Jeanne Beker Relives 50 Years of Anti-Establishment Style

On the eve of her curatorial debut, Politics of Fashion / Fashion of Politics at Toronto’s Design Exchange, Jeanne looks back at her politically-motivated fashion choices

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Woodstock print suit from 1970

A Woodstock-print suit from 1970.

While my first sartorial romances were based on plain old glam quotient—like my mom’s crystal-studded Lucite eve­ning bag or the poofy pink dress I wore to my sister’s sweet 16—by the mid-’60s, I began to realize that fashion had the ability to do more than make us feel pretty. (Click through our gallery to see snaps of Jeanne’s favourite politically-charged fashion choices through the decades.)

It all started with a “Ban the Bomb” button my sister brought home from a peace rally. It was the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we all felt like we were on the brink of nuclear war. After she explained what it represented, I thought it was the most exotic little pin imaginable. I coveted it like crazy, but I knew I’d have to earn the right to wear something so potent. Still, it was exhilarating to think that there were certain pieces that had the power to tell the world not only who I was but what I believed in.

The next year, 1964, I started hearing about Britain’s mods and rockers: two youth subcultures with disparate mindsets and ways of dressing. The rockers—bikers in tough black leather jackets and motorcycle boots—were inspired by the ’50s rock ’n’ roll music they loved. The mods—the group I identified with most—were more about fashion and the soul music of the time. I adopted the girl version of their look, with boyish shirts, straight skirts and patent shoes. The groups were always brawling because of their different socio-political attitudes: the rockers rejected the overt consumerism that the mods subscribed to. My 12-year-old self thought it was so cool that fashion was such an important part of the way these gangs expressed themselves.

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood

Punk pioneers Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.

As the late-’60s “youthquake” gained momentum, fashion took on an even more crucial role in the life of my generation. Sexual politics were heating up, and style embraced shock value—with a heavy dose of irreverence. Propriety had been turned on its ear, first by Mary Quant’s miniskirts and then, in 1964, by avant garde designer Rudi Gernreich, who proposed the controversial “monokini,” a topless bathing suit. In 1966, the Scott Paper Company came up with the novel idea of paper dresses—a comment on the consumerist zeitgeist. Disposable clothing was our way of rebelling against our parents’ generation, who valued durability. I’ll never forget how stunned my parents were by the paper Bob Dylan dress my sister brought home from her first trip to New York! World politics also became increasingly important, and with music playing such an integral role in our lives, many folk artists, like Dylan himself, started singing about society’s ills and how we could all make a difference. With attractive figures like the Kennedys and Pierre Trudeau, the civic arena started to seem downright sexy. Sure enough, images of politicians were emblazoned on some of those paper dresses, and suddenly there was this wonderful, and very fashionable, pop twist on political advocacy.

There was a self-made quality to many of the clothes that were worn in the 1970s, and hand-stitching, tie-dyeing and psychedelic patterns all spoke of the freedom we aspired to. As a bona fide hippie chick, I had a wardrobe filled with flower-power prints, some that spelled out L-O-V-E, and wore peace signs dangling from my ears or appliquéd onto suede vests and jean jackets. With rapidly changing social mores, feminism and empowerment took on new meaning. I stopped wearing a bra, bought a unisex jumpsuit and, when I moved to New York to study acting in 1971, bought myself a pair of baggy overalls and started wearing construction boots, disgusted by all the catcalls my miniskirts and hot pants provoked.

Margaret Trudeau in her handmade wedding dress

Flower child Margaret Trudeau in her homemade wedding dress.

By the late ’70s, pop culture’s focus was on the U.K. again. Britain was facing tough economic times, and unemployment and poor education had given rise to dissatisfaction and anger among youth. This aggressive attitude gave birth to punk—a genre of in-your-face music and fashion that was itself a call to arms to rise up and speak up. At their shop on London’s King’s Road, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren masterminded a revolutionary style of dress that proposed brave new ways of looking at tartan and bondage wear, challenging sexual and social taboos like never before. At the time, circa 1979, Toronto’s Citytv launched a magazine program called TheNewMusic, and I was hired as a co-host. During my early interviews with punk bands like The Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees, I was intimidated and inspired by their passionate belief that the establishment was ripping everyone off—and totally fascinated by their brazen sense of style.

As I grew more sophisticated in my 30s, I made my way through the ’80s broadcasting jungle in humongous shoulder pads, lots of leather and piles of bold accessories. The workplace had become a battlefield for women, and power dressing became our armour.

Hussein Chalayan afterwards collection Skirt Table

Hussein Chalayan’s 2000 Afterwords collection featured skirts that transformed into tables.

In 1985, Fashion Television became the first TV show to focus on the industry and its inhabitants. During this time, collections were rife with drama and theatrics, with designers expressing notions that went beyond mere beauty. Japan’s Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons challenged Western ideals with jarring collections filled with dark colours and distressed fabrics. (Some critics dubbed these “Hiroshima chic.”) Renegades like Jean Paul Gaultier eschewed traditional gender dressing and put men in skirts. And some designers, like Spanish-born Miguel Adrover, commented on the logo-mania and consumerism of the time by upcycling luxe pieces. (He audaciously refashioned a Burberry trench into a dress and a Vuitton bag into a miniskirt.) But because change is fashion’s only constant, the recession of the early ’90s inspired minimalism and a kind of no-nonsense uniform dressing. It was a good time to reflect on what fashion could say about who we were, and where we might be going.

Jeremy Scott care bear right to bear arms

A heat-packing Care Bear in Jeremy Scott’s 2007 Right to Bear Arms collection.

Of course, masters like Hussein Chalayan often took the avant garde route with brave shows that had something to say, like his fall 2000 Afterwords collection. Riffing on the plight of refugees, he explored the reactions of people confronted by war and their need to hide their belongings. Chalayan proposed possessions that could transform, such as tables that turned into skirts. The great Alexander McQueen regularly staged magnificent runway shows rife with social and political commentary. His controversial fall 1995 Highland Rape collection featured battered-looking models in tattered clothing—referencing his view on England’s violation of Scotland. More lighthearted was Jeremy Scott, whose satirical collections were thoughtful and often hilarious (spring 2007’s Right to Bear Arms collection—a commentary on American gun zeal—featured weapon-toting Care Bears). And then there’s the Moroccan-born Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, who always made me smile with his artistic and quirky fare, like the sequined Obama dress he sent down the runway in October 2008. Katy Perry later rocked the politically charged number at the 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards.

With the importance of image constantly escalating, those in the political arena have become just as style-conscious as red-carpet divas. And while some could be considered sartorially challenged, others have become fashion plates: Michelle Obama’s democratic approach to dressing—she sports everything from J. Crew to Azzedine Alaïa—has made her one of America’s top style icons; France’s former first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy brought new attention to the legendary house of Dior; and who could forget the 3,000-pair-plus shoe collection of Imelda Marcos, widow of the late Filipino president?

Alexander McQueen Highland Rape Collection

A look from Alexander McQueen’s controversial 1995 Highland Rape collection.

Of course, for women who grew up in the ’60s, Jackie Kennedy was the ultimate fashionista, and her impeccable taste is the stuff of legend. But it was Margaret Trudeau who really charmed me back in the day: when she married Pierre in 1971, many of my parents’ generation were shocked. She was 29 years his junior! But seeing that 22-year-old flower child in a handmade wedding dress walking down the aisle with the country’s most powerful man left a poetic if jarring impression. Fashion and politics may be odd bedfellows, but both are essentially about humanity, communication and the attempt to make the world a better place. Operating in tandem, they provide a profound portrait of not only our deepest passions, but also the enigmatic times in which we live.
Scott Paper Company Iconic Paper Dresses

Politics of Fashion / Fashion of Politics (Design Exchange, Toronto, Sept. 18–Jan. 25) will include the Scott Paper Company’s iconic paper dresses (above), among other politically charged pieces. dx.org

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