Politics has influenced the evolution of style throughout history, from ancient attempts to reinforce the authority of the ruling class by regulating what people could wear to Michelle Obama's power to make a designer a global success. In the 1960s, political developments affected fashion in a variety of ways, as clothes came to reflect the disintegration of traditional social boundaries and a fashion culture defined by its youth.
The decade opened with the presidency of John F. Kennedy, whose wife, Jacqueline, became an icon of a younger, more glamorous and liberated style. For example, her trademark pillbox hat, worn toward the back of her head, sparked a shift away from traditional women's millinery, and her wraparound sunglasses also went viral. Moreover, after Kennedy's Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, criticized her predilection from Paris couture, she also promoted the work of Oleg Cassini, Marimekko and other designers who brought Parisian style and artistic fabrics to the American market.
Other changes in 1960s fashion reflected the growing movement for women's liberation. As "The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through American History" observes, one significant trend in this regard was the shift away from constrictive fashion highlighting an hourglass figure to evening wear, dresses and skirts without a defined waist. Mary Quant's miniskirt further embodied this sense of unbounded freedom, as did Foale & Tuffin's pantsuit and Yves St. Laurent's androgynous "Le Smoking," through which women flouted convention by wearing a stylized tuxedo.
Civil Rights and Black Power
The civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s embraced fashion that fostered a distinctly African-American stylistic identity. According to "The Greenwood Encyclopedia," prominent expressions of their influence include the popularity of kente cloth, the dashiki, imported African jewelry, the Afro and cornrow braids. A counterpoint to this African-style approach to black power can be found in the Black Muslim community, whose ethic of self-worth and separation was expressed in formal dress, especially the bow ties and dark suits worn by men in the Nation of Islam.
Gay Rights and Hippie Fashion
Other significant examples of the interplay of 1960s politics and fashion can be found in the widespread acceptance of fashion associated with the hippie and gay communities. Although these subcultures were distinct in several ways, they shared a reaction against the formality and conformity embodied in the previous generation's street wear. Perhaps the most conspicuous and long-lasting impact of these countercultural movements is the mainstream acceptance of tee-shirts and blue jeans. Other oft-cited trends associated primarily with the hippie movement include ethnic styles, vintage clothes and the ironic wearing of military clothes.
Protest Fashion and Free Speech
The political climate of the 1960s had lasting effects beyond fashion itself. As the "Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion" notes in its article on politics, in the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District the Supreme Court found that political fashion is protected free speech. This case grew out of a 1965 incident in which students protested the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands, prompting the school district to enact a dress code banning such politically provocative garb.
- Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; Valerie Steele, ed.
- Counterfeitchic.com: Jackie's Knockoff Artist?
- The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through American History, 1900 to the Present; Jose F. Blanco et al., eds.
- The London Look: Fashion from Street to Catwalk; Christopher Breward et al., eds.
- Muslims and Modernity, Current Debates; Clinton Bennett
- Victoria and Albert Museum: History of 1960s Fashion and Textiles
- The Museum at FIT: QueerFashionHistory.com
- New York Times; Wooing the First Dresser; Bee-Shyuan Chang
- Reg Lancaster/Hulton Archive/Getty Images