I am drawn to the counterculture fashion of the ’60s and ’70s, not only because of the styles, but because of the fundamental connection to love, peace, and the earth. As cliche as it may sound, I think that making a piece of clothing by hand is an act of love that is not only emotional and caring but political. The reasons why and techniques through which we make our own clothes today are inseparable from the values of the “hippie” movement.
There is no doubt a lot of familiarity with the styles and values of the counterculture movement in the mainstream US media today. The hippie aesthetic has entered the western trend cycle through adaptations of crocheted shawls, tie-dyed fabrics, and peasant style dresses, to name only a few. Genuine hippies from the ’60s can still be spotted here and there at music festivals, or maybe like me, you grew up in a town where they all decided to settle and raise their own hippie children (hi, I’m Flora). While these styles have been in and out of fashion since their inception in the ’60s, they are undergoing a resurgence today. We are seeing not only the aesthetics of the counterculture movement, but the technique of the hands-on nature of making clothes with resources already available to you. New styles are forged for thrifted garments, and you may have noticed the recent uptick in crocheting and knitting across social media. Maybe the most notable recent example of counterculture aesthetics is the JW Anderson patchwork cardigan that Harry Styles was photographed wearing at a rehearsal in 2020, a piece very reminiscent of cardigans popular during the hippie era. In particular, the cardigan bears a resemblance to one designed by 100% Birgitta, a crochet artist, and worn by Eric Clapton at a performance in 1968. This cardigan not only was created in the counterculture aesthetic but inspired dozens of people today to recreate it themselves and share it on social media. This practice of hand-making clothing is inherently rebellious against the mass production of the fashion industry, and this rebellion is intertwined with the values and aesthetics of the counterculture movement. This practice is an anti-capitalist and care-centric way of gaining control during a time of instability (*cough* covid, *cough* US government, *cough* climate change.)
The counterculture period began in the early 1960s and lasted until the mid-’70s. Looking back, many of us will see a close relationship between fashion and this social movement that was primarily prompted by the Vietnam war and the US involvement in it. As the US claimed to be fighting communism, the counterculture movement formed in opposition to the dominant norms and ideologies of the militarily active US. This group of young people found a community in one another and practiced new ways of expressing their individual identity. Some of these values included strongly opposing capitalism, a focus on peace and love, and anti mass manufacturing of goods.
Like the values of the movement, the clothing styles were a rejection of what came before. Responding to the structured, constrained, and highly gendered fashion of the ’50s and early ’60s, the new styles were a physical representation of dissent against the mainstream. Crochet, knit, hand-dyed fabric, embroidery, and patchwork were the main techniques of clothing making. Bright colors, floral patterns, loose-fitting, often gender-fluid silhouettes, and sometimes culturally appropriative designs (yikes) were mainstays of the counterculture style. This dissent against normative modes of dress extended to grooming habits as people grew out their hair, stopped wearing bras and makeup, and generally embraced a more natural appearance.
Looking back on the ’60s and ’70s makes me, and I’m sure many others, very aware of the similar values that are still being fought for against the dominant neoliberal ideologies that control our everyday lives. We are still facing a government that doesn’t speak for the majority of its citizens, an output-focused economy, racism, endless wars, and environmental destruction. While this is happening, the collective awareness about the unethical practices of much of the garment industry is growing. Perhaps in opposition to this, we are currently seeing an increase of people learning to create something unique by painting, sewing, and embroidering their clothes. The practice of making clothing ourselves exists as resistance to fast fashion and connects us more intimately with the actual labor through which clothing is made. While crafting is not always a consciously political statement, people are often turning to used clothing sources as well as making their own as a way to resist the industry of exploitation and environmental destruction. We also have a level of control over our individual style as a signifier of our identity, and by making our own clothes, we gain further control—but still not all—over the process of making that is often out of our hands. Maybe one of the most central values of the counterculture movement inherent in the hand-making of clothes, whether through crochet, sewing, tie-dyeing, or any other technique, is love and care. The emotional value of items made by someone close to you or yourself is often much greater than if they were bought in a store due to the intentionality and more individualized labor that went into it. The motifs of nature, free-flowing styles, and bright colors these artists create in their designs all signify the values of peace that were integral to the counterculture movement.
As we are seeing (and participating in) a rise in people experimenting with making their own clothes, we must consider how the counterculture values of dress have influenced us today. Look on any social media, and you will see people experimenting with new styles, as well as styles reminiscent of the counterculture days. It is not specifically the aesthetics of the ’60s and ’70s that represent the rebellion against the destructive practices of capitalism but the action of creation. While the new and old styles may overlap, it is more about how these clothes are created than what they are or when they are from that hold the real power. By making clothing ourselves, we become aware of the amount of work that goes into each piece we buy. Additionally, we are opposing what our consumer structure is telling us to do, which is to buy new and buy often, giving us the collective power to influence the industry. Now we see brands as large as Levi’s, and as emerging as 100% Birgitta, Apple Cobbler, and Kaisik Wong were in the ’60s and ’70s imbue their clothing with the spirit of peace, love, and identity, foundations of the counterculture movement. We are seeing brands now becoming more environmentally conscious through re-using, though whether or not these are genuine steps toward sustainability or just surface-level ploys to stay relevant varies. Regardless, what remains true is that we have individual and collective power in the caring act of making our own clothes, just as the original counterculture movement has taught us.