Still swinging

Louis Vuitton’s Parisian merry-go-round of stiff organza cocktail dress

This week, a month-long exhibition opens at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, entitled Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution. Featuring pieces such as Mary Quant’s patterned miniskirts of psychedelic prints, metallic shifts from the celebrated New York boutique Paraphernalia and Rive Gauche safari tunics by Yves Saint Laurent, the exhibition highlights the impact of youth culture on the swinging decade’s key fashion trends.

It also comes in the wake of several shows at New York fashion week that seemed taken with the same idea. Kate Spade’s French New Wave-inspired presentation was packed with oversized polka dots and Peter Pan collars, while Anna Sui’s catwalk show was a homage to boho-luxe flares, baby-doll dresses and luminous Woodstock-worthy kaftans. Not to mention the fashion world flurry of excitement last autumn following the news that there would be a 50th anniversary re-launch of Courrèges, the 1960s fashion house whose futuristic minidresses are once again being stocked in boutiques across the world.

In other words: the 1960s are back – again, because they never really went away. Certainly, they were on view during fashion weeks last September, in Louis Vuitton’s Parisian merry-go-round of stiff organza cocktail dresses and puffed-up, powdery pencil skirts (a playful nod to Jackie Kennedy), not to mention Christopher Kane’s boxy metallic jackets and stand-away mini-shifts covered in bright, appliquéd flower-power prints. They’ve been a pop culture talking point since HBOs’ Mad Men first aired in 2007 (spawning a popular Banana Republic line), and picked up steam again earlier this year during The Help’s Oscar campaign.

Asked why the decade remains perennially popular with the fashion industry, especially peers such as Marc Jacobs, Raf Simons and Emma Hill of Mulberry, the fashion designer Anna Sui, who was born in 1964, says: “Many of the most influential people in the arts and design world today are either pioneers or products of the period.”

“To me it embodies a time of ultimate optimism, when the world was changing and we saw the emergence of a ‘new guard’ in fashion following the breakdown of couture in the early 1960s,” she continues. “The colour palette and aesthetic that Alexander Girard and Eames introduced to the world would eventually take over. This period completely shaped my love for fashion.”

Yet NJ Stevenson, a lecturer in styling and fashion at London’s University of the Arts and author of Fashion: A Visual History, thinks the appeal is more complicated. “The Sixties were a time of civil turbulence, political change and ideological reorder,” she says. “Fashion became a form of protest, as young people started taking the reins both creatively and commercially within the fashion industry. This enabled people to start having a powerful say in how the establishment was run.”

For Stevenson, this “cult of doing your own thing” retains an allure for contemporary designers who also want to promote a social message.

Jackie Kennedy in 1961

“We, too, are currently in a state of global social flux,” she says. “The Sixties designs and pastels might be sugar-coated and full of optimism, but they were also emblems of reaction, and that is something that is equally relevant today.”

Valerie Steele, the Museum at the FIT’s director and chief curator, sees significant parallels in the way music and mass media in the Sixties was a catalyst for the growth and popularity of retail trends, and the way today’s digital explosion of bloggers, fashion videos and Twitter has influenced contemporary fashion.

“Widespread access in the Sixties to TV, combined with the explosion of rock and roll concerts that attracted packed crowds, meant a hitherto unknown immediate access and heightened relationship to influential style icons,” she says. “Trends became phenomena via close contact exposure, spreading much faster than they ever had before” – not unlike contemporary brands’ viral YouTube campaigns today.

However, she says, it also helps that “1960s silhouettes are flattering and the style ethos celebratory in a way few other periods have ever managed to create.”

‘Youthquake! The 1960s Fashion Revolution’, Museum at the FIT, New York, March 6-April 7

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