offer the viewer a chance to learn how to deal with that," Cepress continues. "The more authentically you present yourself, the better off you are. You can use your clothes and style as a way of accessing a deeper, more meaningful understanding of who you are, in the face of a lot of cultural forces that do not want you to do that."
"Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture" is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York from March 2 to August 20.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design