Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics of Self-Presentation in the 1960s and 1970s

Dressing for the Culture Wars: Style and the Politics of Self-Presentation in the 1960s and 1970s

by Betty Luther Hillman


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Style of dress has always been a way for Americans to signify their politics, but perhaps never so overtly as in the 1960s and 1970s. Whether participating in presidential campaigns or Vietnam protests, hair and dress provided a powerful cultural tool for social activists to display their politics to the world and became both the cause and a symbol of the rift in American culture. Some Americans saw stylistic freedom as part of their larger political protests, integral to the ideals of self-expression, sexual freedom, and equal rights for women and minorities. Others saw changes in style as the erosion of tradition and a threat to the established social and gender norms at the heart of family and nation.

Through the lens of fashion and style, Dressing for the Culture Wars guides us through the competing political and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Although long hair on men, pants and miniskirts on women, and other hippie styles of self-fashioning could indeed be controversial, Betty Luther Hillman illustrates how self-presentation influenced the culture and politics of the era and carried connotations similarly linked to the broader political challenges of the time. Luther Hillman’s new line of inquiry demonstrates how fashion was both a reaction to and was influenced by the political climate and its implications for changing norms of gender, race, and sexuality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803269750
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Pages: 278
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Betty Luther Hillman teaches history at Phillips Exeter Academy. Her work has appeared in the Journal of the History of Sexuality and Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.

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Dressing for the Culture Wars

Style and the Politics of Self-Presentation in the 1960s and 1970s

By Betty Luther Hillman


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8444-9


"You Can't Tell the Girls from the Boys"

Changing Styles among American Youths, 1964–1968

In January 1968, fifty-three boys were suspended from Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut, because of the length of their hair. The school, fed up with new fashions and hairstyles among their teenage students, began to enforce their dress code more rigorously, also sending home female students wearing "thigh-high miniskirts." "We aren't anxious to see boys' hair becoming as long as girls," a school official explained. "We are simply holding the line." Rather than cut their hair, the students fought back. Enlisting the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the students picketed the school, carrying signs reading "Does Society Hang by a Hair?" "Is Hair Unfair?" and "Unconstitutional Harassment." In court, the lawyer for some of the suspended students quoted the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution in arguing that the school regulations were a violation of fundamental liberties that had nothing to do with the purpose of public education. While the students lost the case — the judge ruled that it would be unfair to overturn the rule when some of the suspended boys had already cut their hair, avoiding the constitutional issues at hand — they still made their point that restrictions on hair and dress contradicted fundamental American values of democracy, liberty, and freedom of expression.

This incident was just one example of the many conflicts that arose across the country in the 1960s over new styles of self-presentation among American youths. Longer hairstyles on men, miniskirts and pants on women, "Peacock" clothing styles for men, and unisex styles for both males and females became significant sources of social concern and debate. This chapter traces changes in self-presentation styles among white, middle-class American youths in the 1960s as they were discussed in newspapers and other forms of media of the era. These new styles of personal presentation stoked unrest among the adults, social commentators, and authorities who struggled to reconcile them with their own understandings of social norms of self-presentation. In particular, these ascendant styles rejected the stark gender divide that limited males to "masculine" styles and women to accentuated female styles. Media coverage of these tensions sparked a national conversation, often sensationalizing these changes while also reflecting broader national discussions on the meanings of these new styles of fashion.

Clashes over the meaning of stylistic changes exposed the deep and widening fault lines that separated the ascendant youth culture from their parents. The "baby boom" generation, born in the years following World War II, was reaching adolescence in the 1960s, and producers of television, movies, music, and goods marketed products specifically toward baby boomers for consumption. But teenagers of the baby-boom generation also created and popularized their own cultural styles and senses of social mores, both of which often irked older generations for their alleged loudness, uncleanliness, and rebelliousness. Despite the controversies they evoked, these styles proved popular and eventually reshaped mainstream style conventions. Indeed, as they gained media and marketing attention, older men and women began to adopt the styles as well.

Concerns about new styles of dress also channeled deeper concerns that many Americans felt about the revolution in sexual mores that was simultaneously taking place in the 1960s. The advent of the birth control pill in 1960 increased avenues for women to explore their sexuality without fear of becoming pregnant; challenges to college curfews and dorm rules exploded on university campuses in the 1960s; and by 1968, a New York Times report on male and female college students "living together" off-campus sparked national controversy. Some of the new dress styles, miniskirts for women most notably, exacerbated concerns that the sexual mores of the younger generation were rapidly expanding outside of the bounds of respectability. Similarly, burgeoning feminist activism in the 1960s increased social concerns about the role of women in American society. Growing numbers of women working jobs outside of the home fostered social anxieties that women would abandon their "traditional" roles as wives and mothers for professions and lifestyles previously designated for men. Changes in self-presentation for women fueled these concerns, with social commentators worrying that women dressing in new styles, and men dressing in styles similar to those previously reserved for women, could further erode traditional gender roles.

Analyzing tensions over changing fashion styles during the 1960s reveals how mainstream American notions of gender, sexuality, and class were challenged and remade in those years. In rejecting the highly gendered style of their parents' generation, teenagers and young adults began experimenting with personal presentation. Men's hair grew longer, women's hair grew shorter, and unisex styles became increasingly popular. When some social commentators attacked these trends as tearing at the fabric of traditional American culture, the young people fought back, framing the issue as profound and political. They defended Americans' right to dress and wear their hair as they pleased — rights, they noted, that were part of the concept of freedom of expression at the heart of American ideals. Hair and dress styles thus became battlegrounds, not only for differences of age and class, but also for concepts of American values and liberties. Dress and hairstyles were never merely frivolous accouterments of the 1960s; rather, they held serious implications for underlying conflicts in American culture over gender, respectability, and the meaning of American identity.

The Beatles, Popular Culture Figures, and Men's Long Hair

Long before the sixties, various styles of personal presentation challenged cultural norms of gender and respectability. Hair had always been a particular flashpoint for these debates, with Elvis's "greaser" hairstyle reviled as a symbol of his challenge to conventional propriety. The Beatles, however, took concerns about hair to a new level. The British rockers first arrived in the United States in February 1964 and were greeted at airports, hotels, and theaters by thousands of screaming fans (mostly young women), eager to get a glimpse of the four young men. The Beatles became a music and media sensation, playing on the Ed Sullivan Show for a television audience of seventy-four million people, nearly half of the American population at the time. The television performance exposed many Americans to the Beatles for the first time, introducing them not only to their music but also to their hairstyles. A Chicago Tribune columnist described their hair the day after the live performance: "Their bowl haircuts flop over their eyes in sheepdog fashion. Their haircuts, or lack of them, are somewhere between the styles of Julius Caesar and Daniel Webster. Their hair is long, but their pants are tight." The reporter's reliance on figures from Ancient Rome and nineteenth-century U.S. history to describe their hairstyles indicates just how unusual they were for the time.

Although their styles, just slightly longer than the standard crew cut of the 1950s, would look tame in just a few years, the hairstyles of the Beatles attracted as much media attention as their music. And most media commentators, whether journalists or individuals writing letters to the editor, focused predominantly on the gender implications of the Beatles' "mop" hairstyles. "Now come the Beatles, the bushy-haired boys whose sex is not immediately apparent," wrote one reporter in the Hartford Courant. The author postulated that the gender ambiguity of the Beatles helped them to attract so many teenage girl fans, who "seize on the boy-girl type of crooner who, while undoubtedly masculine, has much of the same appearance as the adolescent girl." A later column further explained why adolescent women were attracted to these "boy-girl" styles on men: "The boy-girl is not a girl. Neither is he a masculine man. His hair distribution ... is typically feminine.... The boy-girl makes it possible for the timid adolescent girl to make a tentative step toward the opposite sex without too much danger."

Whether or not the Beatles' hairstyles were merely a marketing ploy to attract teenage girls through unusual gender cues, commentators tended to agree that there was something about the Beatles' "long" hairstyles that was gender bending, if not gender ambiguous. Whichever it was, many adults did not like it. "The Beatles are a curse to humanity," wrote one reader in a letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune. "They have no talent. They cannot sing.... They ... have queer hair-dos.... The world is fast disintegrating into a bedlam of chaos." "I want to tell girls from boys," wrote another reader in the Christian Science Monitor. "I think the Beatles are sissies!" The editor in chief of the Christian Science Monitor wrote numerous columns deriding the hairstyles of the Beatles as effeminate and therefore improper for young men. "This isn't the Middle Ages. Isn't it rather pleasant for boys' hair to be distinguishable from girls' hair?" he asked in one column. "I like to tell boys and girls apart just by looking at their heads," he wrote in another column. "So I'm hoping that the longs and shorts of fashion will run their course speedily, and we'll go on as before."

But to these onlookers' horror, the mop style quickly spread as a fashion trend among American youths. Whether they were aspiring to the Beatles' celebrity success, or perhaps hoping to attract female admirers of the Beatles, teenage boys began wearing their hair in the mop cut, which became known as the "Beatle" style. For youths who didn't want the permanence of a haircut, or because their parents forbade it, wigs imitating the Beatles' hairstyle became widely available. The New York Times declared that these hairstyle trends were the latest evidence that "Beatlemania" was taking over: "Teen-agers who once considered the G.I. crew-cut the height of adolescent fashion are letting their locks curl down their necks and over ears and across foreheads. Twenty thousand beatle wigs have been sold." In 1964 the Beatles had sparked a revolution in teenage hair, even as the enduring impact of their music remained an open question.

Other male performers adopted similarly unkempt hairstyles. Perhaps attempting to imitate the Beatles' massive success, other British bands began growing their hair even longer, flaunting their locks during their American tours. The Rolling Stones appeared on the American music scene in the summer of 1964, with "hair ... twice as long as the Beatles' and they never comb it," according to the Washington Post. The Dave Clark Five was another British group that imitated the Beatles' mop-hair look, although the New York Times explained that "they swirl their hair around their foreheads instead of wearing it in a beefeater bob." Before long, American musicians adopted these styles as well. By 1967, at the Monterey Pop music festival in Northern California, numerous musicians wore longer hairstyles, including the members of Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, the Who, and Country Joe and the Fish. Male young adults in the audience also wore hairstyles of various lengths, ranging from the Beatles' mop style to the shoulder-length styles sported by many of these musicians. Indeed, by 1967, some of the Beatles members themselves had grown their hair down to their shoulders. Mick Jagger, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, spoke about the vast attention given to his band members' hair: "[Commentators] seem to have a sort of personal anxiety because we are getting away with something they never dared to do.... They've always been taught that being masculine means looking clean, cropped and ugly." Jagger was thus explicit about the ways that these styles challenged traditional standards of self-presentation that were expected of white, middle-class Americans and mirrored many of the concerns that consternating adults raised about the new hairstyles.

One often-expressed concern over long hair was the issue of cleanliness. Commentators often assumed that longer hairstyles were more difficult to wash and that boys wouldn't take the time to do so properly. But even the look of longer hair signified dirtiness to some individuals. "It doesn't look good at all — it is sloppy," said one person. "It makes them look ... as if they came from rotten homes." Another person decried the styles: "I think long hair looks disgusting.... It makes them look sort of cheap and dirty." Others complained that long hairstyles on boys violated gender norms. Adults claimed that boys with longer locks could easily be mistaken for girls with short hair. "This will go down in many family histories as the year of the great haircut wars — or the summer you could no longer tell for sure at more than 10 paces which of Junior's friends is male and which is female," reported the Chicago Tribune in 1965. One Cleveland gym teacher told the longhaired boys in his class that they would have to wear pink hair nets, a subtle reference to the alleged feminine quality of their hairstyles. A 1965 Gallup poll on the issue of hair length found "overwhelming opposition to the long hair styles" among its respondents. "If my son wore his hair like that, I'd make him wear a skirt until he got it cut," said one individual. Replied another: "There are enough 'queers' around and letting boys look like girls won't help to identify the deviates."

Negative comments about long hair on teenage men revealed a number of concerns. One was the concept that men were supposed to look different from women and that males adopting a longer hairstyle closer to that of females were deviating from masculinity by implicitly calling into question this supposedly inherent gender difference. As one newspaper columnist put it, "Long hair is a violation of what people are used to; our culture has distinct notions of an obvious separation between the sexes. Long hair tends to confuse that separation. And because we tend to place a higher value on the male than the female, long hair may debase the supposed prize of masculinity." The gym teacher who threatened to force his male students to wear pink hairnets, or the parent who said he would make his longhaired son wear a skirt, underscored this idea that boys with long hair were, in some way, less masculine. Second, statements that long hair was "queer" or "deviate" suggested that these critics feared a latent homosexuality among the wearers of these styles, or that longer hair could be a step toward a homosexual lifestyle. Stereotypes of homosexual men as "effeminate" bolstered this concern, with critics contending that long hair on men was a sign of male effeminacy. Finally, concerns about cleanliness underscored norms of middle-class, clean-cut respectability that these styles seemed to violate. "We associate short hair," one commentator noted, "with the middle-class tradition of the good guy." Fears of gender, sexual, and middle-class respectability thus became combined in the minds of social commentators who feared the implications of long hair on teenage men.

Underscoring these concerns was the problem of the perceived rebelliousness of longhaired male youths. In the 1950s, fears of juvenile delinquency made teenage rebellion seem particularly problematic; parents in the suburbs feared that their children would squander the opportunities of middle-class life by engaging in crime. While concerns about juvenile delinquency had decreased from their fever pitch in the 1950s, many parents and adults believed that longer hairstyles symbolized a rejection of middle-class values and signaled the potential for more serious forms of rebellion that teenagers could commit. One psychiatrist interviewed in the Los Angeles Times explained, "Hair not only threatens the authority of parents but it hangs out there for the rest of the world to see, advertising the willingness to rebel." Long hair itself was thus seen as a form of rebellion against the ideas and authority of the older generation. Another father of a longhaired teen noted, "If our young people don't have anything to rebel against, they rebel by letting their hair grow." Some teenagers played up the rebellious aspects of their longhaired appearance. "You don't like my long hair, do you?" said one teenager interviewed in the New York Times. "It really gets you, doesn't it? You're annoyed? You hate it? Good!" As another teenage commentator put it, "It is a much-talked-about subject among the older generation and this only makes the style more acceptable to the already rebellious teen." Long hairstyles, as well as the growth of facial hair on some male teenagers, were thus seen as symbols of rebellion from authority that some adults found to be inherently threatening to their sense of propriety and social order.


Excerpted from Dressing for the Culture Wars by Betty Luther Hillman. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
Introduction: The Significance of Style in American Culture and Politics    
1. “You Can’t Tell the Girls from the Boys”: Changing Styles among American Youths, 1964–1968    
2. “What to Wear to the Revolution”: Self-Presentation Politics in Social Movement Activism    
3. “No Woman Can Be Free . . . Until She Loses Her Femininity”: The Politics of Self-Presentation in Feminist Activism    
4. “Wearing a Dress Is a Revolutionary Act”: Political Drag and Self-Presentation in the Gay Liberation Movement    
5. “Everyone Should Be Accustomed to Seeing Long Hair on Men by Now”: Style and Popular Culture in the Late 1960s to 1970s    
6. “Ours Should Not Be an Effort to Achieve a Unisex Society”: Legal Regulations of Personal Presentation in the Workplace    
Epilogue: The Politics of Style in Retrospect    

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