Politics in the '60s had poise as well as noise. When people protested, they protested in style; when they preached peace and love, they did it in their flowing peasant blouses, oversized shades, and Birkenstocks. While it probably wasn't bell-bottoms that ended the Vietnam War (though some might argue it was), fashion was an integral part of a cultural movement driven by anti-war sentiment, communal living, and some carefree hedonism thrown in for good measure; to be a hippie often meant to eschew capitalism, promote peace — and have a happy stash of cool, colorful bandanas.
Though the times have changed considerably, Haight-Ashbury is still something of a mecca for the aesthetically independent, alternative, and countercultural. Ask any of the dozens of store owners or managers who do their retail biz on the seven or so streets that lead to the Stanyan entrance of Golden Gate Park.
“In the '60s, fashion-wise, it was free-spirited,” says Uti, owner of the glitz, glam, and costume shop Piedmont Boutique (1452 Haight St.), which can be spotted from a distance by the signature giant, fishnet-clad legs poking out of the shop's storefront. “It was also about going away from the system, throwing away your pantyhose, your bra. Not buying anything corporate because it was the Vietnam era and you would be supporting the war if you supported commerce. [This movement] created its own creativity — of everybody making their own things.”
Uti, now going on 60, arrived in San Francisco in 1967 and opened her boutique in the Castro in 1972, moving to the Haight in 1981. She says that when she got started, the retail business focused a lot on consignment, collaborative jewelry-making and profit-sharing between owners and young crafters and designers. Her shop, which today is filled with things like slinky dresses, sparkly hot pants, plastic seashell bikini tops, and fluorescent boas — and devotes an entire wall to handmade earrings and boldly colored cowboy hats — is still all about custom-made goods. She says you can order almost anything and they'll have it done for you in two days.
While Uti laments that much of the grassroots clothing manufacturing that thrived during the late '60s has since been replaced by another, more commercial machine, she does feel that many of the fashion principles birthed during that time still have resonance and relevance on the neighborhood streets.
“I think Haight Street still promotes a very confident individualism and the ability to really wear anything you want and it being perfectly perfect,” she says, in between ringing up customers in the busy store and exchanging a laugh with her husband and business partner, Sahaj. “I still see a lot of people putting really odd combinations together creatively, like they did in the '60s. Nobody matched pieces. The look was the art of the whole group of things.”
Down the street, Marie McCarthy, part-owner of the eclectic jewelry and accessories boutique called Offbeat on Haight (1599 Haight St.), sees a similar sense of style outside the doors of her shop. She says she just returned from the Midwest, where everybody was wearing cookie-cutter garb purchased mainly at big generic department stores. Most local shop owners weren't surprised when the Haight Street outpost of the Gap (also a product of late-'60s San Francisco fashion, but one that wound up catering to a generic mass market) recently closed. That just wasn't what people were looking for when they came to shop on Haight Street, they felt.
“On Haight Street,” she says, “everybody takes things and kind of changes it and makes it their own.” Or they shop for clothing items that have been designed to look that way. “I think that the street has a very unique kind of flavor and keeps in the spirit of having your own voice and really doing things to fulfill your lifestyle and what you believe in.”
Specific '60s-generation influence can be seen in McCarthy's merchandise, from nature-inspired jewelry to semi-precious stones that, she says, people still believe bring good energy into their lives — like citrine for abundance or rose quartz for love.
Some stores in the Haight are not only influenced by the '60s, but focus particularly on that era. Positively Haight (1400 Haight St.), opened by James Preston and Rick Braun 15 years ago, is a haven for the hippily inclined. The clothing here is reminiscent of four decades prior — Bob Marley tie-dyed T-shirts, free-flowing flowered skirts, cotton Indian embroidered dresses — and, in keeping with the DIY feel of the Summer of Love days, many of the shirts and tapestries are one-of-a-kinds made by Preston himself. Braun contends that, though his store does pay homage to the days of the Doors (and the later days of the Dead), it also aims to give things a modern twist. He also says that lots of the fashions from the '60s aren't necessarily generation-specific. “Regardless of the era, there's always a core of young teenage girls who wear hippie-dress kind of stuff,” he says, referring to a less glam, more bohemian style. “Every year, we have more than a few girls coming in here looking for a prom dress.”
A few blocks down from Positively Haight, Villains (1672 Haight St.; Villains Vault, 1653 Haight St.) has a darker, edgier vibe, selling high-end denim, T-shirts with acerbic political messages, and designer skate and surf wear. You won't see any tie-dyed T-shirts here. In fact, General Manager Randy Brewer, sitting at his desk in a back office storeroom, says that when tie-dyed tees started to come back in fashion a few years ago, the store made a conscientious decision not to include them. “We're a fashion-forward store,” he says. “That's not what we're about.”
But, like his neighbors, he does comment that one cool thing the '60s had going for it — and that Haight Street fashion still subscribes to — is the meshing together of different styles and eras.
“In L.A., I notice women all dressing alike to some extent,” he says. “But here it's not the case. They'll shop at thrift stores and they'll put together a $300 pair of jeans with a thrift-store jacket if it looks good. It's a much more individual style.”
Smiling, he adds a word of caution for those who get too aesthetically hung up on the '60s. “Never get yourself stuck in any one time period,” he says. “If the '60s look is in that season, that's great. But don't do the whole body that way. Mix and match. Nobody wants the exact '80s to come back again.”