The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To fight the status quo, the activists of 1968 harnessed the power of fashion

The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, and Bishop Julian Smith, left, flank Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during a civil rights march in Memphis, Tenn., March 28, 1968. The neat clothes of the civil rights activists reflected that of the accepted mainstream, of the agreed-upon norm. We are just like you, their fashion said. What is there to fear? (Jack Thornell/AP)

In 1968, the American Dream looked a lot like it did in the 1950s. It was rooted in the suburbs; it was a nuclear family; and it was white. Men wore a uniform of starched white shirts, dark suits and slim ties. For women, a middle-class existence was defined by shift dresses and merciless foundation garments. If a woman was really reckless or daring, she might invest in one of the new pantsuits on the market, an idea that French designer Yves Saint Laurent had recently popularized. But she risked being turned away from respectable restaurants. She risked attracting a disapproving eye.

These were the clothes — and the bourgeois, racist and misogynistic ideals they represented — against which the hippies, Black Panthers, civil rights workers and feminists were protesting.

The gains of these activists were documented by legal landmarks such as the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act. And the fashion industry did its part to try to move the culture forward with the sexual freedom implied by miniskirts, the futuristic fantasies from design houses such as Courrèges and Pierre Cardin, girl-power sportswear from Sonia Rykiel and the elevation of models Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, who epitomized loose-limbed, braless youth.

Change, however, was slow. Inequities in housing and education persisted. Women’s rights were not fully realized. And a sexually active girl who “got in trouble” had limited choices. The pages of American Vogue mostly were filled with stubbornly decorous fashion, clothes rooted in chic sophistication, which is just another way of saying: restraint, reserve, polish . . . and denial.

Society was coming apart at the seams after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, over the war in Vietnam and urban uprisings across the country. Yet the Establishment was doing its level best to keep up appearances — to look as if everything was just fine.

Vogue published thoughtful essays considering the state of blacks in the larger society and celebrating young political cubs full of idealism, but the face of the mainstream was unchanged. In a story celebrating the young guns of politics, which included a baby-faced Patrick Buchanan and Jeff Greenfield, there are no indications from their attire that society has its eyes trained on a new horizon. The story’s youthful brigade of men and women is all white, and the men are clean-shaven and decked out in neat club ties.

Gloria Steinem, one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement, had a freewheeling uniform of jeans, aviator glasses and “poor boy” sweaters, but the Maidenform woman continued to live in the glossy pages of Vogue. Girdles and bras were symbolic of women’s constrained lives — so much so that they were dramatically tossed into the “freedom trash can” during a seminal women’s rights protest at the 1968 Miss America pageant. But their figure-enhancing benefits were still part of the fashionable woman’s conversation.

Fifty years ago, Ralph Lauren was a young man from the Bronx obsessed with clothes and enamored with tradition. A year earlier, he’d planted the seeds for what would grow into one of America’s premier fashion brands — a corporation built on the mythology of the American Dream. It wasn’t a company built on youthful rebellion or the so-called mosaic of cultures. As the author Michael Gross wrote in his 2003 Lauren biography “Genuine Authentic:” “It was the Summer of Love and other twenty-seven-year-old men were wearing buckskin pants, listening to acid rock and getting high. Lauren, Sinatra fan, wore a perfectly knotted navy grenadine tie and an electric-blue dress shirt under a beige custom suit. . . .”

With his prematurely gray hair, Lauren was yearning for a place not just within the dominant power structure but also in the genealogy of the Founding Fathers. The power structure that had elevated some and dehumanized others was writ large in the identity of Polo, as Lauren dubbed his company. Lauren included people of color in his world. Anyone could be in his world, as long as they didn’t disrupt it.

Calvin Klein was also a fashion-loving kid from the same Bronx neighborhood as Lauren. Klein was the edgy guy; the minimalist. And when he founded his company in 1968, he crafted a business on the energy inherent in subversive youth culture, the informality of jeans and unbridled sexuality.

Paris, the world’s fashion capital, was also in flames. The student uprisings in 1968 against a patriarchal and oppressive society quickly transformed into a worker revolt and riot. Ready-to-wear — fashion’s first step toward democracy — was in its infancy, but it was clearly the future. Nonetheless, the mannered, hierarchical, jet-setting keepers of haute couture kept plugging away.

All the tensions, contradictions and fissures within the culture were made plain in the fashions of the times. It has been said that the entire essence of any era can be captured by a single great fashion photograph. But it would require a multitude of images to tell the story of 1968.

Tribes and their costumes

The culture was cleaving apart. The hippies shunned the materialism of the typical middle-class lifestyle. Black folks wanted equal access to it. And women wanted more control over it. Every topic had multiple sides, and those sides were delineated by attire. Clothes identified a person’s politics; they hinted at social standing — both real and desired. And they gave observers a sense of how much of a stomach one had for political and cultural upheaval.

Back then, it didn’t take much for fashion to be jarring and disruptive. The white Establishment was still terribly prim and proper. Hippies with long hair and grubby jeans were turning society upside down with their calls for free love with a side of LSD.

Youth culture had a firm grasp on the aesthetic narrative — specifically, white youth culture. Its members had the luxury of operating on the edges of the mainstream, shunning the Establishment and considering their outsider status a badge of courage. For the hippies of 1968, with their studied dishevelment, protesting was a choice. It wasn’t life or death. Or even a question of a particularly awful life. They had options. Good ones.

“Once the visual scene was ignored, almost the first point of interest about the hippies was that they were middle-class American children to the bone,” wrote author Mark Harris in the September 1967 issue of the Atlantic. “To citizens inclined to alarm this was the thing most maddening, that these were not Negroes disaffected by color or immigrants by strangeness but boys and girls with white skins from the right side of the economy in all-American cities and towns from Honolulu to Baltimore. After regular educations, if only they’d want them, they could commute to fine jobs from the suburbs, and own nice houses with bathrooms, where they could shave and wash up.”

Their style reflected their ideology and their aspirations; their clothes were costumes that they slipped on; they were integral to their story. The hippies were method actors, living deep inside their performance. They set out to aggravate and irritate. They were indecorous. They were turning on to drugs and tuning out; but they could always tune back in, and society would welcome them back. Society loved them, after all. It had been their decision to leave.

Their loosefitting and homespun clothes spoke of freedom — from responsibility, rules and traditions. They were protesting against the corporate and political power structure and the American Dream. Their focus was as fluid and blurred as the lines of their clothes.

It made sense then that the activists in the civil rights movement were, visually, the antithesis of hippies. They were not fighting to escape the system; they were working to become fully integrated into it. They wore the suits and ties that the hippies shunned. Even the children of the movement wore dress shoes, proper suspenders and polite sweaters. These upright men, women and children countered the narrative that black people were subpar exotics by dressing with man-next-door polish. Their message, tactics and style were precisely detailed.

The civil rights warriors did not dress in battle gear. In adhering to their philosophy of nonviolence, their style was conciliatory rather than confrontational. These were not clothes for a fight but clothes for a gentlemanly — or ladylike — negotiation.

The clothes suggested that a dialogue wasn’t just desired, it was possible. And so, when their racial diplomacy was met with a full, frontal attack, the images were especially jarring. What was so dangerous about these sport-jacketed men and pencil-skirt-wearing women that they should be repelled by the cannon blasts of fire hoses or the snarling bite of attack dogs?

The neat clothes and the primly styled hair of the civil rights activists reflected that of the accepted mainstream, of the agreed-upon norm. We are just like you. That’s what their fashion said. What is there to fear?

As cynical as the hippies had grown about the system, these activists had faith and hope in it.

Their clothes also spoke of institutional dignity, which they refused to disavow. It’s easy to enter a room unshaven and grubby when one’s essential humanity is not in question. Their attire was a show of self-respect, a sign that they saw themselves worthy of a stranger’s esteem.

The Black Panthers were not conciliatory in their methods. Their dress didn’t suggest a desire to assimilate or fit in. Instead, their berets and leather jackets, tunics, dashikis, Afros and heavy beards were pointedly outside the realm of suburban conventions, flower-child mysticism and churchgoing decorum. Unsmiling and with fists thrust into the air, the Black Panthers cast a watchful eye over predominantly black, urban neighborhoods and armed themselves against police violence. They were not to be trifled with.

In the April 1, 1968, issue of Vogue, psychologist Kenneth Clark, who with his wife, Mamie, conducted the “doll test” that explored children’s attitudes about race, observed that the “dignified non-violent protests of the Southern Negro and the civil rights legislation were not relevant to the predicament of the Northern Negro and did not remedy the pervasive forms of racism which afflicted him in his Northern city ghettos.” Clark wasn’t arguing in favor of by-any-means-necessary activism or black separatism. But in making the distinctions between the overt racism faced by Southern blacks and the often covert racism in Northern cities, he indirectly considered the strikingly different fashion postures, from the suited-up members of a movement that had been nurtured in the black church to the black-leather-clad Black Panthers who mostly worked from urban storefronts.

All of these activists focused on jobs, education, housing and, ultimately, freedom. Their clothes not only identified their approach, they were also essential to it. Southern blacks were negotiating for rights. Those in the North were fighting for power.

Off the pedestal

Nineteen sixty-eight marked a year in which women loosed themselves from bras and girdles. They hitched up their hemlines. They wore pants — but not power suits. They ditched their heels. They shunned the rules that had bound their mothers and grandmothers.

One of the most notable events of that year was the “No More Miss America” protest at that year’s beauty pageant in Atlantic City in September. It featured child picketers, marionettes draped in discarded heels and hair curlers, a live sheep wearing a Miss America sash and a “freedom trash can” into which women could “throw away all the physical manifestations of women’s oppression, such as ‘bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc.,’ ” wrote Roxane Gay, quoting the protesters’ news release, in a brief history of the event for Smithsonian magazine.

Photographs of the event, which was organized by New York Radical Women, depict protesters defiantly scrapping their lingerie as they marched on the city’s boardwalk. Mostly, the women are young and slim. Mostly, they are white. They represent all that is deemed pretty, all-American and ultimately valuable.

They are fighting their way down from the pedestal onto which they have been uncomfortably and unnaturally perched.

The winner of that year’s pageant, Judith Anne Ford, made history: She was the first blonde to win Miss America in 11 years. In interviews, she avoided discussing the war protests that had unfolded at the Democratic National Convention that summer and dodged a question about police brutality. In a story in the New York Times, she said hippies were all right, “but I wouldn’t want to be one.”

Only a few hours later and a few blocks away, black women finally had an opportunity to clamber atop their own pedestal when the Miss Black America pageant debuted and Saundra Williams made history as its first winner. The pageant was founded by a Philadelphia entrepreneur whose daughters yearned to grow up to be Miss America; he knew that racism would prevent that.

There were no protests at the Miss Black America pageant. “Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant,” said Williams in a New York Times story.

A “curvy, hazel-eyed coed” who wore her hair natural, Williams added: “With my title, I can show black women that they too are beautiful, even though they have large noses and thick lips. There is a need to keep saying this over and over, because for so long none of us believed it. But now we’ve finally come around.”

Both Ford and Williams wore a crown. Many white women saw it as a symbol of oppression. Black women saw it as a triumph.

Power in the individual

Today, fashion is less adept at delineating between insiders and outsiders, between the establishment and the rebels. Everyone wears jeans and T-shirts, sneakers with their suits. Who isn’t tattooed? Scruffy is a look. Gender lines have blurred; a woman is no longer captive to fashion or constrained by it. Not like she was in the past. She can choose. An older generation protested and now the modern woman is empowered to wear Spanx — and to brag about it.

The broader culture has become adept at absorbing the extremes and sanding down harsh edges, whether it be sagging jeans that hang off the rear or mohawks paired with shredded denim. Fashion swallows it all whole and spits it out to an eager public. It happens to everything . . . eventually.

The hippie rebellion — at least the essence of it — was embraced by the grunge rock generation and the modern-day music festival nomads. Its legacy is a kind of corporatized transgressiveness. It’s festival season! Get your flower crowns for Coachella! The Women’s March was personified by pink knit pussy hats, a reference to then-candidate Donald Trump’s brag about being able to sexually assault women. In name, the hats were a flame-throwing rallying cry. A version of them eventually ended up on the Missoni fashion runway in Milan; later they could be purchased for just under $200.

Sonia Rykiel died in 2016. The Paris protests that coincided with the founding of her brand have been memorialized by the label’s current designer with a handbag. The “Pavé Parisien” is shaped like the cobblestones that protesters hurled at police during the 1968 riots. It retails for $990.

The sound of the Black Lives Matter movement was distilled into the insistent voices, stirring chants and the powerful music of Kendrick Lamar’s “We Gon’ Be Alright.” Aesthetically, a blue Patagonia vest worn by activist DeRay Mckesson was its fashion cynosure. White nationalists look more like accountants in their khakis and golf shirts than the extremists that they are.

Fashion still has the capacity to agitate, but as an independent act of aesthetic defiance. Today, the singular ensemble typically tells a more powerful story than the uniform of a crowd. There were a lot of slogan T-shirts at the March for Our Lives, but the enduring visual of that day is young Emma González in her torn jeans, patched olive drab shirt and close-shaved head.

The inequities were obvious in 1968. Modern fashion has made room for all the tribes. But that is not to say that they are equal.