Funding from my university department recently allowed me to make a research trip to London. This is part of my study of revivals of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century imagery in the design and lyric of the late 1960s. Although prompted by research for a work made in 2012, I first began discussion with Abigail Harrison-Moore about my current PhD research in early February 2016, so it was with a mixture of fascination, enthusiasm and fear (of the worth of my work and research being debased) that I read of the Records & Rebels exhibition at the V&A later that year. There was much relevant content but not much analysis of my specific field of research. This Guardian article reviews the show, concentrating on just one area, the posters of Hapshash and Beardsley’s influence.
My forays into the V&A museum Print and Study Room took me on a tour of San Francisco’s psychedelic posters (it seems much of the London Hapshash stuff I had wanted to view was out on loan). I took a particular interest in this poster by Wes Wilson. The face has definite resonances with Beardsley and with Rossetti, although the latter is likely to a be by-product of the former since Beardsley was heavily influenced and reacted to the Pre-Raphaelites and Edward Burne-Jones.
The influence of Rossetti may be fairly obvious, the lines of Janey Burden’s (Morris’s) hair offering themselves as curvilinear lines for psychedelic text to thoughtfully ramble along. Less obvious is the new and emergent female identity which was being navigated during these years. Several conflicting narratives were gaining currency in the 1960s. Pharmaceuticals had unleashed all types of social freedoms – the birth control pill introduced to the UK in 1961 brought about a freedom (of sorts) to sexual expression, relationships were in the balance with sexual promiscuity and so-called “free love”, although as Germaine Greer has pointed out, the side effects of these early contraceptives meant that this “freedom” came a physical cost to the female. In the years that followed women navigated this new path of physical freedom in their very dress, with swinging A-line dresses, mini skirts and trousers, literally liberating their bodies from tight waists and leg restricting pencil skirts.
The latter half of the decade seemed to concentrate more on freeing the mind from establishment constraints, through transcendental experiences with LSD and other psychedelics with many seeking the truth in Eastern religions and mysticism and sometimes as in the case of Timothy Leary, both were involved. As the focus shifted from bodily freedom to mental freedom, so did the clothes seem to shift focus to the face – the skirts were increasingly longer. Perhaps men were finding that women needed to free their minds before they were receptive to these new ideas of non-attachment. The cynic in me has wondered whether the appeal of Buddhism’s disdain of attachment had a similar draw for those seeking non-committal sex.
I am currently examining the representation of women in the design at the time and the self-identification of women in their dress for a poster I am presenting, but this has led to some crucial questions in my research.
While women were dressing in longer skirts the imagery surrounding this simultaneously referenced the pre-Raphaelite angel, the fin-de-siecle aesthete, the eastern mystic and the native American. It evoked both the powerful female mystic, creative or intellectual AND the 19th-century subordinate as narrated in many a neomedieval Victorian painting. Who propelled these designs? Was it a grassroots reaction among women against the miniskirt or was it a male designer fostering an older ideal?
Thea Porter’s designs are probably largely responsible for the bohemian vibe that overtook many (she designed the jackets that Pink Floyd are wearing on the Piper at the Gates of Dawn album cover. A female businesswoman and highly influential designer, this rather suggests a cause for equality and respect rather than subordination. It is almost a conscious romanticising of the human state, a continuity throughout history and geography.
Were these reversals just a natural reaction to the extreme fashion of the miniskirt, part of a much wider reaction across design, rejecting the modern lines of the new architecture blitzed London was being rebuilt with? It is clearly part of something much bigger, a design reaction that caught Britain in a wave of nostalgia, but was something of it a reaction to women’s’ liberation, to dress once again in clothes whose style was pre women’s suffrage? Or was it to focus on intellect, to temper what had become oversexualised, to align ourselves more with early Victorian female creatives such as Janey Morris? Or to align the new feminists with the first wave suffragettes? (The real Edwardian revival didn’t arrive until the 1980s along with shoulder pads and the “power suit”).
I believe these questions have great significance to the gender inequalities women are still facing today. I am just re-reading The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970) and we are still navigating the freedom she aspires to in the Foreword to the 21st Anniversary edition of 1991! Below, the Monterey Pop Festival poster of 1967 transports us to the past, but the liberation of the female is arguably paradoxical!