Since moving to San Francisco earlier this year, there have been a number of big changes that have taken some getting used to. Aside from the weather (unlike most of California, SF seems to be under a perennial cold spell), the high cost of eating out in general (goodbye cheap Singaporean food courts) and the litter (or free stuff via curbside pick-ups), it’s actually a heck of a lot of fun. One of the biggest points of debate when I mentioned my move was surprising—San Francisco style. Or rather, the lack of. In the first month, everyone I had met, upon hearing that I had come from a fashion background and was now looking to expand my role in SF, looked genuinely stumped, befuddled, or blew their cheeks out in disbelief. “What style?” they asked in surprise.
It didn’t matter if they were neighbors who had been living in the area for over two decades, friends working at Facebook or Google, the nine to five crowd at Market St, a bookstore owner, vegetable sellers at the local Farmer’s market etc… It seems that to most everyday San Franciscans, their city is known for a lot of awesome things but it is no style capital.
I think otherwise.
True, it’s no New York or Milan with slews of big name designer boutiques and independent designers at every turn, but San Francisco has something better—its own rich history of starting global trends and influencing whole generations with its own unique blend of style: one that crosses borders, cultures, and ages, without ever seeming to indulge in fashion for fashion’s sake. One key example is 1967’s Summer of Love—a free-wheeling, psychedelic love-in that centered on the rolling plains of the Golden Gate Park and found its Hippie heart in the nearby neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury. What started as a countercultural movement in pockets across the United States—protesting against the US’s increasing involvement in the Vietnam War—soon expanded its pervasive influence to embody the ideology of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Think communal living, a regenerated interest in arts and crafts painstakingly made by hand, a period of unique musical sounds and experimentation, a celebration of nature, freedom, drugs and sex and, as a result of all these elements, the emergence of a distinct dress style in the form of gloriously adorned, rainbow-hued, expressive hippie fashion. The people and the movement found its beating heart in San Francisco which, fueled by extensive and continuous media coverage, soon came to embody (to the rest of America and the world) the locus of human be-ins, free love, anti-war protests and acid-induced psychedelia, amongst other facets of the movement.
Perhaps the success of this style: its tassels and trims, hand-stitched embellishments, cloth iconography in the form of mass-produced badges and trims, tie-dyed T-shirts and hand-printed tops, was its accessibility. Anyone with an old T-shirt or pair of jeans and a marker or needle and thread could partake of this fashion revolution. There were no labels unless you count the ubiquitous ‘Make-Love-Not-War’ cloth badges and handsewn ‘Peace’ signs emblazoned across old military field jackets and flared jeans. Thrift store finds were re-appropriated and reworked to suit the times and dresses, shirts and jackets were used as political billboards from which to showcase a call to action, an end to the war or even an acid-inspired patchwork of riotous colors and textures. Men wore their hair long and their denim jeans flared, and from the back, it was sometimes hard to differentiate between the sexes. The ruggedness of sheepskin vests and tasseled suede jackets contrasted with body-hugging knit tops and chiffon blousons (for men) and now and again military accents would peek out from the ensembles—old field jackets covered in stitching and paint; peasant blouses and skirts worn with standard-issue army boots. The Flower children absorbed these army cast-offs, often sourced from the thrift stores, and reworked them into wearable art and anti-war protestations. It was a genuine street-style moment that would forever influence fashion as a whole. Fifty years later and a military-style jacket with patches already sewn on, like this one from Saint Laurent (which at $1,890, is a hefty price to pay for free love) is an ‘It-essential’ that rich kids pair with equally expensive sneakers, both worn without a hint of irony. Too young for the Summer of ’67 and can’t afford 2K for a jacket? Pick up a distressed denim vest with wistfully optimistic slogans embellished across its back like this from high street label Zara. Or load your Hashbury vibes for less than $20 at Forever21.
Hippie-chic is everywhere you look (don’t get me started on Gucci). And, like all style trends that have started on the streets and gained momentum and influence, brands have cashed in and commodified it, making it a purely aesthetic aspect of a consumer’s wardrobe. But the next time you see something similar, say in a glass-front luxury boutique along Avenue Montaigne or Rodeo Drive, just know that you can trace its style origins fifty years back to San Francisco’s anti-establishment, youth-fuelled, rollicking, frollicking, cultural milestone of 1967’s Summer of Love.
PS: If you’re interested and want to find out more, the De Young Museum is having a great exhibition on the Summer of Love down at the Golden Gate Park, with plenty of the original clothing and memorabilia on display. Or, check out this quick visual style/time capsule by Buzzfeed.