Handmade fashion in an American Counterculture
If you find yourself reminiscing back to the days of embroidered, patch worked bell-bottoms, tie-dyed dresses and you happen to be visiting New York City, go to The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) for a blast from the past and take a peek at Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, which runs through August 20.
The show brings together over two dozen artists who fought for change by sewing, embroidering, quilting, patch-working, and tie-dyeing their identity. The works on display reflect the ethos of a generation of Counterculturists who—against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement—rejected ideals of the American Dream that were rooted in consumerism and conformity, and interrogated a political establishment invested in maintaining the status quo. They embraced the vision of a new, homegrown civilization rooted in self-expression, self-reliance, an affirmative connection to nature, and ideas of love and community that deviated from the values of the traditional nuclear family.
“When I was fifteen years old, I found a copy of Alexandra Jacopetti Hart’s book Native Funk & Flash,” said Guest Curator Michael Cepress, “which led me to devote more than half of my life so far to researching a period in history that I find deeply inspiring.” Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture represents the culmination of that research. The exhibition “shares the vital stream of passion, ideas, and artist activists who chose fashion to help create a better world for us all,” said Cepress.
“Artists such as Kaisik Wong and The Cockettes put craft and the handmade at the center of their daily revolution,” said Assistant Curator Barbara Paris Gifford, “wearing garments, jewelry, and personal accessories not only as forms of wearable art, but also as inextricable symbols of their personal and political allegiances. Each artist acted as celebrant and author of America’s Counterculture movement.” Artists represented in the exhibition alongside Wong include 100% Birgitta (Birgitta Bjerke), Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, Alex & Lee, Apple Cobbler (Mickey McGowan), and Dina Knapp.
San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong evoked disparate cultures, time periods, and aesthetics in his sculptural silhouettes, transforming the body into an otherworldly, iridescent carapace. Art Nouveau, Eastern religions, and ancient mysticism all echo throughout his remarkable creations. His client list included performers and socialites such as Tina Turner, Elton John, Dodie Rosekrans, and Ann Getty. Salvador Dalí celebrated the complexities and surrealism of Wong’s style by commissioning the “Ray” series (1974), which can be viewed in the exhibition.
A hippie globetrotter from Sweden by way of England, France, and Ibiza, 100% Birgitta (Birgitta Bjerke) arrived in the United States in the early 1970s. Her colorful crocheted pieces, which combine a kaleidoscopic sense of color with humor, ostentatiousness, and wearability, allowed for an easy transition into the Counterculture of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her fashions could be seen on the Paris runways as well as on the backs of The Who and the Grateful Dead.
Alexandra Jacopetti Hart joined a thriving culture of Beat-era poets, musicians, and artists in the 1960s. Psychedelic drugs, experiments in communal living, and spiritual exploration fueled her creative voice. In 1974, she wrote the book Native Funk & Flash, from which this exhibition was developed. After its release, she co-founded Folkwear Patterns, a global and vintage clothing pattern company. Her Afghan Nomad Dress (1975), made of faded velvet theater curtain, antique silk thread embroidery, and metallic thread, is exemplary of her work.
Partners Alex & Lee used found objects in their elaborate jewelry pieces to reflect the anti-materialistic hippie creed of recycling and repurposing. Regularly incorporating stones, minerals, shells, lobster claws, feathers, and even monkey fur, they upheld jewelry as an art form, and echoed the revolution experienced by the discipline in the 1960s.
Apple Cobbler (Mickey McGowan) saw footwear as unexplored creative territory and approached his medium as a craftsman, purposely using non-animal materials and working on one pair of shoes at a time. The layered, multicolored foam soles and pliable fabric structures of his designs were especially popular with California rock-and-roll drummers who embraced their comfort, flexibility, and style.
Dina Knapp was one of a group of students at New York’s Pratt Institute in the late 1960s who turned their attention to wearable art, using crochet as a vehicle for artistic expression. Multicolor Beret and Rasta Tam, examples of her early work, reference the Jamaican flag and were popularized by the musician Bob Marley, who could be seen wearing one of her creations throughout his life.
For more information, visit www.madmuseum.org.