Mirror, Mirror: '1968' doesn't forget fashion

Clothing from 1968 adorned with campaign buttons from the '68 presidential election, in the Constitution Center show.
Clothing from 1968 adorned with campaign buttons from the '68 presidential election, in the Constitution Center show.
Posted: June 20, 2013

Fashion at the National Constitution Center's "The 1968 Exhibit" is like a sleeveless Jackie O-style sheath in an episode of Mad Men - it's sprinkled everywhere.

That's because watershed moments breed iconic looks, and 1968 was one of our country's most tumultuous years.

Couple the headline-grabbing happenings - from the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Vietnam War - with the swirling prints and bold pops of color, and you end up with a powerful exhibition, as rich with emotion as it is with style.

One of its best style points is the black leather jacket of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, what became a uniform later for young men looking to challenge authority - much like baggy pants today.

And in honor of women's fight for equality, curator Brian Horrigan assembled a collection of collared A-line shifts, cardigans, pantsuits, and other working-girl clothes of the time.

"We pulled a lot of the clothes that went with the exhibit from thrift shops in Minnesota," Horrigan said. (I'm betting he was competing with the best-of-the-best vintage shoppers who wanted to add those pieces to their closets or their Pinterest pages. I know I saw some pieces I'd wear right now.)

The 5,000-square-foot exhibition was first presented last year at the Minnesota History Center, and then lived in Pittsburgh's Heinz History Center the first half of this year before it opened Friday at the Constitution Center, where it will run until Sept. 2.

Horrigan wore a "Free Angela Davis" button on his lapel, a hot fashion accessory of 1968. Before heading to a meeting, the bespectacled curator - who admitted to rolling the fake joints placed throughout the exhibit - took me over to the music lounge to point out Jimi Hendrix's purple suede jacket in all its tasseled funk.

I can dig it.

Before '68, people from all walks of life, regardless of politics or socioeconomic status, pretty much wore the same thing - Sunday suit and tie or a dress. But the trends launched through the turmoil of that year helped people use what they wore to define who they were - flowing dresses for flower children, for instance.

And those looks lasted well into the early '80s, shaping the fashion sense of many a Gen-Xer, before reappearing again in the new millennium. That aesthetic, from pea-green furniture to bright plastic kitchenware, certainly colored my youth.

I watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood well into grade school, and there in the exhibition was Fred Rogers' cardigan sweater. Along with photos of a young, doe-eyed Barbra Streisand, part of the show is dedicated to Twiggy and her sparkling sheaths. The frocks remind me of the white mini my mom wore when she married my dad in December 1968.

There's a reconstructed dorm room where Horrigan hung T-shirts and Indian-print wall hangings; suitcase-style pocketbooks are in every corner; there's lots of flower-power jewelry, and did we say shift dresses? Much of the show reminds me of the inside of a C. Wonder store.

1968 was pivotal for the style scene because it was the bridge between two eras in women's fashion - post-World War II button-up looks, and all things sensual and free. Even nudity was an important fashion element in 1968, especially after Yves Saint Laurent showed a sheer blouse without a camisole or bra on his Paris runway.

"It was a year that saw a significant shift away from the optimistic 'space age' fashions of the earlier 1960s in favor of something a little earthier and more sensual," explained Clare Sauro, curator of the Drexel Historic Costume Collection. "That year, formerly counterculture styles emerged as fashion trends that stayed with us for a long time."

As in, more than 40 years. Fashion is in a very late-'60s-early-'70s moment, especially as shoppers gravitate toward bold pants and sheer tops.

But trends are starting to shift toward earlier decades. Summer promises to be heavy on 1920s (as in The Great Gatsby) bohemian fashion, which influenced the late '60s and early '70s. But come fall, you'll see much more subdued, simplistic, futuristic looks as suits become popular again. Will our attitudes become more optimistic, too? Only time will tell.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704. Follow her on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.

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