The Sixties signified a major break with the previous decade. The Fifties were still dominated by post-War reconstruction and money was scarce. The Sixties change all that and it’s above all the young that take full advantage of this. In fashion and music young people rebel against the establishment. For the first time there is money left over that isn’t needed for the bare necessities.
Dagmar Ghesquiere guided flandersnews round at Revolutions: “Mary Quant introduced the mini and that was a fashion that really took off. Quant was enamoured of her Mini Cooper. She wanted clothes that suited the car, were easy to wear and didn’t mean any hassle. London was the centre where it all began with iconic models like Twiggy: boyish, slim and with those large eyes that were accentuated with make-up. The young were full of life and eager to react against the establishment and the boring Fifties.”
Jeans were a novelty. Ukrainian designer Nudie Cohn was all the vogue. He designed outfits for Janis Joplin and Elvis Presley, but also for Belgium’s Bobbejaan Schoepen. Included in the exhibition are three costumes that Schoepen wore designed by Cohn. At a time when the consumer society really takes off, there’s a fascination with Indian culture that held nature in great esteem and this is also noticeable in the clothes. This was the age of a barefoot Sandy Shaw and Mick Jagger, who paraded on stage in his jumpsuit, an item of clothing later copied by Prince in his Purple Rain video.
Dagmar Ghesquiere: “Up until the Fifties fashion designers set the trend, but in the Sixties the young took over and designers started to copy and commercialise their innovations. It was the age of the Swinging Sixties when places like Carnaby Street were all the rage. People were experimenting with psychedelic drugs in underground or UFO bars. LSD was a new drug and was only banned in 1966. Poster dresses appeared. They were made of strong paper. You could wear them a couple of times and afterwards put them in a frame and hang them on the wall! The poster made its appearance on the bedroom wall. Designs were often inspired by drugs or by travel to exotic destinations like India that had become more accessible.”
Belgian fashion gets a look-in with the work of Yvette Lauwaert and Ann Salens. Dagmar Ghesquiere: “Lauwaert had a shop in Ghent where she sold her own designs with the GY label. Twice a month she also travelled to London to purchase the latest fashions. Designers were experimenting with new materials and new procedures. I love the transparent plastic raincoat that comes with coloured rainwater in the lining!”
Dagmar Ghesquiere: “Ann Salens designed for the Flemish singer Ann Christy, who represented Belgium at the Eurovision Song Contest, but also for the duo Nicole and Hugo and international star Juliette Greco. Often these are designs that involved an awful lot of work!”
Experimentation with materials in clothes is also visible in the work of Paco Rabanne, who constructed dresses using metal plates!
Another highlight of the exhibition is the work of photographer Herman Selleslags. Selleslags saw all the international stars arrive at Brussels Airport and preserved their Belgian outing for posterity: Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, the Who, Serge Gainsbourg, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. They are all there.
Dagmar Ghesquiere: “Record albums became art in their own right and collector’s items. This was the era of the Beatles. Initially they all wore a suit and had short hair. They were a global success, but at one point when their concerts were little more than screaming matches by adoring fans, they decided to stop going on tour. They headed for the studio and produced Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This is the first album that has the lyrics printed on it. It’s from one of their songs ‘Revolution’ that the exhibition takes its name. Suits have been replaced by quasi military costumes, a tongue-in-cheek attack on militarism.”
Don’t forget to have your photo taken on Abbey Road!
Legally experimenting with LSD ended in 1966 when it was banned. The Rolling Stones were arrested to set an example, but people remained inventive and in underground bars you could find blotting paper stamps that had been soaked in drugs.
By the Sixties disposable income had doubled. The arrival of the Jumbo Jet, the Boeing 747, meant more people could get away, though jet-setting was still a matter for the lucky few. Airliner Pan Am flew holidaymakers off to exotic destinations, but the same crews also carried GIs to the war in Viet Nam. This was the age of the space race between the Soviets and the Americans. Designers used new fabrics and materials to create Globe Chairs and the Campbell soup dress. Tupperware and Samsonite both set up plants in Belgium, while Meurop and Kew lox produced ground-breaking furniture. Kew lox is still going strong manufacturing cardboard furniture in Brussels. Credit cards appeared too: in 1973 Barclay Card became the first card a woman could apply for without the need for her husband’s consent!
The Sixties were also an age of protest: protest against the Soviet clampdown in Prague, protest against the Viet Nam War and in favour of black emancipation and free abortion. In Belgium 1969 saw the protests that led to the splitting up of Leuven University and the end of Francophone university education in Flanders. The contraceptive pill was invented giving women a freedom they had never enjoyed before. It’s also an era in which people for the first time realise how vulnerable our planet is. The first ecological concerns are published that would eventually lead to the creation of an organisation like Greenpeace. Personal computing too becomes a reality, though when you see the equipment and the size of the first mouse, you may wonder how efficient it was!
‘Revolutions’ runs at the ING Art Centre, Koningsplein 6 in Brussels until 10 March.