Flower power: designers, printers and home dressmakers draw up 1960s fashion
Art and design in the psychedelic era has been characterised in various ways, as the 'politics of ecstasy' (Grunenberg 2005: 11); or more warily as the harnessing of 'hip consumerism' by corporate admen and marketeers (Frank 1997). In relation to fashion and emulation this paper will examine printed textiles in relation to the neo-art nouveau/ psychedelic movement in the 1960s-early 1970s. Many commentators have described the Beardsley exhibition at the V&A as perhaps the most influential stimulus to the development of both psychedelia as well as of other consciously 'retro' styles that featured in the clothing, graphic design, art and other manifestations of rebellion against clean modernist notions of good taste. While this causal claim can easily be disputed, there is no denying the gleeful presence of Beardsley's erotic graphic inventions in psychedelic imagery. But this paper will also be more concerned with a different mode of analysis, with the separate echo we can find to the graphic era of the 1890s, with the exploitation of new, liberating, cheap, and dramatic graphic print technology. Beardsley drew for the photographic line block process; textiles and poster art of the 1960s also used photo-techniques of screen printing or offset litho to similar effect. Photoprinting techniques allow freewheeling, eclectic, promiscuous line inventions as surface decoration, creating effective visual statements even in simple monochrome or limited colour separations. Designers could work from their kitchen tables. This paper will explore the emulative, aspirational work of more anonymous designers and amateur dressmakers in the era of 'self-sufficiency' and compare it to some opportunistic aspects of the graphic design explosion in the 1890s.This paper will link drawing to print production in order to discuss the power in the draughtsman and woman’s mind of mark making as a means of appropriating a desired style or ethos.
[TITLE SLIDE] Fashion can mean something innovative, driving and defining a short trade cycle, it can also, as dress history, mean something almost in opposition to this, to a mode of conformity, or tradition over the long term. In self-presentation, sometimes we dress to fit in and become invisible, at others to stand out, to emulate or defy certain social groups. As Christopher Bayley has it, modernity is a process of emulation or borrowing, of ‘being up with the times’ (Bayley 2004:10), and many influential and now long established theorists of subcultures, our panel topic, have certainly approached fashion as a process of emulation, but fed through a distorting glass by strategies such as parody of mainstream conventions or through irony, adopting despised dress styles, e,g, when punk girls devised their pantomime version the prostitute stereotype (Hebdige 1979; Evans and Thornton 1989; Jefferson and Hall 1976; Thornton and Gelder 1997), in short, there is often a deliberate play with the signs of distinction. In this genre of analysis, subcultural stylistic appropriations appear in a ‘low’ cultural light, reminding us of Sontag’s ‘modern sensibility of camp’, a ‘variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it’ (Sontag 1964).
But we might seek a less ostentatious mode of subculture. Is fashion necessarily tied to modernity, as in ‘innovative’ or ‘cutting-edge’? Several theorists of everyday and ordinary fashion have challenged this mindset, seeking instead an ‘everyday modernity’ (Buckley 2012:20-23; Highmore 2002: 61), often much harder to find, and requiring different resources.
[SLIDE Volution] My paper is about printed textiles in fashion in 1960s and 1970s Britain, part of the ‘swinging sixties’, subject of a fairly recent V&A exhibition and publication (Breward et al 2006). There is of course a gigantic literature on the sixties in many disciplines; from outside my field, I owe some of the development of this paper to recent writings by the cultural geographer Simon Rycroft on notions of ‘cosmic nature’ in the post-war era (Rycroft 2005, and Rycroft passim). My own approach to the efflorescence of printed textiles is to link that change in taste towards an appreciation of print to changes in art education (with major shifts in pedagogy and demographics) as well as changes in print technologies in both paper and textile industries. [SLIDE Marijke Dunham] I am a visual and cultural historian and my main focus is on the history of drawing. I am interested in the actors in that world, in draughtsmen and women, and I understand ‘drawing’ as an activity that encompasses print and photography as a mark making process. I seek out the zones where practices and practitioners skirmish for recognition and status.
In writing this paper I began by considering style as something generated through surface decoration in relation to the neo-art nouveau/ psychedelic movement, aiming to link fashionable status to the ambiguous value given to print as an artistic medium more broadly at this time. This is still an important factor, but now only one of several further directions.
[SLIDE pop art one] Let’s consider the meanings attached to print as a medium in its own right, the idea of surface design and implications of superficiality, and also print as a means of replication. One of my guiding metaphors is the idea of ‘printing money’ of generating value through circulation, where value is made and sustained through consensus or a desire to uphold the current fiction.
Printing, and particularly the photo-print techniques that came to the fore in this period celebrated remediation, the transfer from one surface to another, ambiguous in value Robertson 2013: 98-99; Marshall 1983; Fountain 1988). [SLIDE from ‘Chic’] Print is a medium where styles and appearances are easily pirated or ‘knocked off; as we see in Pucci look alikes as well as in Bridget Riley’s very unhappy brush with the commercial appropriation of her work (Rycroft 2005: 359). In a consumer economy we can see print as a means of circulating cultural capital, and equally as a vehicle for its counterfeit.
[SLIDE uFO, etc] With this mindset, psychedelia appears as a self-reflexive print medium par excellence, where excess, overload, and anachronism are all captured and enclosed in a web of simple colour changes. The style delivered a sensory derangement generated by perceptual overload akin to the dazzle of op art, and it was loaded with moral or rather deliberately amoral utopian overtones, it was intended to overturn rationality and the clean universalism of modernist design, pushing instead a precognitive embodied experience of the world. Christopher Grunenberg claims that psychedelia conveyed a ‘politics of ecstasy’ and that the happenings of this era offer a ‘forgotten and repressed’ aesthetic ‘purged from art history’ neglected due to its association with applied art and bad taste (Grunenberg 2005: 13). I think we could challenge this argument, about alleged exclusion from art history; certainly in art schools and amongst cultural theorists exclusion is not apparent, instead we see, amongst the style hype, a critical discussion about this era with questions of just how liberating this era really was with reference to class, gender, and social aspiration. Pop, psychedelia and retro strategies of art and design were associated with low culture, the possible overturning of social hierarchies, with the entry of mass media and advertising tropes into art (Guffey 2006; Whiteley 1985). Associated subcultures in the post-war period all started to play increasingly with history, with anachronistic referencing, foregrounding an active process of appropriation, this is an art student’s standard method as both practitioner and consumer.
In this paper I’m not wanting to purvey an ecstatic vision of liberation, although it is one of the elements in the value given to fashions in printed textiles, instead, I want to advance more cautiously on some areas that are still overlooked and repressed in the study of fashion, such as the domestic, the female, the provincial and the amateur, and resist some of the more macho or ‘controntational’ elements of the story of psychedelia, the bad boys of counterculture, and the graphic gods of boutique storefronts, alternative publishing such as for Time Out (Grunenberg 2005; Nadel and Hathaway 2011). The whole area of subculture is a minefield, with many left historians mounting purges in retrospect against the ‘recuperation’ of subcultural signs into commodities (in opposition to some kind of pure ‘authentic’ non-monetary community of exchange –see McRobbie 1993: 407; Artful Dodger 1995: 123), or contrarians like Thomas Frank positing the artificial nature of counter-culture, as a mere myth of 'hip consumerism' cooked up by corporate admen and marketeers (Frank 1997). [SLIDE Thea Porter] We all know that so-called ‘blissed-out hippy chicks’ were treated just like old-style sex objects in the name of sexual liberation, that much of the decorative psychedelic fashion was the province of hedonist wealthy bohemians such as the clients of Thea Porter, [SLIDE ‘disgruntled’] that the ‘liberation zone’ only covered a few selected areas in London, making many on the provincial fringes more angrily frustrated than before (Fountain 1988). I think that it isn’t necessarily a sell-out to recognise entrepreneurial aspects of subcultures, especially when we consider the needs of marginal groups to gain a voice or earn a living; and indeed, if we agree with Nigel Whiteley’s description of Pop as the first expression of an increasingly differentiated consumerist society (Whiteley 1985: 36),1 it would be misleading to try to wish these commercial aspects away.
[SLIDE Clothkits] In the final part of this paper I will move to propose a more amateur, ordinary version of fashion, what I might characterise as a somewhat domestic mode of counter-culture, with a yearning for ‘self-sufficiency’ as exemplified most famously by enterprises such as Clothkits.
First, though, I outline changes in education affecting both pedagogy and demographics. Higher education as a whole expanded entry to far more students from less privileged backgrounds, in addition, art schools began to move to degree provision, a reorganisation that caused immense upheaval and experimentation. While many commentators on the fashions of the ‘swinging sixties’ acknowledge the impact of the new fashion courses in London (Lobenthal 1990: 14-15; Breward at el 2006: 15), I believe that we need to consider the whole sphere of art and design education more broadly and acknowledge the deliberate links being sought between art, commerce and industry.[SLIDE Basic design] There was a move away from ‘self-expression’ towards the technical abstracted approach of the ‘basic design’ movement (de Suasmarez 1983; Yeomans 1977). ‘Self-expression’ with splurgy gestural mark making was seen as a hangover of the outmoded cult of the romantic artist, and also as somewhat childish, appropriate for the infant school but not for the expanding rational and intellectual faculties of the adolescent and young adult. Instead Basic design educators urged engagement with the worlds of industry, science, commerce and technology, with first hand experience of tools and processes. Print methods and mass media sources displaced encounters between the artist and ‘nature’. Richard Hamilton in particular examined the commercial designed environment by considering the symbolism of colour through corporate brand associations (a certain pink for Cadillacs, ice blue for Frigidaire refrigerators).2
[SLIDE Glasgow plus or minus] As I noted at the start, print technologies in industry were changing at this time, with moves to photo-setting and photocapture of images, offering the chance for small scale or alternative print activities, and threatening the authority and control of traditional printing trades. Print was energised, both because it was alarming and also because artists and other designers associated with Pop were exploring the possibilities of print, it was used as a medium of cross-disciplinary transfer and experiment, from artists through to architects. Prints became a fashionable artistic medium due to the efforts of enterprises like Editions Alecto, offering aspirational cheap art by artists like Hockney, Paolozzi or Hamilton to decorate ‘emulative metropolitan interiors’ (Sidey 2003: 10).
[SLIDE GASH Handbooks] In my own institution, Glasgow School of Art we see an active experimentation with print and printed textiles in a distinctive local style. While fine art studio departments in the school remained more traditional in approach, the textiles department was actively working to cast off older craft mentalities, instead seeking out a much stronger working relationship with technical and industrial ways of working. [SLIDE design centre] This was reinforced with the appointment of the designer Robert Stewart as head of the printed Textiles Department from 1949-84. His aim was to change the nature of textile graduates (formerly most had become school teachers) and instead produce industrial designers and technicians. [SLIDE Coat and TUAR] All textile students had to take a print through standard industry stages using industrial methods, so by mid-1950s GSA printed textiles department had won a dynamic and innovative reputation both inside and outside the school (Arthur 2003: 42). Stewart’s work and teaching style was exceptionally eclectic, taking in contemporary artistic movements teamed with technical and industrial instruction. The printed textiles department became a resource for students across the school who wanted to experiment with new methods and mediums. [SLIDE Activities week] Further, Stewart and his colleague Jimmy Cosgrove were active in promoting an informal event, ‘Activities Week’ to push cross-studio links beyond the school and take some of the current working practices right out into the city as we see here with a printing workshop held in Sauchiehall Street in 1975 (Arthur 2003: 45). Guests for these first activities weeks in the early 1970s included David Hockney, Theodore Roszak, Bruce McLean, Ian Brakewell, Peter Blake, George Melly, and Editions Alecto p. 52 [SLIDE Glasgow plus or minus]
Screenprinting, a new medium at this period had several registers, several cultural values interacting in meaning. It was promoted as an innovative technical and habitual practice in the textile department, recognised as an inherently low-grade industrial process for simple mass printing, and also energised in fine art at this period by the experiments and appropriations of neo-dada/ pop artists such as Warhol or Patrick Caulfield, thus also in GSA, see activities week posters.
Screenprinted images are made by blocking out areas, it is an on/ off method favouring colour massing and strongly contrasting areas, either of black and white, or of complementary hot deep colours, the essence of psychedelic imagery. In addition, photo capture methods of screen preparation allowed photo images into the mix; printing could bring together an assemblage of disparate visual scraps from the wash of everyday ephemera and news (Arthur 2003: 46-7). Just as alternative print productions were often pasted up and assembled on the kitchen table, so textile screen printing, if it was simple enough, could also be launched in similar domestic circumstances, most famously in enterprises such as Laura Ashley, Clothkits and other less famous companies. [SLIDE Vogue patterns]
Of course screenprinted textiles can also be a matter of very high art too, the gorgeous textiles of Pucci, Hermes or more recently Versace with many tens of screen each printing one colour in turn, and all needing very high craft skills in production.
[SLIDE Clothkits] But simpler screenprinted styles evidently found a market too in this period, and we can see a mix of reasons for this; certainly we see an element of emulation and appropriation in ‘low-resolution’ remediation of elite and valued orientalist modes. But I believe the low-tech, hand-made aspect was also part of the aspirational value too, in the era of ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘intermediate technology’. The Vogue patterns slide and these Clothkits adverts show us that customers were intending to sew and even customise their purchases themselves.
In relation to print as a medium of social and cultural aspiration, I see analogies between this era and its decadent/ aesthetic inspiration, [SLIDE Studio] the line process and new half-tone photo process productions of the 1890s that we can see in the Studio and other the decadent presses, notably John Lane’s Bodley Head, and its employment of striving lower middle class commercial designers such as Aubrey Beardsley who could dish up the deliberately scandalous ‘anti-bourgeois’ style. Bodley Head was effectively a low-budget mass market publisher with an aspirational lower middle class and provincial readership that projected a very successful mystique if it were an avant-garde private press (Stetz 1991: 74-5).3 Meanwhile, the art journal the Studio actively encouraged the self-education and commercial practices of artists and art students in several ways intended for hopeful illustrators whose work was also featured in every issue as the outcome of prize competitions whose briefs were set clearly within the constraints of new line process printing.
I don’t think it just coincidence that these intensely captivating linear styles in both periods, easy to make with simple methods, are linked to the aspirational attack by new, often unconventional provincial or excluded graphic artists and designers entering a more privileged cultural milieu. The intensely activated graphic surfaces, the dazzle of lines do indeed work to open the ‘doors of perception’ in viewers, they offer a cheap and efficient frottage of the senses. Psychedelia is often denigrated as a ‘teenage’ style—and this optical effect is one reason for it, along with the casual eclecticism of retro and anachronism. But let’s reverse that denigration of teenage, in the spirit of the basic design educators, it is a stage after childish self-expression, a stage of assimilating culture, technology and society in one mixture, it is the style of excluded self-fashioning practitioners anxious to display their eclectic knowledge and use it to advantage.
Although female designers working in textile design or for the domestic home sewing market might at first glance appear to deny any trace of resistance to cultural norms, this paper, I hope, has indicated some new methods of working with ‘ordinary fashion’ that acknowledge various different and sometimes anonymous practitioners as agents of ‘subculture’. First we have the strand of the home dressmakers choosing clothes from outside the mass market with aspects of emulation and utopian activity. Second, amongst designers, [SLIDE ‘Chic’] I am aiming to examine the active decisions of middle ranking invisible practitioners, textile designers and technicians. ‘Fashion’ is not just about fashion designers. Production is not just mass production. Even twenty years after essays such as Buckley’s ‘Made in patriarchy’ it is hard to access materials and collections that allow us to discover much about the relatively anonymous designers who were working in this field (Buckley 1986: 3-14). [SLIDE final] With small scale companies such as Clothkits, we have an area where female textile designers merge with home dress makers, sliding completely out of view in the stakes of ‘cool’. I believe that my own particular focus on the interlinks between the social and educational technologies of print, drawing and pedagogy in the period, let’s call them in the spirit of the time, intermediate technologies (Schumacher 1974),4 help to open up some of the nuances of subcultural emulation in the late 1960s-1970s in Britain.
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Sylvia Chalmers was a Scottish designer and contemporary of Lucienne Day. Chalmers won three medals for her textile designs shown at the Milan Triennale, shown in 1954. Chalmers was a student at The Glasgow School of Art in the late 1940s. She ran a textile printing company in Scotland called Tuar Fabrics for over twenty years, often selling her textile designs for fashion use to Elizabeth Eaton.
Image Staff at Tuar Fabrics, c. 1980 Papers and textiles of Sylvia Chalmers c.1943-1990 GSA Archives
Image Coat Dress, Meg Ruddy 1960s Item 2538, GSA Archives
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