Sometimes the most wildly different can be the most similar. What do the minimally elegant garments worn by Georgia O’Keeffe and the wildly exuberant clothes of the Counter Culture have in common? The clue may be found in the subtitle, “Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture.” Yes, the handmade. Both O’Keeffe and members of the Counter Culture movement used their hands to make their garments.
Recently I had the fortune of seeing Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum and Counter-Couture at the Museum of Art and Design. When one enters the first room of the O’Keeffe show, there are four white silk dresses, and upon examination, one may see the perfectly tiny, couture quality stitching. All made by O’Keeffe. Throughout her life, she continued to sew her own clothing. There is not much pattern found in the O’Keeffe clothing, mainly black and white and the occasional rainbow of color in her wrap dresses, yet the opposite rules for the counter-culture: pattern upon pattern, jubilant tie-dye, proliferating embroidered floral motifs, wildly textured crochet – vividly, abundantly they exploit the hand-sewn in their garments.
The Counter-Couture wall text states:
“The works on display reflect the ethos of a generation of makers and wearers who-against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement–rejected ideals of the American Dream, which they identified as rooted in consumerism and waste, social conformity in personal appearance and behavior, and a political establishment invested in maintaining the status quo. They embraced a vision of a new, homegrown civilization rooted in self-reliance, resistance to mass-market consumerism, an affirmative connection to nature, and forms of communal engagement to forge new relationships between self and Other.”
Step back. Look. Examine. And now ponder self-reliance. In one of the exhibition videos, O’Keeffe talks about growing her own food and working hard to make a garden, so she would not have to undertake the long drive down the mountain to purchase food. We see her kneeling amidst the rows of food and picking lettuce, carefully placing it into a folded newspaper. Similarly, the Counter Culture was rooted in the Back-to-Land movement, growing their own food and living off the land, often residing in communes practicing “sustainable agriculture and permaculture, bartering, self-reliance and pacifism.”
How did we go so wrongly awry from these self-reliant times in the 1960s and 1970s? Furthermore, how did we get so far from making and growing to boxes of sugar-laden cereals on the store shelves and cheap t-shirts bearing company logos made in sweat shops in other countries? More importantly, where can we go now for inspiration and guidance?
The newly formed Food and Fibers Project asks us to question where our food comes from, who makes our clothes, and how we can better connect both fiber and food to the land. Their mission states, “There are so many intersections of food and fashion, from the soil that grows our food and fiber, to the plants we can both eat and dye textiles with, to the political acts of cooking our own food and mending our own clothes.”
Summer seems the ideal time to start on a new path, making ‘re-connections’ as Food and Fibers states. Shop at your local farmer’s market, filling your basket with greens and fruit for your next meal. Make a garment from organic cotton grown in the USA with a pattern from Alabama Chanin. Visit a sheep farm and purchase yarn to make a hat or pair of socks for cooler days to come. Fire up a dye pot from plants grown on the land and re-dye faded, stained clothes from your closet, rendering anew. Mend those blue jeans with the holes in the knees instead of purchasing a new pair.
Each and every time one contemplates a purchase, ask who made this, or where was it grown? The time to ponder and choose is now.
Quoted text from exhibition wall text of Counter-Couture Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, Museum of Art and Design. On view until August 20, 2017.