This year marks 50 years since nineteen 67 and it seems everyone in San Francisco is filled with nostalgia for the Summer of Love. A lot of our cultural institutions are celebrating with hippie themed galas and one of the museums, the deYoung, has mounted an exhibition specifically dedicated to explaining the counterculture esthetic. It feels as though people don’t remember, amid all of the hoopla about fashion and poster art, that there was a political component to the gatherings of the generation that was coming of age in the mid sixties.
I’m not one to spoil anybody’s fun but does anyone remember there was a war going on? The boys I grew up with were being drafted into the army. Some of them died in Vietnam. Some of them came home drug-addicted and scarred for life. For a lot of us, the summer of 1967 wasn’t about high fashion or fine art, it was somewhat grittier than that. The clothes we wore and the style we affected were markers of resistance. We thought we were participating in the beginning of something.
Young men and women wore long hair as a statement against style, against buying into the prevailing culture. Denim jeans and jackets, sometimes enhanced by their wearers with embroidery or other decoration, were a cheap and durable alternative to more fashionable garb. Women wore loose clothing to facilitate going braless. It was a protest against the constriction of undergarments designed to objectify the female form. Bra burning was the birth of feminist activism.
Then there’s the matter of smoking dope. Fifty years ago it was weak and the effects wore off quickly. Our lungs were young, we were free of anxiety and eager to share what we had. Now it’s hard to feel nostalgic about the scent of marijuana when you can smell it on the clothes of every third person you pass on the street. If you believe the alternative press in San Francisco, you’d think practically everyone in town is buying weed from dispensaries. Its effect is deeper and more long lasting than it used to be. An Assistant DA told me the police here have stopped arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana because it’s impossible to prosecute offenders. No local jury will convict someone for possession so for all intents and purposes, smoking dope is legal in San Francisco. Whether or not that’s a good thing, is not the point. If it’s no longer illegal, it’s not a marker of resistance.
There is one legacy of the sixties that appears to be a good thing. People of all ages seem to be taking to the streets. Now there are Not My President marches and women’s marches and marches for science. There are marches for immigrants rights and gay rights and #Black Lives Matter and both sides of the abortion issue. With the notable exception of women wearing pink hats in solidarity with one another, none of these causes seem to demand any particular form of dress. Well, there is a new strain of anti-fascists who dress in black and wear kerchiefs over the bottom half of their faces but its hardly likely this practice will come into fashion.
I suppose my meditation on all of the above is born of my disquiet over the fact that the people celebrating the summer of 1967 don’t seem to have gotten it quite right. Last week I was at a gathering of about thirty people and a woman was describing the museum’s Summer of Love exhibit. I looked around the room and I saw some of the people there were too young to have experienced it and I knew some of them came to San Francisco well after that time so I asked the question that was on my mind. “How many of you were in San Francisco during the Summer of Love?”
It turned out I was the only one.