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Join Date: Apr 2003
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Hippie flower power as wearable art
Hippie flower power as wearable art

By Suzy Menkes International Herald Tribune


SAN FRANCISCO The legacy of the hippies has been seen mostly as faded flowers and broken dreams. But in a corner of California that is a perpetual Summer of Love, the remnants of the culture are more substantial.
Think of those social and political forces literally sewn into the fabric of society: here a tree of life with its trunk and burgeoning leaves bursting over a coat; there a robe with the owner's home and local landmarks knitted into the pattern. And the ultimate in wearable art: a pair of jeans so densely embroidered that love and lifeare spelled out in its stitches.
The artists - and that is the proper definition - who created these wearable and one-off pieces are not the Bay Area's challenge to Joseph Beuys or Tracey Emin (although Mary Ann Schildknecht beat Emin to it when she modeled a shirt created from an embroidered torn bedsheet).

In the Flower Child era, the passions and ideals were similar to those of today. The values accorded three decades ago to work touched by human hands with its personal integrity chime with the current response to globalism and mass manufacturing and the desire to find objects with a "soul."
"Artwear" at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco (until Oct. 30) has as its subtitle "Fashion and Anti-fashion." In fact, it is a fascinating look at a subculture that now seems much more than the sum of its past.
Who could have imagined that the West Coast style as seen on the Haight-Ashbury junction in San Francisco could have projected its hippie, dippy spirit across the world and across decades? Now the loving-hands-at-home style is being feted and analyzed in the Fine Arts Museum, and what was intrinsically personal and whimsical can be seen as part of a wider movement.

"Artwear" is an American term to describe objects that are mostly (but not always) wearable, but sometimes intended as costumes for performance art rather than everyday attire (even for hippies). Melissa Leventon, the curator of the exhibition and author of a colorful, thoughtful and definitive book of the same title (from Thames and Hudson), puts the pieces of the story together. Her work in words and pictures is as skillful as Linda Levenson's 1976 patchwork coat woven with a line of song, or a puffy collaged vest produced by Kaisik Wong in 1974.
That work was the subject of a plagiarism claim when Nicolas Ghesquière re-created the vest for Balenciaga in 2002. What this "homage" proved was the lasting spirit and emotional force of the original work. Wong, a photographer and designer, was at the heart of the artistic paint-dye-and-weave movement on the West Coast and a believer in its spiritual values. In the exhibition, Wong's petal-layered "orchid dress," spray-painted by the artist and musician Prairie Prince, was made from polyester jersey so that no silkworm or living thing would be sacrificed in its creation.
Leventon expertly weaves together a timeline and a series of themes for the exhibition, putting it in context with some brief but pointed references to the Arts and Crafts era at the turn of the 20th century.

"I do feel there is a connection between today's longing for things that are handmade and the same desire in the 1960s and 1970s," Leventon says. "I see both as being in reaction to the relative anonymity of mass manufacture, and its sameness. The difference, I think, lies in the reason for the reaction. In the 1960s and 1970s it seems to me that people were in revolt against the values and styles of the 1950s. Today I think it's more that people are reacting to the increasing dominance of computers and screen-based imagery of all kinds and are searching for something that seems more real to them."
The kimono is the favored shape for Artwear, its flat canvas an invitation to paint and pattern and to hanging on the wall as much as wrapping the body. In the large section of flat-plane garments, a splatter of Ikat-style blodges on a knitted kimono coat by Sharron Hedges (1989) is displayed with a Shibori-dyed silk piece by Ana Lisa Hedstrom (1988). The passion in the hippie era for ethnicity encouraged Dina Knapp to create in 1975 a Turkish variation on a kimono: a wool jersey jacket appliquéd with writhing snakes.
Whereas sexuality and "free love" were central to the hippie movement, the ponchos and cardigan coats of the period concealed rather than revealed. Some even seemed like cocoons enveloping the body, especially when hand-spun knitting and crochet created knobbly surfaces. Crochet became a cult with Artwear designers such as Janet Lipkin, who were part of an East Coast group centered on students at Pratt Institute of Art in the 1970s. Both Lipkin and Knapp were in a community that saw Artwear as acknowledging the female heritage of needlework while allowing women to push the boundaries of sewing and knitting toward sculpture and art.
Did the idea of wearable art really take root to flower perennially for the next 30 years? Leventon admits that the movement had already peaked when Levi Strauss staged its denim contest in 1974, attracting 2,000 entries of hand-embellished items, including an embroidered Tree of Life design scaling the jeans legs to reach fourth place in the contest.

Punk's hard-edged, aggressive attitude (not to mention its safety pins) punctuated the hippie bubble. Work from the 1980s looks elaborately artsy, rather than any part of the power woman era.
Yet there are Artwear examples in more recent work, such as Carol Lee Shanks's linen and banana fiber jacket with twigs down the spine (1997) and another exploration of the spinal column in the same year by the British designer Helen Storey. Although the geographical spread of the movement does not really come across in the exhibition, the book follows the thread of Artwear outside America. And a scissored felt coat from 2002 by the Japan-based American Jorie Johnson proves that the art of Beuys and artistic fashion have some common ground.
Another area of exploration is performance art/dress, meaning pieces that have formed part of conceptual art live displays. It takes a particular kind of person to make him or herself into a work of art. But such is our acceptance today of Artwear that a Jody Pinto visual pun from 1978 - a "Hair shirt" with body hair inked on to pigskin - instead of suggesting its original gender play, now looks like a bright idea for an arty T-shirt

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Personally, I do not understand the connections Menkes is trying to make between the supposed two movements. It is difficult to even see that there is a movement today toward "work done by human hands", especially when the experts say that couture is dying. Perhaps that same spirit shown on the left coast in the 60s has somehow influenced trend but I think that luxury companies push 'hand made' to the rich and charge you through the nose for it. 'Hand made' in 2005 doesn't seem to be about supporting a community or conveying spirituality. It is simply about exclusivity. I am sure there are exceptions but perhaps they don't get the same kind of press. (I immediately began thinking of Project Alabama, such beautiful handwork, it seems it's a community or a group of artisans that often work together. But it's going to cost you...)

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hmmm... i dont think couture and wearable are at all the same. wearable art is characterized by use of unusual fiber techniques and careful ocmbinations of textures and materials to create a piece of artwork that frames a human form. couture is more about using specific techniques, luxurious fabrics and one of a kind embellishments to create an item of clothing that fits the wearer impecably and gives them an aura both of refinement and luxury.

what is similar between them is the human touch, something that modern people crave, due to the complete lack of it in the great majority of everything that we buy, from groceries to clothing to furniture... every aspect of our lives for the most part is usually bought from a store and is just like another thing somewhere out there in the universe. before... before the industrial revolution... wayyy back, everything one owned would have to be handmade and to get anything, you would go directly to the maker to get it. today, everything we purchase is so filtered through that by the time an item reaches our hands, there are rarely any real marks of the human interaction that was used to create it... if there was any in the first place at all.

i think this is why the organic trend, holistic living trend, boho... are all gaining momentum. people are beginning to see that things that are made by a person have personality, character and a quality about them that you cannot get from a factory produced item that works, essentially the same function.

and yes, i definetly think that handmade is just an excuse for some companies to charge you more in their sales. but the reason that they can do that, is because people put precedence on the idea of handmade, people would not pay extra for somethign that they think makes an item worse. they pay extra for that connection to the maker.


Last edited by oceanharlot; 21-06-2005 at 08:44 AM.
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