By Grace Claro
Motley Fashion Editor Grace Claro takes a trip back to the 1960s when the world became entranced by the psychedelic craze in art, music, and fashion.
The 1960s was a decade of political upheaval and social justice agitation with the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement in America, and the Vietnam War. Counterculture and hippie movements rose to prominence in the 1960s as the children of the WWII generation blossomed into adulthood and began to question societal structures through active engagement in protest, music, and art. The psychedelic movement also known as Psychedelia, can be characterized by its frequent use of bright, contrasting colors and typeset fonts which twist, balloon and distort almost to the point of illegibility. Technicolour paisley prints inspired by eastern textiles and bright florals became all the rage. The overall aesthetic was designed to emulate the visual sensorium associated with recreationally used psychoactive drugs such as LSD and psilocybin. Artists such as Janis Joplin, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix became icons of the psychedelic movement and are known for embracing the boldly innovative styles and fashions associated with this era.
Psychedelic drugs such as LSD which have intense hallucinogenic and psychoactive properties were popularized for recreational use during this era. It was an age before large-scale governmental action was taken to prohibit and criminalize the sale and use of psychoactive substances such as LSD, psilocybin, and cannabis. They were used freely without much fear of incrimination. The Swiss pharmacist Albert Hoffman first discovered the drug’s hallucinative and perception altering effects in 1943 having ingested a small amount of the substance on what is referred to as ‘Bicycle Day’ in pop cultural spheres. On his bicycle ride home that evening, Hoffman noticed that LSD induced a ‘dreamlike’ state wherein he perceived ‘fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colour.’ Little did he know that the impact of this discovery would lead to a transformation of art and popular culture just two decades later.
Historians trace the origins of the psychedelic movement in art and fashion back to the ‘Belle Epoque’ or Art Nouveau movement. Stylized aesthetics which combined beauty with functionality while emphasising a superfluity of detail and cursive inscriptions were characteristic of this artistic movement. Concert posters were designed in this way so as to attract attention and to draw concert-goers. Artists were commissioned to design innovative and colourful posters which drew from comic book illustrations and surrealist art in order to create trippily-enticing visuals which would reflect the overall tone and feeling of the music of the day.
The Californian Wes Wilson (1937-2020) was a major figure in the psychedelic movement and is considered one of the most influential designers of the 1960s psychedelic movement. He is known for creating the so-called psychedelic font which was popularised in the mid 60s and is easily recognisable by letters that give the impression that they are melting and melding together as though made of liquid. Psychedelic art took inspiration directly from Art Nouveau, replicating the curved shapes, female figures and details such as flowers and garlands, and amped up the intensity. Colour contrasts were a key feature in the psychedelic movement, bold neon greens blues and hot pinks and oranges were boldly contrasted in psychedelic posters and clothing styles. Psychedelic art was essentially Art Nouveau on acid. This attraction to high tonal vibrancy and wild colour combinations was directly influenced by the dizzying visual effects experienced during psychedelic drug ‘highs’.
1967 is fondly remembered by many as the year of the so-called ‘Summer of Love.’ The year 1967 also saw the release of the Beatles’ eighth studio album, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ which spent a record twenty-seven weeks at number one in the UK chart and fifteen weeks at number one on Billboard. The album and its aesthetic, including the costumes worn by the band members Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and Harrison consolidated the mood and exuberant feeling of the decade. Following the success of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ The Beatles released an EP entitled ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ in December 1967. The EP was released along with a television film of the same name. ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was an exploration of psychedelic and experimental sound. Both the film and EP received mixed reviews from its critics. The Beatles also publicized their forays into Transcendental Meditation under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ EP featured several hit singles such as ‘Hello Goodbye’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’
In August 1969 Woodstock music festival was billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music.’ An estimated 400,000 festival-goers attended the three day event held on the grounds of Max Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel, NY. Major artists of the decade such as Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, and The Who played to the crowds at Woodstock, cementing their careers and legendary status as artists. Woodstock is remembered as one of the greatest music festivals of all time.
Fashion during the ‘Woodstock’ era consisted of crocheted tops, admiral style coats worn with cravates, popularised by the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, leather waistcoats, and suede tassel jackets. Embroidery was a popular aesthetic of the day with flower motifs being a common addition to garments. The Free Love generation also embraced their own skin as more ‘naturalist’ styles and nudity became a sign of rebellion and anti-establishment political stances. The Beatles’ 1967 aesthetic of full moustaches, long hair over the ears and of course the iconic rose tinted glasses worn by John Lennon typified the psychedelic look. The band members themselves revealed that they experimented with altered consciousness in the creation of their late 60s sound.
The ‘hippie generation’ exercised their dissent for the modernisation of society and the cruel mechanisms of war. Broadcasted in full colour, footage beamed across the world of the atrocities carried out on civilians during the Vietnam War shocked millions of Americans and led them to question the moral consequences of US involvement in overseas conflict. Art and expression offered the disillusioned youth a means of exploring difficult themes and expounding the social injustices of their time. The psychedelic movement and the hippie way of life offered a colourful escape from the grim realization of the political and social injustices witnessed during the mid 20th century period. The psychedelic style can still be seen today as emulated by musical artists such as Tame Impala,Drugdealer, Glass Animals, Harry Styles and Parcels among others. Artists such as Tyler Spangler and @inktally on Instagram have also contributed to a resurgence of the psychedelic style as a retro aesthetic which is being embraced by a new generation of young people in 21st century popular culture.