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Museum of Arts and Design: Counter-Couture Exhibition

March 7, 2017 - by Alison Durkee
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The 1960s and '70s in America were a time of great upheaval, as the country faced the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the battle for civil rights. Through this struggle, however, great art was born, as members of the flourishing counterculture movement used clothing and other creativity to express their identities and fight for change. These fashions are the subject of Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, a new exhibition on display at the Museum of Arts and Design.

Counter Couture

Hippie Royalty on the Rocks, Ibiza, 1969. Photo by Karl Ferris. Part of the Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture exhibition.

Counter-Couture captures the 1960s and '70s counterculture movement through fashion, displaying handmade garments to illustrate the myriad ways that artists combined their activist identities with apparel. Drawing from the worlds of both high and low fashion, Counter-Couture showcases everything from high-class couture to everyday apparel through the exhibition’s five sections: Funk and Flash, the Levi’s Denim Art Contest, Performance, Couture, and Psychedelic Style.

The exhibition “shares the vital stream of passion, ideas, and artist activists who chose fashion to help create a better world for us all," according to Guest Curator Michael Cepress.

While counterculture fashion is often defined by a few iconic pieces—tie-dyed garments, peasant blouses, long skirts, peace signs—MAD’s exhibition succeeds by demonstrating how truly individuated and varied the era’s fashions were. Each piece, whether an embroidered denim jacket or an intricate couture gown, is a unique work of art with a distinct inspiration that reflects something specific about its creator. The exhibition also showcases the vast variety of processes that these designers drew upon, from embroidery and crochet to airbrushing and tie-dye. 

Counter Couture Installation

Installation view of Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture. Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.

Counter-Couture does a strong job of contextualizing the works on display, discussing the people and processes behind them while still letting each piece make a visual impact and speak for itself. Through the exhibition it becomes clear just how vast the counter-culture movement was, with different subsets and individual motivations on display that range from musicians and theatre companies to cult leaders. While the counter-culture fashions feel distinctly revolutionary, the exhibition also positions the pieces within a larger fashion history, showing how certain pieces drew upon past movements, such as Art Nouveau or the Victorian era, to create something unique.

Counter-Couture Exhibition

Installation view of Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture. Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.

The show feels slightly imbalanced in some spots, with the Couture and Funk and Flash sections taking up much of the display, but it still manages to provide an inspiring snapshot of the era in what seems like the most diverse possible way. As the country descends into a new era of political uncertainty, Counter-Couture offers a guiding portrait of how artists can respond to trying times with inspiring creativity.

Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture is on display at the Museum of Arts and Design through August 20. For more information, visit madmuseum.org.

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