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Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution

Jo B. Paoletti

Three cultural tectonic plates came together to produce the gender revolution: the postwar baby boom, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement.

Excerpted from Sex and Unisex: Fashion Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution by Jo B. Paoletti, © 2015, and reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
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Movers, Shakers, and Boomers


In 1970 the Bayonne High School class of 1960 gathered for their reunion. Journalist Steven Roberts told their story as a participant observer, interviewing his old classmates and comparing notes with them, in a feature article in the Sunday New York Times. One common theme emerged: the class of 1960 had “just missed out” on the great changes of the upcoming decade. As one alumnus commented, “The last five years have really been the turning point.” What had changed? Practically everything.

Between 1965 and 1970 the “police action” in Vietnam had escalated to a war, the civil rights movement had blossomed into Black Power and Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” Reefer Madness (1936) became a cult laughing stock on the college film circuit, and Playboy discovered pubic hair. The women at the reunion discussed their marriages and children through the new lens of second-wave feminism. “We had been shaped,” Roberts concluded, “in the dying years of a world that no longer exists.” The basic assumptions instilled in them in the 1950s -- “respect authority... sex is dirty” -- had been swept away.

Or had they? While many younger Americans were embracing the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and the celebration of personal freedom, many others were not. Today’s silver-haired conservatives did not spring from thin air during the Reagan administration. The story of Mitt Romney and a few friends forcibly cutting a classmate’s long hair may have shocked voters during the 2012 presidential campaign, but there were dozens of similar incidents reported across the county in the 1960s, and probably many more that were unreported. Contrary to popular media images, not everyone in the 1960s and 1970s was white, middle- class, and straight. Nor did we all become hippies and protesters in college. One of my most vivid memories of the Syracuse University campus was the sunny afternoon in May 1970 when I attended a vigil for the students who had just died at Kent State. One end of the Quad was a mass of students singing antiwar songs; at the other end some of our classmates were sunbathing and throwing Frisbees. Between us, students headed to their classes along the walkways that crisscrossed the lawn. Two of the students who died at Kent State had been passers-by like them, not protesters.

No generation is a monolith, no matter how society’s institutions treat them. Baby boomers, as defined by Madison Avenue, did not exist in real life but were as much a construct as any other demographic or marketing segment. Contrary to popular stereotypes, there were -- and are -- black, Latino, queer, straight, celibate, disabled, and working-class baby boomers, with a diversity of opinions about politics and morality.

Nor was the older generation uniformly opposed to the transformations taking place in American culture. The doctor who raised so many of us -- Benjamin Spock, then in his sixties -- was a familiar figure at major antiwar rallies, and many other liberal heroes and heroines were contemporaries of our parents and grandparents. It may be tempting to frame the divide that emerged as a “generation gap” -- a term popularized during the early 1960s -- but it is more useful to see it as the opening wedge in the culture wars that have engulfed the United States for the past fifty years.

Like huge tectonic plates colliding to reshape continents, three simultaneous forces began to interact during this time period. The first was the postwar baby boom, which in 1960 began pumping millions of teenagers a year into the consumer marketplace. The second was the sexual revolution, which had its roots in the sexology studies of Masters and Johnson, Hugh Hefner’s dream of sexual freedom, and the uncoupling of sex and procreation. Finally, the civil rights movement focused national attention on individual rights, beginning with African Americans but soon expanding to include youth and women of all races and, to a lesser extent, gays and lesbians. The civil rights movement and the sexual revolution were well under way when baby boomers were still watching Howdy Doody (1947–1960) and would have been major influences on American culture with or without them. The adolescence and young adult years of the baby boom accelerated the conflagration, and our diverse experiences during those formative years are reflected in the conflicts that have dogged my generation ever since.

Why look at the tensions and controversies of this era through clothing trends? It’s common to think of fashion as superficial, bearing little relationship to the serious issues of its time. This is wrong on two points. First, clearly there have been times when fashion changes have expressed deeply held convictions in times of change. The best example is the abandonment of knee breeches (associated with the aristocracy) in favor of trousers in revolutionary France, a shift that foreshadowed the triumph of commercial culture over hereditary power in the nineteenth century. (A more cynical explanation, but equally valid in some cases, is that the sudden taste for proletarian pants reflected an acute desire for survival by the French aristocracy.)

The other reason to look past the apparent triviality of fashion is that it is an important way that individuals connect themselves to others in modern consumer culture. We dress to express ourselves -- age, gender, race, religion, as well as personality -- and to place ourselves in context: place, time, occupation, kinship, and communities. Theater critic Eric Bentley, observing the clashes over clothing and hair, wrote in 1970, “If hair-dos and clothing are hardly, in themselves, worth a fight to the death, in the nineteen sixties they did become symbols of more than just a lifestyle; they became symbols of another life, and this the essential life of human beings, the life of their deep affections and their cherished thoughts.”

This juxtaposition of “lifestyle” and “life” brings to mind the rhetoric of modern opponents to gay rights. To label the way someone lives a “lifestyle” is to reduce their existence to a spread in this month’s issue of Esquire or Vogue -- a whim, subject to change with season or mood. The fashion controversies of the 1960s and 1970s -- for example, whether women should wear pants to work, or if boys’ long hair or girls’ miniskirts disrupted education -- were not about lifestyle. They were, in the words of the era, about “doing your own thing.” To be your own person and express yourself fully was and always will be a serious and complicated process, and the efforts of people struggling to make lives for themselves through the upheavals of that era are still influencing our culture. That doesn’t mean the baby boomers’ struggles were more important; it’s their (our!) sheer numbers that have made that generation so influential. In fact I take care in this book to consider both the experiences of people who were not teens or young adults as well as those who were baby boomers but were outside of “mainstream” boomer culture by choice or exclusion.

I grew up knowing that my brother and I were part of a “baby boom” that happened when World War II ended and couples settled down to start long-delayed families. We weren’t “baby boomers” until 1970, when the label first appeared in a Washington Post article, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As “leading edge” boomers (born in 1947 and 1949), we had a front-row seat for the cultural changes of the 1950s -- television, the growth of suburbs, the Cold War. Those seats always seemed pretty crowded; in the early 1960s we attended a school so overrun with kids that we were on half session: seventh and eighth graders attended in the afternoon, and ninth graders and up attended from 7:00 am to noon. Frankly, being part of a baby boom seemed more of an embarrassment and an inconvenience than anything else -- that is, until Madison Avenue discovered the youth market. The first national brand to target baby boomers was Pepsi, with its 1963 ads that shouted, “Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation!” Vogue editor Diana Vreeland coined the term “Youthquake” in 1965 to describe the sweeping influence of young people in seemingly every facet of life: music, fashion, and politics. Suddenly we were leaders!

Although baby boomers made up nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population in 1965, we weren’t alone on the cultural scene. Our older siblings and cousins, born between 1925 and the end of the war, dubbed the “Silent Generation,” were just coming into their own in the mid-1960s, with their own lives and desires. They were often forced to choose sides between the seasoned survivors of the “Greatest Generation” and the defiant baby boomers rather than blaze their own trail. The Silent Generation has not produced a president of the United States, the nation having gone in 1992 from our last World War II–era leader (George H. W. Bush) to our first boomer, Bill Clinton, and staying with that cohort long enough to block them permanently. But the Silent Generation did provide the Youthquake with its sound track: the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, and Bob Dylan were all born between 1925 and 1946. So were fashion designers Mary Quant, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, and Betsey Johnson, as well as iconic hair stylist Vidal Sassoon. (The other major names of the era -- Courrèges, Cardin, and Gernreich -- were born just before 1925.)

Born between the early 1960s and 1981 (demographers differ on the date for the end of the postwar baby boom), Generation X was emerging, though blessedly unlabeled until 1991, when Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture christened them as such. These were the beneficiaries -- or victims, depending on your point of view -- of the social and cultural transformations of the 1960s. They never knew Jim Crow laws or “Help Wanted” ads divided by sex or race, and they were legal adults when they turned eighteen, while first-wave boomers had to wait until they were twenty-one to take advantage of adult privileges. For the most part they missed the free love and high times of the boomers’ youth, thanks to PCP, crack cocaine, the War on Drugs, the resurgence of STDs, and the discovery of HIV/AIDS. Still, they play an important role in this story, because they were the guinea pigs for parents and educators attempting to prepare the next generation for the Age of Aquarius, the Apocalypse, or whatever else they thought was on the horizon. Of course there were also our elders: men and women in their prime or in their twilight years, who had lived through so much and now found themselves irrelevant to marketers and challenged, baffled, or infuriated by their children and grandchildren.

In every age group there were atheists and believers, political views that spanned the spectrum from Marxists to John Birchers, prudes and libertines. The usefulness of generational categories stems from their adoption by manufacturers, retailers, media, and advertisers as a means of targeting customers. Since we are examining consumer culture, these niches tell us something about how groups of Americans were perceived by the commercial world. It is truly rare for any of us to have never felt pointedly targeted or ignored by advertisers.

If you were born after 1981, don’t worry. The party that started in the 1960s is still going strong, and you’re invited -- like it or not. As I reveal in the rest of the book, the styles of the ’60s and ’70s were just the visible signs of the questions on everyone’s mind -- questions we are still struggling to answer. Many of them deal with the most essential aspects of our beings: sex and gender.

Baby boomers were sometimes accused of behaving as if we had invented sex; in fact we would have been the dimmest generation in human history if we hadn’t responded to the national fascination with sex that coincided with our own adolescence. And we would not have been normal teenagers if we hadn’t responded to that environment with hyper-hormonal enthusiasm. Like most revolutions, this one had been decades in the making. Unbeknownst to us, our grandparents had already witnessed a first sexual revolution in the 1920s among writers, artists, and other bohemians inspired by Freudian psychological theory, which introduced the concept of a human unconscious driven by sexual desires and fantasies. The music, clothes, and literature of the Roaring Twenties celebrated a hedonistic, sensual youth culture that arose from the horror and destruction of World War I, only to be submerged again in the Great Depression. The academic study of sex continued in biology and psychology departments, building up a body of work that began to at- tract wider public attention with the 1948 publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male, followed in 1953 by Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. Hugh Hefner, as a graduate student in journalism at Northwestern University, wrote his master’s thesis on Kinsey’s work before launching Playboy. The pornography cases over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill in 1959 opened up a market for racy novels that became more and more explicit. By the mid-1960s curious teenagers could find just about any kind of information they might desire about sex, though probably not in any public library. Personally, I learned a great deal just browsing the books and magazines in the homes where I babysat.

Explicit straight extramarital sex in books and movies was just the beginning. Homosexuality, once hidden and persecuted, became, if not completely open and still far from accepted, a titillating subject of conversation and art. More common was bisexuality, which several cultural observers identified as the latest cool thing in the early 1970s. Love triangles have been a time-honored plot device, but in the early 1960s group marriage and other forms of polyamory caught the imagination of the many fans of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). A steady stream of popular works on multiple relationships followed, including Robert Rimmer’s novels, particularly The Harrad Experiment (1967); the film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969); and Nena and George O’Neill’s book Open Marriage (1972), which sold 1.5 million copies. Of course much of this sexual freedom was facilitated by the availability of the Pill (approved in 1960), which made possible the separation of intercourse and reproduction and also the uncoupling of “love and marriage” (which, we had learned from Frank Sinatra in 1955, “go together like a horse and carriage”). Not surprisingly, baby boomers are more likely to admit to smoking dope than to any form of sexual experimentation beyond “shacking up” before marriage.

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