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The Sixties Style: Some Realities, Among The Myths
By Terry McCormick

I have to admit to being a bit of a reactionary about vintage clothing eras. Until recently I have steadfastly refused to consider clothing from the sixties (as in 1960's, not 1860's) as real vintage. However, time marches on, and one must keep up. In the last year vintage clothing shops specializing in the sixties have begun to appear; and the contemporary fashion scene is claiming to be "bringing back the sixties." Afterall, it's 30 years since 1961; and I thought 1940's clothing was vintage in 1971! So, although I wasn't initially very enthusiastic, I have spent several weeks researching sixties clothing.

Frankly, my own memory of sixties clothing is that it was pretty boring. This despite the fact that I was young, tiny, and cute at the time. My memory has been confirmed by an informal poll of other women who were also young, tiny and cute in the 1960's (and some who weren't); and by serious study of 1960's magazines, pattern books, and costume books. The look that current fashion magazines tout as the "sixties look" is actually an early seventies look (with the exception of the super short, super skin tight skirt, with tailored jacket; which is a recent invention, and not rooted in any previous era.) There were some radical innovations in clothing and accessories, for both men and women, during the sixties, but they aren' t very obvious. Oddly enough, the most significant innovations: pants as everyday for women and casual clothes for men are never mentioned.

The first myth to be dispelled is the one that wild and radical clothing was the norm during the 1960's. Actually, even the avant garde didn't begin wearing outrageous clothing until the very late sixties; and the rest of us followed, as we usually do, a couple of years later. If you saw the PBS series "The Sixties," you probably noted that the young men wore clean and pressed shirts and slacks, often with a tie; and the young women wore tidy, prim dresses or skirts and blouses. Jeans were for the beach or back yard, and T-shirts were men's underwear.

Even the mini-skirt, popularly dated to the 1960's, didn't become really rnini until 1968; and the mini-est mini's were 1969 - 74. Most skirts were knee length, with some hovering just above the knee, for most of the period. Vogue shows knee length skirts until 1968-9; with the few shorter exceptions shown with knee high socks or opaque, patterned tights.

The clothing of the early and mid-sixties appears radical only when you compare it to the fifties. The fifties look for women was very matronly. Even the "Junior Miss" articles in magazines show prim dresses and suits, invariably fully accessorized. All accessories matched. You wouldn't consider carrying a white purse while wearing black shoes - now that was radical! Dresses were fitted, with definite waists, girdles were worn even by the very slim, andabrassierewas a structure designed to mold and shape. A woman had a figure, with curves "in all the right places!" Measurements were very important, with the waist supposed to be 10 -12 inches smaller than the bust and hips (36-24-36). Given those stan-dards, even the innocuously lady-like clothing of the early 1960's was quite the change.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn were the fashion idols in America in the early sixties. Everyone tried to look like one or the other (depending on age), or both. They were very slim, with shamelessly small bosoms, broad shoulders, slim hips, and unremarkable waistlines. They poularized trim, uncluttered, clothes that were semi-fitted; suggesting the waist instead of hugging it. Necklines were very simple, usually collar-less; and dresses were sleeveless or had short, plain sleeves. This silhouette prevailed throughout the sixties, with variations including the empire waist (just under the bosom), the slightly raised waist, and no waist at all. In the late sixties, although the silhouette remained stable, the total "look" became very young; frequently deteriorating into cutesy. Mary Quant and other young designers working in London began to dominate the American fashion scene. Teenaged models like Twiggy, Carol Lynley, and Jean Shrimpton; and Sandra Dee-type actresses replaced the more elegant Jacquie and Audrey as fashion leaders.

Suit jackets were usually quite short and semi-fitted; and skirts were straight, but never skin tight, or A-shaped. The bouffant and fluffy formal was replaced by the long, sleek, straight, usually high waisted, evening gown. Formal occasions remained formal throughout the decade. We sometimes find evening dresses, both long and short, with beading.

One of the most notable changes in women's wear from the fifties look is in accessories. Fashion layouts in 1959 showed clothes accompanied by gloves, hats, and sets of costume jewelry, earrings, necklace and/or pin, and bracelets, usually in pearls or gold.

By 1964, fashion magazine layouts are almost devoid of jewelry. When jewelry is shown at all, there is one piece: a pair of earrings, or a large pin, seldom both. This holds true for a variety of magazines through 1969. Respondents to my informal sixties poll also remember that they wore little or no jewelry during that time. On the other hand, ads for costume jewelry in sixties magazines show enormous, almost unwieldy jewelry. Large dangling earrings, necklaces with pendants several inches long and thick, heavy chains, and wide bracelets. We find enough of this type of jewelry around today, in our search for vintage pieces, to know that someone must have been buying it; but I can't find anyone who did at the time. Chains were stylish, both as necklaces and belts, in the late sixties. Dramatic belts, sometimes draped at the hip, were an important accessory from 1968 on.

The early sixties saw the end of the hat, mourned only by a few (me for one). One of the first things Jacqueline Kennedy did upon the death of her husband, was jetison the pillbox hats that she had made stylish. Oddly enough, fashion layouts in all categories of magazines: high fashion, teens, and ladies; show hats with most oufits. This was particularly true in Vogue, where editor Diana Vreeland had hats designed specifically for her fashion photos. (A number of these hats were designed by Halston, who started as a miliner; before he became one of the leading fashion designers of the sixties and seventies.) This is very misleading, because out in the real world, only old ladies wore hats; usually small ones of felt, or net covered with flowers. Gloves for day disappeared with the hat; but there was a style for wearing elbow length white gloves with long evening gowns.

Make-up: masses of eye liner, mascara, false eyelashes and eye shadow, worn with very pale lipstick; and hair: set on rollers and ratted and sprayed into enormous poufs, replaced jewelry and hats as the primary accessories.

Until the 1960's there were rigid guidelines about what colors could be worn together. Pink and purple, green and blue, orange and red, red and pink, are examples of color combinations that had always been beyond the pale. Round about the mid-sixties, bursts of color, often in unusual combinations, became acceptable. Prints of the sixties are significantly larger, and the colors brighter, than any previous era. Many of the women I talked to can remember having at least one orange dress; and golds, yellows, browns and other earthtones were the prevalent colors. Pastel pinks, greens and blues were popular all through the sixties. Black was rarely worn, except in the early part of the era, when the little black dress was still a basic; unless combined with white in a check or plaid. There was also aperiod where dark green was popular, occasionally combined with gold. Tan shoes and purses replaced black or brown as wardrobe basics.

Shoes in the early sixties still had pointy toes and stilleto heels; and sling backs were very popular. From the mid-sixties on, however, shoes were lower, with thick heels ("stacked" heels which looked as though they were made of many thin layers of leather were chic at one point), and wide toe, sometimes square shaped.

The introduction of polyester is an important aspect of sixties clothing. The natural rumpled look was completely unchic at the time; and soft and clingy were fornighgowns. Smooth, unwrinkled clothes were required, the stiffer the better. Some clothes were actually made from fabric that was laminated to a thin, foam-like backing. Which is not to say that natural fibres were not used, especially in the early sixties. In the early sixties Poodle cloth, a fuzzy looped fabric, often of wool or mohair was popular; and some soft tweeds were seen in suits. Later, silks that were stiffened with interlinings and interfacings were still around for expensive dresses; and the heavier cottons, printed in large bright prints, were used for summer shifts.

The most revolutionary change was pants for women. Women had been wearing pants on very casual occasions for a few decades. But wearing pants in an office, or to school; shopping down-town or even to, heaven forbid, a restaurant, was absolutely inconceiveable. However, by the end of the sixties The Ladies Home Journal, not exactly avant garde, had fashion layouts featuring pantsuits. Tunic/pant outfits were be-coming acceptable in place of dresses for some occasions. Pants in the early and mid-sixties were very slim and tapered at the ankle. This was the era of the stretch pant with a strap under the foot; which was patterned on ski pants. Stretch denim jeans, with tapered legs, appeared about 1964. Pants with a slight flair at the bottom began to show up in 1968. Plaid wool pants were winter staples; and cotton print slacks were popular for a summer or two in the mid-sixties.

Pantyhose was introduced during the mid-sixties, but was not generally worn until the early seventies. Fashion layouts and ads in most 1969 mention "panty stockings," but regular stockings were still the norm. Textured and patterned tights were popular, but never replaced nylons. Some of us remember the con-tortions necessary just to sit, let alone pick something up off the floor in pre-pantyhose days, mini skirt days. The trick to a modest squat was to aim your behind straight down; not stick it out. Getting on and off busses and out of cars was also an acquired art. Most stockings were sheer to just above the knee, at which point the stocking top began; not a pretty sight.

Men's clothing took some dramatic turns during the course of the 1960's. Again, the degree of change appears more important when compared to the fifties. The fifties was the era of the tall, broad shouldered, narrow hipped man. The strong, silent type (John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable) was the ideal. Men's clothes were designed to emphasize this body shape. Jackets were cut long, with wide lapels and padded shoulders. White shirts and neckties (more subdued than the exuberant forties ties) were worn on all but the most informal occasions. Jeans were worn by blue collar working men (for work only! They wore shirts and ties on other occasions) At school, jeans were for "tough guys," of whom there were far fewer than we are now lead to believe (James Dean not withstanding).

I credit Hugh Hefner, and Playboy with many of the changes in men's fashion during the sixties. Here was a thin, dark haired, narrow shouldered guy, with lots of money; who got all the girls who had curves "in all the right places!" His magazine published intellectual articles and interviews with many of the famous people of the time; well laced with pictures of sexy females. ("I only buy it for the articles!" was a common refrain of the sixties.) Tall, broad-shouldered, strong, silent men parked his car. Ads in Playboy featuring models who were proto-types of the Hefner look, standing in front of Ferrari's while drinking expensive booze. This look became the new male ideal. Frankie Avalon, a younger physical version of Hefner, became the teenage heart throb.

From the early sixties on, suits and jackets were cut narrow through the shoulders (padding was out) with high, narrow lapels. Narrow neckties appeared, sometimes only a couple of inches wide; and the clip on tie and bow tie became available. White shirts were still the standard; although the button-down collar, often in Ox-fordcloth,was anew twist. Somement wore short sleeved white shirts under their jackets in the summer. Patterned dress shirts appeared; sometimes with white cuffs and coll ars, in 1969. S1 acks were very slim and fitted; with no pleats or cuffs. Weight lifting and body-building went out, (the ninety pound weakling was getting straight A's in school, preparing to make big bucks at NASA); but running began to be a regular exercise by the end of the sixties. Navy blue blazers, sometimes double breasted, and worn with light grey or tan pants, were fashionable(another Hefner style). Hats disappeared from all but the most elderly heads.

As late as 1969, men still dressed formally for most occasions, by today' s standards. By the end of the decade however, polo shirts, which were the first T-shirts accepted for outer wear, could be seen at picnics and other casual occasions. While this doesn't seem very earth shattering from our vantage point, it marked an enormous shift in men's fashions, given the history of costume to that point. In fact, the male look of sixties was the beginning of the "preppy" style; still persisting in some circles, with minor variations, to this very day.

One short-lived style, although we occasionally find examples in vintage and thrift stores, was the red, or red and black plaid, wool tuxedo jacket. This style was worn in the early sixties, I know for sure; because my date for one of the proms rented one. Red cumberbunds and ruffled tuxedo shirts also made an appearance around this time. White dinner jackets were owned by those who could afford them, and rented by others; for formal dances and parties.

Hair was almost as big an issue for men as for women. Looking at early and mid-sixties photographs of the Beatles; it's hard to imagine what all the ruckus over their hair was about. I remember that a newspaper Sunday supplement carried an artist's concept of what the Beatles would look like with "normal" hair styles. It was not a pretty sight. "Normal" hair styles in the early sixties were: the crew cut, the short and disciplined barber cut, and the D. A. (or Duck Tail). None of these styles was exactly soft and flowing, and each was maintained by a particular wax or lotion (Crew cut wax, Brylcream, or D.A. pomade). It took almost the entire decade to achieve softer and slightly longer hair styles for most men. Mustaches and beards were extremely unusual in the 1960's. Male facial hair and pony tails, like so much else, became fashionable in the seventies.

Most costume books that include the sixties tend to dwell on the hippy movement and its clothing; which is terribly misleading. Research into contemporary magazines, and memory checks of those who were around at the time, make it clear that the hippies had virtually no influence on mainstream clothing of the sixties. The original hippies were a very small group of people (although the number of people currently claiming to have been hippies in the sixties is so large, one might be tempted to think it was the majority of the population at the time!). They were regarded with deep suspicion by nearly everyone else. Their flowing clothing and long hair (ungraced by ratting, hair spray, or Brylcream) was considered messy, dirty, and without charm; and their behavior highly suspicious. Not until the early seventies did the hippy influence hit mainstream clothing; bringing with it fabrics that actually moved, embroideries and laces, longer, softer hair for both men and women, no make-up, jeans, T-shirts as sportswear, hand-crafted jewelry, ethnic clothes, and the style for vintage clothing. Comparing the clothing that was actually worn in the sixties to the creative, colorful garments that the hippies were wearing; it's no wonder any author would prefer to feature them. However, if you're going to be authentic about sixties era clothing; you'd better be prepared to bypass creative!

The rejection of the dictatorship of the Paris couture over women's clothing was one of the most significant costume-related events of the sixties, possibly the century. While some Paris designers came up with interesting variations on the basic theme (established by alternative young designers in London); from the mid-sixties on, the couture had almost no influence. The prime example is the attempt to introduce the "midi" in 1969. Paris announced, and fashion magazines trumpeted, that the mini was dead. Merchandise buyers in stores all over the U.S. believed them, as they always had in the past, and bought quantities of midis to sell. Were they surprised! The skirt was still on it's way up, and no one was ready to switch back to long; so stores lost millions of dollars in unsold merchandise. It took the couture years to recover from that disaster; and the lesson still lingers in the memories of store buyers.

Sixties vintage clothing, at this stage, is primarily being bought and enjoyed by young aficionados. After all, if you're!6,oreven20-years-old, a thirty-year-old garment seems fairly ancient. However, many of the rest of us originally got interested in vintage clothing as a reaction to the stiff and unlovely fabrics, and relentless uniformity in style, of the sixties and seventies clothes. Because of that, I'mnot sure that this particular era will find many fans among the more vintage of the vintage clothing lovers.

Copyright 1991 - All Rights Reserved, Terry McCormick, Vintage Clothing Newsletter