Everyone knows that today’s fashions are made by people…not by magazines or by fashion showings…but by people who aren’t afraid to wear their insides on their outsides….there isn’t any dividing line between fan and star. Today’s people simply look like rock stars and they have assumed the rock stars’ attitudes and codes of dress.
— Blair Sabol, “Rock Threads,” 1970
The most important thing I learned from my high school English teacher Margie was how to sew. For weeks I went to her small apartment after school and she showed me how select patterns, cut them out and then how to use a sewing machine. The first thing I made, with Margie’s help, was a long, billowy dress with a low neck and empire waist fitted with elastic. You could not wear a bra under that wide, square neck. I used a purple, slightly fuzzy cloth that the saleswoman in the fabric store expressed deep disappointment when the six yards of fabric used up the entire supply. She had wanted to use that fabric to make a bathrobe. After I made the dress, I painstakingly sewed a collection of small, deep blue beads onto the chest area and the ends of the long sleeves that ballooned out from the wrist. It was the first of many raiments that I would sew, bead and embroider.
By this first creation of a garment I joined a cadre of people, mostly women, who expressed the high value placed on hand work. The ability to sew, embroider, crochet and make lace were highly respected and sought-after skills. They required patience, skill and creativity. With these talents, you could create one-of-a-kind pieces of clothing imbued with age-old traditions of craftsmanship. The mojo of loving attention transferred from the creator’s hands to the wearer. Inventive textile projects were approached with, and afforded a kind of reverence.
A similar kind of respect was given to the garments from the past. Some of the best were embellished with hand made lace and embroidery. These could be picked up for a song in thrift stores and flea markets. It was a radical act of rebellion to take mainstream culture’s cast-offs, and clothing that was considered out of style by current fashion trends, and wear such garments with pride and appreciation.
Music and musicians had long been influenced clothing styles. Geoff Muldaur of The Jim Kweskin Jug Band told me, “When you think about it, a lot of the bands were a fashion show.” The British Invasion promoted the swinging London style. However, Carnaby Street was generally too commercial, too slick and too oriented towards conformity for what was happening in the Bay Area. Such clothing was viewed as part of a vast money-making industry involving wealthy fashion designers such as Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes, and fashion models such as Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy.
Ultimately, the local bands spread the gospel of hand made or embellished finery. Some groups made anti-fashion statements in grubby T-shirts and jeans. Country Joe McDonald pointed out to me, “We’re the first generation to print stuff on tee shirts.” However, most bands employed clothing as psychedelic theater and became arbiters of taste. Fashion critic Blair Sabol wrote in 1970, “Today’s most fashionable trendsetters are the ones involved with today’s music — rock. …it’s not only how the rock stars have gotten it on musically, but it’s also what they’re putting on visually that has made them one of the hip generation’s most influential group of heavies.”
The Charlatans were first local band to make an original fashion statement that was quickly copied by others. They looked to long-discarded items from the Edwardian and Roaring Twenties era, along with Wild West garb. Women associated with them trawled through thrift stores for cotton lawn and lace dresses, and velvet clothing embellished with beaded trim. People adopted such inexpensive thrift store throwaways, and ethnic fabrics that could be re-configured into one-of-a-kind outfits. Old mink coats could be had for a song at the Salvation Army. There were top hats and old suits, vests and garish ties for men, and the faded luxury of beaded gowns, silk lingerie and Edwardian muslin and lace dresses for women. They were ridiculously cheap. No one had wanted them before hippies came along.
I drove to Santa Rosa to visit Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, author of Native Funk and Flash and co-founder of Folkwear Patterns. We sat in her comfortable home in a co-housing project. The walls were festooned with embroidered and spangled clothing from around the world. A sewing machine and collection of brightly colored threads and embroidery floss sat on a large table in her living room, along with projects in mid-stream.
Alexandra commented, “In the Sixties both the music and the fashion were coming out of the same place, were expressing different sides of the collective psyche of the counterculture, and dragged the rest of the world right along. Musicians always wear what’s cool. Being on the leading edge, it becomes cool mainstream.”
Alexandra Jacopetti told me about starting Folkwear Patterns, a line of ethnic and historical patterns that were ideal for making fun, original-looking threads.
“Me, Barbara Garvey and Ann Wainwright began it [Folkwear Patterns] in the mid-seventies from ethnic and nostalgic styles. There were no patterns available for these styles except in a couple of books. Otherwise people were on their own. We bought authentic garments and did research and figured out how the handwork was done on the ethnic clothing. Then we started a line of old-time clothes based on old clothes, and there was a love affair with the fashion world. For awhile in the mid-seventies, Folkwear and high fashion when hand-in-hand. We did shows with Women’s Wear Daily and we were riding the wave. What was innovative earlier was seeping into the mainstream. We happened to hit that wave and rode it for awhile. We were in all the craft magazines, Family Circle, Madamoiselle. We’d get mail by the bag-full and were always getting called for interviews all shop business. “
Before any thing became fashionable, freaks combined vintage glad rags with patched and embroidered bellbottoms. You could pick apart the outside seams on the legs of straight-legged jeans as far up as the knees and insert long triangles of colorful fabric to transform them into bellbottoms. African dashikis were very cool. Old bedspreads, curtains and tablecloths were rich sources for fabric to make clothing: Indian block-printed bedspreads cost next to nothing at Cost Plus, and all manner of antique lace and linen curtains, handkerchiefs and tablecloths provided terrific material for peekaboo blouses, skirts and dresses. Antique brocaded upholstery cloth and drapes were perfect for dramatic capes and vests.
This was adornment that celebrated individuality, handwork, the textile arts of other cultures, particularly of Third-world countries. It was a statement of joyful expression that flew in the face of the mainstream aesthetics of neutral colors, simplicity and slavish adherence to the styles dictated by couture houses that were then knocked off by department stores for the masses. And the styles changed every season and you had to buy a new wardrobe if you wanted to stay au courant. That, or stick to the classics and look conventional and slightly — or majorly — dowdy and stuffy.
Darby Slick of the Great Society wrote, “The dress code was ostensibly free; pick a costume, any costume, but not ‘straight clothes,’ that is, what had been, normal clothes of the period….We stopped being college students, and became pirates, or renaissance jugglers, or almost anything. Cowboy, not drugstore-shiny but nineteenth-century black, was popular, as was anything that looked authentically Native American. The clothes of all foreign countries were fair game. It felt so liberating, but above all, it was fun.”
Alexandra Jacopetti Hart told me, “Buying from a thrift shop was an early element of recycling, of not wasting. At the same time it was fun —there was the fantasy element that you could dress up as anything you wanted, be whatever you wanted to be. Turn-of-the century-underwear was worn as outerwear—camisoles and lace. In the history of Japan there were kimonos that were only worn as underwear. These became outerwear—there was a shock value to it too. Even though the mainstream might sneer, you knew that you had something precious.
“It was also a way of identifying with the downtrodden of society and bring them along as a statement. That’s one of the ways we dovetailed with the political. The civil rights actions were going on and we were identifying with the downtrodden. That time established jeans as one of the uniforms of the century—when they became more than work clothes—they were raised to the mystical, mythical status.
“The ethnic elements flew in the face of xenophobia. The reverse of that is this love of the work of the hands and valuing time and the creative process over the dictums of authority. You could rip the handmade lace off of something and sew it off your clothes and it became something precious. which meant the third world—people all over. Embroidery was always an act of love. It was part of the ideas of recycling, re-using and making things personal and beautiful and individual and expressive of creativity.”
Individually crafted and embroidered clothing was often a loving gift. Alexandra Jacopetti Hart told me, “I learned some embroidery stitches and stuff for my hope chest. I remember when I realized one didn’t need to follow a pattern. My life has been not following patterns. I started embroidering in my twenties, dong patchwork of upholstery samples with astrological signs and horoscope symbols. Then I started embroidering on a jeans shirt with frayed cuffs, ‘The Hero’s Shirt’ that I worked on over a number of years. It was my husband Roland’s number-one shirt, and it became so thin that he saved it for special events and ceremonial occasions. He said that power-objects and power-costumes are useful for more than the celebration of rites of demonstrations of joy. Roland wore the shirt in tight situations such as confrontation with management types, where intimidation had to be resisted. ‘This shirt,’ he used to say, ‘Carries power because power has been invested in it — there’s a circular flow of energy between the creator and the wearer. It can be astonishing to watch a heavy ego-player or profiteer-type have to face that shirt and begin to sort of curl at the edges.’” The Hero’s Shirt is now in the collection of the Oakland Museum.
Wearing uniforms was a way of taking things designed to promote conformity, of being part of the organization they represented and making such clothing into individual statements. Navy peacoat and other military wear could be picked up inexpensively at Army-Navy surplus stores.
Kathy Etchingham, Jimi Hendrix’s girlfriend, wrote about an incident involving a military jacket he was fond of wearing.
“Jimi was wearing the military dress jacket which was soon to become part of his trademark. A police van came screeching to a halt beside us and seven officers leapt out, firing questions at Jimi. He replied as calmly as possible, although we were both pretty rattled.
‘Do you realize that our soldiers died in the uniform?’
‘What?’ Jimi looked down at the jacket, suddenly understanding. ‘In a Royal Veterinary Corps dress jacket?’
‘Take it off!’ the first policeman ordered.”
Soon, vintage clothing stores began to appear to sell the best of the vintage threads that ordinarily had to be hunted down in thrift stores. I bought a long black velvet opera cloak from the 1920s at the first of such vintage clothing shops, The Third Hand Store. The fact that I needed a new dress for high school graduation and blown right past my parents. All the other girls had new clothes, even if they were vintage. I wore that opera cloak, partly because I loved it and partly to wear black as a protest at not being allowed to buy a special dress for the occasion. A number of the other girls and one of the boys also sported magnificent vintage finery. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the students wore costumes to their graduation.
There was a small group of mostly women working behind the scenes whose artistic originality and skill with needles set the beat for San Francisco rock fashion—and therefore for the fans as well. They included Linda Gravenites, who created outfits for her friend Janis Joplin, and a tuned-in high school girl from the sleepy Bay Area suburb of Sunnyvale named Pattie O’Neal.
“I went to the Fillmore every weekend,” O’Neal told me. “I was sixteen and had blond hair down to my knees, so I had no trouble being admitted backstage to hang out with the bands. I used to spend the weekdays making some new, fabulous outfit to wear. Pretty soon, some of the rockers started asking me to make clothes for them like the ones I was wearing. It got so that every week I sewed clothing for the bands that were playing next weekend. Then I’d watch them perform in my creations.
“Sometimes I’d come into San Francisco with my wet hair wrapped around orange juice cans. I covered my head with a cheap, feathered stretchy hat I found at Woolworths. Janis Joplin saw me like that and said, ‘Where did you get that hat? I want one!’ So I got her some feathered hats from Woolworths in a variety of colors. I once made a blouse for myself out of my mother’s old lace tablecloth. Janis asked me to make her one too. I did one for Grace Slick as well, so Mom’s tablecloth went a long way. I ended up sewing a cape, some felt Mexican-style skirts with sequins, and a wraparound blouse with feathers around the neck and sleeves for Janis.
“I created outfits for all the Jefferson Airplane out of American flags. They wanted to wear them for a portrait for an album cover. However, their record company wouldn’t let them wear the outfits; in those days it was considered a desecration of the flag to wear it. I sewed a pirate shirt for Mark Lindsey and for a band called William Penn and the Tells. They opened for the Doors one evening in 1965, and Jim Morrison decided he wanted a pirate shirt too. So I made a bunch of pirate shirts and velvet shirts for him.”
Janis Joplin wore clothes that were all her own. Sam Andrew told me, “In one of Janis Joplin’s early letters describing the outfit she would immortalize at the Monterey Pop Festival she wrote, ‘Everyone looks like they came out of the crowd. I’m going to get a gold lamé [she pronounced it ‘lame’] outfit so I can look like a star and not like someone who came out of the crowd.’ The band wanted to look like people who came out of the crowd. She had figured it all out years earlier.”
Antonia Cipollina described making clothing for her brother John of the Quicksilver Messenger Service. “I spent most of my free time sewing and cooking. They called me the ‘rock ’n’ roll Susie Homemaker.’ I made only John’s clothes, and for a short time I made clothes for Sly and the Family Stone. For John I would design western shirts, and special order colored snaps and do it all by hand. I made the famous bat shirt that is now in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was Western style. When you feel a piece of fabric that you know it had history. Some fan gave him the fabric. It was 1940s satin with bats on it. I had hidden it away and then one day just decided to go for it. I gave it to John for Christmas. I remember his face when he opened it up. He tried it on and it fit like a glove. That was the first thing I made for him. Then it expanded. I started developing my own patterns for him. I never went by measurements, I just went by feel. I never used a tape measure. I created patterns to accentuate the designs on the pick guard on his guitars for the back yokes and cuffs, and make them more extreme.
“The Charlatan’s look was the major influence on his fashion. John had an affinity with the old West. He had an antique rifle collection. Mom would buy him real antique swords to play with. The neighborhood kids would be playing with their toy swords playing Zorro and John would show up with real swords.
“John always had an odd collection of animals—a pet owl, pet skunk, a pet alligator, so I picked fabrics with animals on them. I tried to emulate the style of the custom designs on his guitars on the clothing.”
Perhaps the apex of the mystical charge of hand made clothing was demonstrated to me by rock saxophonist Martin Fierro. When visiting him in his Corte Madera apartment one day, he pulled a bearskin vest out of his closet. The smooth inner side was embellished with pictures a large turtle, patterns of sun symbols and clusters of tiny teepees. Martin related the story of how it came into his hands.
“I was on the road with Jerry Garcia and Merle Saunders in the Pacific Northwest, and we’re in the limo and we’re on our way to the hotel and it’s raining, it’s really cold up in Portland and it’s really shitty weather. And we go by this parking lot and we see this group of men warming themselves up by this big old garbage can that they had lit on fire and fire was coming out of it. And they were all standing around it. And when we saw it, my logic was that, ‘Look at those guys. They’re a bunch of homeless guys warming themselves. I had money in those days, of course, because we made a lot of money with Jerry. I asked the limo driver to stop the car. I’m going to go over and bring a fifty dollar bill to them so they can get themselves some food as a goodwill gesture. On closer inspection I realized that this wasn’t a bunch of bums, but a group of Indians who were there for a reason.
They said, “This shopping center is on what was tribal land. We still come over here because it’s still part of our land.’
They asked me, ‘Are you an Indian?’ I said, ‘I’m an Apache from Texas-New Mexico area.’
One of them said, ‘Well, we have a gift for you. Go get the vest.’Martin pointed to a hole in the back of the vest. The Indian had said to him, ‘This was a bear that was hunted with a single arrow. We are known as the Turtle Clan. This is not just a vest, this is a history of our village and our people. These are their teepees. These suns are signs for the different seasons.’
“The Indian said,’ You should wear this vest and our people will keep you warm. Don’t throw it away and don’t sell it. If you want to get rid of it, you have to give it to another Indian, because this is the testimony of a people.’ I put the vest on, and at the time I was skinny and it fit perfectly. I said to Jerry Garcia, ‘I went over there to give something to those guys because I thought they needed money, and they didn’t want my money, man. They gave me something. Look.’ The turtle has been my sign since I was a little boy. It’s a power outfit. I’ve worn it at gigs. “
While I was still marveling at the vest and the story behind it, Martin brought out a deerskin bag and pulled out a silky-soft, golden deerskin. It was hand sewn with deerskin cords, and had deerskin medallion patches with intricate designs burned into them sewn all over it.
Martin recalled, “I did the soundtrack for the cult classic film, El Topo. When I went to New York there was this eighty year-old white woman in the studio.
She said, ’You came to me in a dream, and a dream told me where you would be. So I made a jacket for you. I came here and I’ve been sitting here for three days, finishing off the jacket.’ She scolded me for being late.
Well, this lady has got to be out of her tree. It’s so much bullshit.
But then, here’s the jacket. It’s made of the skin of an unborn deer. She burnt in designs of redwood forests and medallions with designs of peyote buttons. It’s got datura and a cosmic eye inside of a sun on the back to protect me as I’m walking along. She asked me my name, and burned it into the leather inside with a star, mushrooms and flowers. The inside is covered with designs of marijuana plants. It’s a smuggler’s coat. You’re supposed to unglue all these medallions, put drugs in all of them and wear it through customs.
“I put it on and it fit beautifully. And then I said, ‘How much do I owe you?’
She said, ‘Don’t insult me.’
I don’t know to this day who she is or where she came from.”
Jewelry was another major adornment. Besides the exotic beads that got dubbed in the mainstream press as “love beads,” mostly because men would wear them as well as women, there was a radical new trend for girls to pierce their ears in order to wear dangly earrings. Before that time the only girls with pierced ears were East Indians and Latinas whose ears were pierced in babyhood. Now they were becoming ubiquitous among girls and occasionally boys, although for a short time male piercing was a symbol of homosexuality. You could have the deed done in a jewelry store or by a doctor. However, often the rite was performed by and for friends.
I took the step when I was eighteen. My housemate at art school, Nancy Oakes and I got very stoned on pot. Nancy numbed my earlobes with ice cubes. Then she took a threaded needle and held a carrot behind one earlobe to catch the needle. She took aim and stabbed my earlobe all the way through until it stuck in the carrot, then pulled it through and tied off the thread in a little circle to keep the hole from closing up. For several weeks I doused the threads with rubbing alcohol a couple of times a day and pulled them around in the holes, until the piecing was healed enough to put a lightweight earring through it.
Last, I talked fashion with an outlier among outliers, Wavy Gravy. We were lounging at a table outside a Brazilian outdoor café . We had been talking all morning in his Berkeley compound of old, redwood-shingled houses and sheds. It was delightful to feel sunlight pouring onto our faces as we talked. People came up to him to say hello or to ask for autographs. Wavy Gravy did not turn a single person away, even though it constantly interrupted the flow of our conversation. He is a man devoted to the people of the world and their welfare.
Wavy Gravy laughed and gestured expansively as he told a tale about the effect of his clothing on the Chicago police in the riots at the Democratic convention in 1968.
“I jump off the plane and bump into two cops, who start jackin’ me up about bein’ a suspicious-lookin’ character. I am modestly dressed in my World War I jump suit, aviator’s hat with two eyes and a duck bill that squeaks. They wanna see some ID and all I got to show ‘em is a picture of me in the San Francisco Chronicle dressed as a hamburger. This cracks up the cops. The last time they laughed was maybe five years ago. ….They want to take me downtown not to book me, just to show me to their friends. A squeak of the beak and I’m cut loose.”