Fit, Young and Casual Were the Trinity (as Youth Became More Affluent in the 1960s, Clothing Came to Be Regarded as a Means of Expression)

Article excerpt

Fashion is almost invariably kind to the powerful. For a start, the rich can afford better clothes. And clothing can be used for the benefit of the group in power to conceal physical faults and lapses--and, where appropriate, beauty.

For example, when everybody wore the white powdered wig, it meant that beautiful hair could simply not be seen: the wig was a triumph of money over bodily giftedness--and most especially over youth. In the nineteenth century, the modern dark tubular business suit was invented largely to disguise the poor physiques of the newly powerful, sedentary rich. The same garment made the muscular working classes look uncomfortable, even foolish, in "proper" dress, especially in cheap versions of it. Youth, with its recent access to money, became powerful in the 1960s, and its weapon at once was fashion. With a single blow, fashion made looking "proper" intolerably embarrassing. Clothing began to reveal rather than conceal, to the disadvantage of the no-longer-young.

Middle-aged women were forced to wear tight clothes and display their legs in shorter and shorter skirts. If they wore skirts below the knee, or otherwise unfashionable clothing, they risked "not counting" on the social and sexual scene. Men had to grow their hair out even if bald (men have often favoured short hair partly because it makes baldness less obvious). Hats died because, except insofar as they were merely utilitarian, they meant formality; they also hide hair.

There were two main codes of dress in the sixties. The simple, hard-edged, angular silhouette of up-to-the-minute clothing was often achieved with new artificial fabrics: dresses were made of plastic, elastic, even "paper" (actually cellulose and rayon). With the help of technology, designers made fortunes by marketing modernity, mass-producing nonconformity, and keeping the prices of individual garments low. For the decade's horror of the old to translate into an addiction to sporting every dernier cri, constant changes in fashion had to be affordable.

Alternatively, you wore rags: second-hand clothing, rumpled, ripped, transparent or flapping open to display your youthful body and proclaim your readiness for sex. Accessories included toe-freeing, longlasting and therefore antimaterialistic sandals; beads; and headbands both to restrain and to draw attention to your long, abundant hair.

Most people, in most places and times, have worn traditional rather than fashionable clothing: each social group had its "costume," which it wore with a few personal twists and decorations added. …