Remnants from an era when the social fabric was torn apart
By Holly E. Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009
At first glance, "Clothing the Rebellious Soul: Revolution 1963-1973" at George Washington University's Luther W. Brady Art Gallery could pass for a study in fringe. The long strands of suede -- one of the quintessential adornments of the era -- flow freely from many of the vests, jackets, belts, bags and jewelry on display.
But what curator Nancy Gewirz hopes to convey with this exhibition is a fringe of a different sort. Gewirz, 73, has spent the past four years collecting these items, and in GWU's small space has compiled a material history of one of the country's most turbulent periods. The beginnings of the fringe movement, when young people were celebrating music at Woodstock in Bethel, N.Y., or producing art in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, are documented with the era's patchwork bell-bottom jeans, flowing ankle-length skirts and Native American-inspired headgear.
But just as the tide changed then, ebbing from peace and love and flowing into angst and discord, Gewirz's exhibition changes. A few feet from where mannequins bedecked in peace signs and floral caftans smile serenely, a glass case plays host to Army helmets graffitied with "Make Love Not War" and "Draft Beer Not Students," along with antiwar posters, handbills and photos of the Chicago Seven.
The majority of these items come from New Jersey-based collector Mark E. Hooper, whom Gewirz met at a trade show. Hooper's collection of ephemera includes a flag from the first Earth Day demonstration in 1970, Black Panther Party newspapers and typewritten handouts on how to deal with tear gas.
"I have two interests -- the political and the social aspects of this period," Gewirz says. "For the first half of the '60s, kids just didn't want to look like their mothers. Then in the second half, as we got deeper into the war, all the hippies went east to protest. It was very radical because of the draft, and Vietnam was a very scary place. These kids didn't want to go, and the government said, 'You're going.' "
In its examination of free love and open animosity, of peace and protest, Gewirz's exhibition makes overt allusions to the current climate, and the curator clearly hopes to draw students to the exhibition.
"The kids today are much more lackadaisical, with their faces in their iPhones," she says. "Do we really think politicians can't solve this dilemma without sending kids to war? It concerns me. I have a grandson who's 4, and who knows what could happen in 10 years?"
Gewirz, a District native, has built her career around collecting vintage clothing and accessories, which she selects based on fabric, details and construction. Over the years, she has traveled from trade shows around the country to flea markets in France and Italy, looking for rare, one-of-a-kind pieces that can be adapted and modernized for the current market. She then sells those swatches and patterns to fashion designers and fabric companies, who in turn take an old French mattress ticking or a swatch of African batik as inspiration for a crop of spring collections.
But the exhibition at GW is Gewirz's pet project, and she paces her studio, lined with windows overlooking a rolling lawn, planning ways to get these pieces to Osaka University and the Sorbonne. "Look at this! Get out of your BlackBerry and look at this stuff," she exclaims. "It was a revolution in this country. I hope kids see it and realize what happened. This can't be the answer, to keep sending kids to war. And damn it, that's what I'm trying to say with all this."