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Counterculture Couture

By Brittany Shoot

When you think of 1950s home economics classes, you hardly think of that domestic aesthetic as a building block for the boho designs that draped the most fashionable and influential San Franciscans in the two decades that followed. But Jill D’Alessandro, the curator of textile arts at the de Young Museum, says that the Home Ec skill set is inextricably woven into the exciting forthcoming exhibition, “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion & Rock & Roll.” Burgeoning Bay Area designers who learned to sew from an early age had a pattern for what would emerge as the threads of flower-child San Francisco.

Counterculture Couture

By Brittany Shoot

When you think of 1950s home economics classes, you hardly think of that domestic aesthetic as a building block for the boho designs that draped the most fashionable and influential San Franciscans in the two decades that followed. But Jill D’Alessandro, the curator of textile arts at the de Young Museum, says that the Home Ec skill set is inextricably woven into the exciting forthcoming exhibition, “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion & Rock & Roll.” Burgeoning Bay Area designers who learned to sew from an early age had a pattern for what would emerge as the threads of flower-child San Francisco.

“Everybody knew there were these Bay Area designers who had ripple effects on what is today known as bohemian chic,” D’Alessandro says of the artists who designed the most iconic Summer of Love-era fashions. “But their stories weren’t told. I took it upon myself to track down designers active in that time.”

Of the four dozen pieces that will be on display April 8 through August 20, more than a quarter came from the museum’s permanent collection of 13,000-plus textiles and costumes from traditions across the region and around the world. That includes creations by San Francisco’s Candace Kling, the celebrated ribbon and fabric embellishment artist, and Marian Clayden, the textile artist and craftswoman acclaimed for her dip and tie-dye designs on linen and silk. Other selected work was contributed either by the individual designers or people who thought their groovy wardrobe contained collector’s items. D’Alessandro notes, “It was special to me that so many had held on to their clothes from this period—because they knew it was a special period.” More than a few musicians enthused over the handmade quality of their fashions—and the personal memories attached to them. “I heard things like, ‘My ex-wife who is still my good friend patched my jeans.’ There was a lot of care that went into creating and preserving these garments.”

It would have been easy, D’Alessandro says, to put together a rock memorabilia show—but that wasn’t her intention. A popular musician’s legacy should be the music, not the clothes. Following the same thread, for this exhibit, the designers take center stage.

“The Summer of Love Experience” highlights a style that continued to evolve years after flower children descended on Haight-Ashbury in 1967. “From a costume perspective, I have a lot of pieces from the early 1970s because concepts planted in the 1960s came to fruition in the ’70s,” she explains. “Designers were moving toward something, but that wasn’t as defined when they began.” In retrospect, it’s apparent that artisans drew inspiration not just from the local music and hippie scenes, but from the indigenous cultures found in California and around the Pacific Rim. “You picked up the Whole Earth Catalog, and there was Stewart Brand writing a review of a book about pre-Columbian textiles,” D’Alessandro says. “Tie-dye is an ancient craft—the artists knew this—and they were looking at African and Indonesian tie-dyes to know how it was done.” Another signature of a Bay Area designer: a preference for natural fibers in an age when polyester was the fabric of choice for most ready-to-wear apparel. This was the ethics of the movement.

On the other hand, early counterculture dress codes were really quite simple—a T-shirt and a pair of locally produced Levi’s typically did the trick. An entire section of the exhibit will be a “love letter” to the iconic SF-based jeans company, D’Alessandro says. The brand and the museum go way back: In 1974, when personalizing denim was a well-established trend, Levi’s hosted a contest for the most interesting designs and the de Young displayed the winning entries.

And don’t forget the footwear. The de Young’s hippie lineup will also feature Mickey McGowan, whose colorful, hand-painted canvas shoes and boots are total showstoppers. McGowan drew inspiration from the deceptively simple pattern of a mandala, a symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism.

The show, two years in the making, will open alongside celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. “We thought it was really important to tell this story now, with a lot of the artists and musicians still alive to tell their own stories,” D’Alessandro says. “So many things happen on a 50-year cycle. We’re facing a lot of issues they were facing back then. There’s a lot to learn from that generation.”

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