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5 Litigating the Revolution

Jo B. Paoletti Indiana University Press ePub

Fashion has had a legal side for centuries. Powerful rulers once set limits on who could or could not wear certain finery and decreed that colors, badges, or hats be used to set certain groups of people apart as “others”—Jews, for example, who were required to wear yellow badges or pointed hats in parts of thirteenth-century Europe.1 The umbrella term for these edicts is “sumptuary laws”; one of my favorites, from medieval Spain, begins with “the king may wear anything he wishes.” Sumptuary laws reveal a great deal about a society—for example, which goods are highly valued (and therefore reserved for the élites) and also which groups may be considered a threat to the status quo. Amid the social turbulence of the Renaissance, wealthy merchants and their wives were often singled out as needing to be reminded of their inferiority to their high-born betters. Economist Thorstein Veblen observed in 1899 that in modern capitalism, wealth could be freely displayed by nearly everyone who has it, as a sign of socioeconomic superiority. But we still face restrictions in the form of dress codes, usually in schools or in the workplace, that attempt to enforce a uniform appearance or suppress potentially disruptive elements. These modern regulations have elements of social class (public schools with uniform dress codes tend to be in poorer districts), race (local ordinances against “saggy pants”), or gender (laws against cross-dressing and public indecency, dress codes that enforce gender stereotypes). Sumptuary laws don’t come from out of the blue: they are a reaction by the powerful to undesirable behavior from their “inferiors.” The rampant and dramatic changes in gender expression that emerged in the 1960s met with just such resistance, leading in some cases to the courtroom and sometimes even to prison. The litigious heat generated by long hair, short skirts, and women in pants is strong evidence that these were far from trivial issues for the parties involved. The fact that we are still arguing about the same principles, though in different clothing, is part of the ongoing legacy of the 1960s.

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3 The Peacock Revolution

Jo B. Paoletti Indiana University Press ePub

Journalist George Frazier is credited with popularizing the phrase “peacock revolution” to describe the styles coming from London’s young Carnaby Street designers, which promised to restore the lost glory of flamboyant menswear.1 Frazier was describing the explosion of choices that were suddenly available to men, ranging from Romantic revival (velvet jackets and flowing shirts) to a pastiche of styles borrowed from Africa and Asia. Expanded color palettes, softer fabrics, and a profusion of decorative details represented a direct challenge to the conformity and drabness of menswear at mid-century. For critics of the new men’s fashions, flowered shirts and velvet capes raised the specter of decadence and homosexuality, a fear that was reinforced by the emergence of the gay liberation movement. Just as women’s unisex styles had to balance being sexy and liberated, men’s styles tended to navigate the territory between expressiveness and effeminacy. But like many revolutions, the peacock revolution ended in repudiation and regression. Although fashion prognosticators in 1970 were predicting the demise of neckties and gray flannel suits, within ten years the pendulum had swung back with a vengeance. John T. Molloy’s Dress for Success, in 1975, had codified a return to conservative dressing for business. Within a few years the more flamboyant styles of the late 1960s and ’70s had been relegated to the back of the closet, if not the thrift shop.

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6 The Culture Wars, Then and Now

Jo B. Paoletti Indiana University Press ePub

It has been over fifty years since the confluence of youth culture, sexual revolution, and civil rights activism set the culture wars in motion. Judging by the present state of affairs, it may be another half century before the many questions raised in the 1960s are finally resolved. I wrote the bulk of this book in 2013, a year punctuated with important fiftieth-anniversary observations. The year 1963 was a watershed. It was the year that brought us the Beatles, The Feminine Mystique, the Great March on Washington, and the Kennedy assassination. The teenagers of 1963 are in their sixties now but still arguing about many of the same contentious issues that have occupied us since junior high. Commentators originally attributed the rifts in our society to the perennial conflict between youth and age, but the generation gap has faded with the passing of our own grandparents and parents. To paraphrase Pogo, we have met the culture warriors and they are us.

In the preceding chapters I have described the major battlegrounds as revealed through dress. In this chapter I use the same lens to examine what our current gender controversies and quandaries owe to the unfinished business of the sexual revolution. Finally, I ponder what may lie ahead.

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