Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll
(University of California Press)
US: Apr 2017
For a catalogue (and the exhibition to which it is related, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, from 8 April to 20 August 2017) about one of the most iconic periods in modern American history, Summer of Love manages to accomplish an impressive task. From the first essay in the book—“Not Past At All” by Dennis McNally—it’s clear that the overarching forces at work in San Francisco’s iconic 1967 Summer of Love are still at work today. As McNally explains, “The residents experimented with sexual liberation, with freedom; they challenged the nuclear family, materialism, violence, the war in Vietnam, and the bulk of the ideas they’d been raised on.”
Of course, every generation challenges the one that preceded it; that’s nothing new. But it’s easy to see how historians far in the future might conclude that we are still largely living in the same historical moment. To this day, we are still having many of the same debates as the Summer of Love participants.
Yet, despite all of this, it’s impossible to read the essays and the photographs contained herein and not recognize that something profound has been lost between generations. In Section 3, we see a collection of photographs, posters, and fashion from “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In”, an event with a conventionally ‘60s-era name that took place several months before the Summer. From posters to photographs of attendees to the fashion they wore, there’s a barely contained yearning for freedom and expressiveness.
If the Be-In were held today, it would be sponsored by Wells Fargo and Absolut Vodka, its attendees would be dressed head to toe in H&M or Under Armour, and advertisements display would be the result of targeted advertising via Instagram or Facebook. The same for the famous Trips Festival. Of course, the more important point is that there would be no “Be-In” today.
The Summer of Love—like the ‘60s counterculture overall—was “turbulent yet hopeful” as Jill D’Alessandro writes in Section 8. Throughout the catalogue and the essays, these two elements exist perpetually in tension but never fully exhausting the other. If the rock posters contained herein were “the expressive mechanism for a whole generation” as we’re told in “Selling San Francisco’s Sound”, what have come to replace them? Are today’s memes—endlessly shared and cobbled together quickly by today’s youth culture, recycled and used to distinguish between those who “get it” and those who don’t—the contemporary analogue? Whereas San Francisco’s posters “allowed creative freedom [to mingle] with the rarified idealism”, today’s memes are devoid of creativity and are mingled with habitual, snarky cynicism.
There’s no doubt, the posters are the superstars of the catalogue: many radiate with carefully-crafted imagery incorporating color theory to crudely imitate the visual radiance of mind-altering substances (e.g. pl. 29, “Can You Pass the Acid Test?”; pl. 132, “Swirley”). From the perspective of 2017, they look even more hopeful than ever. The product of a cultural moment in which “both poster and fashion designs were ... informed by Eastern cultures and religions”, could either exist today without being shouted down for cultural appropriation?
Jill D’Alessandro’s essay on Summer of Love fashion, “Stitching a New Paradigm”, is equally enlightening. Organized by theme and/or material, it’s by far the essay with the most impressive images. Figure 38, “Helene Robertson in a 1920s dress”, steals the show with its simple black-and-white glamour. In it, Robertson sits cross-legged, bejeweled, bedazzled and entirely emblematic of the themes of D’Alessandro’s essay: “While their original sources may not be well known, deep in our collective psyche these fashions conjure memories of a time of freedom and hope, one of the many lasting gifts of San Francisco’s Lost Generation.”
Robertson’s story (described in detail in D’Alessandro’s essay) and the catalogue itself demonstrates beyond a doubt the powerful contributions San Francisco and its spectacular Summer made to American (and specifically hippie) fashion. Pls. 335 - 337 are laid out for study in two full page photographs; pl. 337 “Birgitta Bjerke, wedding dress” is even splayed widely to reveal the full extent of the handiwork that went into the crocheted wool gown. Some items are explosions of color and creativity that might still be seen today cobbled together from a local thrift store by today’s particularly industrious hipsters (e.g., pl. 343, a design by Helene Robertson herself). Others, including two dresses by Robertson (pls. 340 - 341), have genuinely transcended their time and place.
Summer of Love: Art, Fashion, and Rock and Roll does a remarkable job conveying both the ideas and the content of an exhibition many of us will never see. Its precision focus on one moment in one city in American history is the book’s greatest strength. It manages to simultaneously demonstrate why that moment is worth commemorating, what its legacy remains today, and what was lost as summer turned to fall. Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare today’s youth to those living amid the Summer of Love. As Dennis McNalley writes in his opening essay, “By 1968 Haight Street would be inhabited by children shooting methedrine and heroin. The magic died hard.”
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