Expression through fashion 

How is fashion influenced by political and social movements?

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Allentown Art Museum's Exhibit, “Fashion as Experiment: the 60s”. Photo courtesy of Shinam Hussain

The Allentown Art Museum presented an exhibit titled “Fashion as Experiment: the 60s” from  May to Sept. of this year. I attended the exhibit on one of the last days before it was archived, and it was a thought-provoking and inspiring exhibit. 

Upon walking into the exhibit, you are immediately met with mannequins adorned in different clothing styles, with each style accompanied by a plaque explaining its significance. In between marveling at the beauty of the colorful clothing, the intricate patterns, and the precise cut of the clothing, I was enamored with the reasoning behind these fashion statements. The exhibit’s purpose was to connect 1960s fashion statements to the political and social climate of that time. When browsing through the exhibit, there is a large sign informing art observers of the interesting history between fashion and politics.

The United States’ political climate in the 1960s was littered with social and political turmoil and change. Between the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the anti-war protests that broke out in response to the Vietnam War and countercultural movements, the 1960s was a melting pot of political and social turning points, and the fashion was representative of the youth’s disillusionment with the state of society. This resulted in fashion circling around thrift shopping and handmade clothing in an attempt to undermine large clothing industries and the consumer culture these industries were pushing.  

Fashion was a place where many could find community in the ‘60s. Clothing and accessories were utilized in empowering ways for certain people. In the exhibit, there was a dashiki on display, which is a colorful piece of clothing that is mostly worn in West Africa. In the ‘60s, dashikis were being worn by African Americans to symbolize the pride they held for their identity. 

“No matter your style, wear it with dignity.”

Personal style and the way people can utilize fashion to express themselves and their identities have been present through all periods of time. Societal expectations of how certain people should dress have been seen to heavily impact the way many people style themselves, and this can be in the rigid binaries that have been enforced for “masculine” and “feminine” clothing. Throughout history,certain clothing styles have been marketed towards either men or women, and there has been a stigma created around people who experiment outside of these rigid binaries. 

In the 1960s, experimenting outside of these societal boxes was seen in young men desiring to embrace adventurous fashion styles that would disrupt traditional masculine styles. This was seen in how young men began to wear bell bottom cut pants, which were previously marketed towards and worn dominantly by women, and they also began to grow their hair longer. Along with these stylistic choices, men also began to lean into clothing that was more form-fitting, instead of the baggy or boxy silhouettes that they were previously encouraged to wear, along with embracing colorful clothing pieces. In the exhibit, I saw many of these garments on display. There were a variety of mannequins clothed with different bell bottoms for observers to marvel at, providing the knowledge that these clothing pieces had a profound significance behind them. Young men’s pursuit to break away from traditionally masculine archetypes through fashion created a space for self-expression and possibilities that were unknown prior. 

There was an outfit on display that was made up of bell bottom jeans and a floral shirt, with an explanation next to it that told us that the typical day in the life outfit was structured to branch out of conventional gendered styles. Prior to the late 1960s, you would not find men who wore colored or patterned shirts. It was stated that 90 percent of men’s shirts sold by major manufacturer Kayser-Roth in 1961 were white. Not only was the print experimental, but the material of the shirt was satin with a stretchy fabric, which also raised a challenge to traditional gender norms. 

Within the exhibit, there were a substantial amount of clothing pieces that were said to be influenced by non-Western cultures. This attire was adapted in the 60s by young men, again in an effort to distance themselves from traditional masculinity. There was a jacket on display with a flamboyant and patterned collar, which was inspired by traditional Indian garments that was worn by former prime minister Jawaharial Nehru. This jacket was paired with silk scarves and pendants, which was an alternative to the standard sports coats and shirts that were considered masculine attire in the United States. 

In the search to move away from traditional gender norms, women leaned into flowy dresses, that differed drastically from the streamlined hourglass silhouette seen in the previous decade. There was an influx of shorter skirts and flat shoes that moved away from cumbersome shapewear, which allowed women to feel freer in their style. Young women prioritized comfort and playful direction in the ‘60s, and these minimalist fashion choices were radical for their simplicity–women were wearing clothes for their own pleasure. 

“Some days I’m a pirate, some days I’m a princess, some days I’m an artist.”

A worker at the museum, Sean O’Leary, gave his thoughts on the exhibit stating, “I’m not much of a clothing horse, but I thought the exhibit was really cool. The ‘60s were probably the first time clothing was used to represent rebellion, so harshly– at least not since the 1920s. The ‘60s brought back the use of fashion to retaliate from the government, and I think that’s really cool. We have a long way to go, but the ‘60s exemplified how fashion can be profound and utilized as a tool.”

Anna Hanley ‘25 expressed “It’s just really cool to see how fashion has progressed throughout the years and what fashion can represent. It’s more than just putting clothes together, and can really be a reflection of self or can be used to make a political statement, which is an aspect of fashion you wouldn’t think of right away.” 

The exhibit displayed various clothing pieces, all meant to signify the radical nature of fashion in the 1960s. With this, there was also an emphasis on treating clothing, accessories and anything that is attributed to personal style as an outlet for self expression and identity. The youth of the 1960s were breaking away from normative gender roles with their clothing, to symbolize their distance from American society, because they were so displeased with the state of the government. In this fashion statement, they were also experimenting with wearing what felt more authentic to them, instead of what fit a societal mold. 

At the end of the exhibit, there was a bulletin board titled “What kind of clothes do you like to wear? What does your style say about you?” There was a board filled with drawings and notes different people left to explain their personal style. There was a note felt by someone stating, “My style says I’m chill, but love a thrill.” Another note read, “Some days I’m a pirate, some days I’m a princess, some days I’m an artist.” 

One note located at the top of the board captured the message of the exhibit and the beauty behind fashion and finding pieces and accessories that feel authentic to you, it expressed, “No matter your style, wear it with dignity.” 

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