There is nothing more alluring at the moment than painting materialistic hedonism with a countercultural stripe.
Last week, a group of reporters gathered at Fred’s at Barneys for breakfast to hear Simon Doonan’s spiel on the theme of the store’s holiday windows this season: “Peace and Love: Have a Hippie Holiday.” The windows took shape as a mix of old-meets-new boho chic in the form of peace signs (celebrating its 50th anniversary), singers Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, embroidered jeans and Afro-centric chic, juxtaposed with more than 30 (not for sale) dresses emblazoned with the peace sign and made using sustainable materials.
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Designed by everyone from Michael Kors to Moschino, they were commissioned by Barneys and Earth Pledge FutureFashion, an initiative whose aim is to help designers go green. You can even buy a $100 ticket to win a VW New Beetle that is painted with doves, peace signs, and other pretty, feel-good imagery—and rest assured, all proceeds go toward planting trees in VW’s Mississippi forest to offset the carbon footprint of that car.
Acknowledging that there’s no stopping shopping, Barneys has instead made it its mission to at least give it a socially conscious bent. By highlighting the creativity (but not the assassinations) spawned from the tumultuousness of ’68, it’s hoping to a draw a parallel to the current fashion for all things eco-conscious, and maybe inspire shoppers to trade in a Balenciaga bag for one made from eco-friendly leather and emblazoned with a peace sign.
To this confused reporter trying to grapple with how a department store—even a smart, tongue-in-cheek one like Barneys—reconciles a celebration of the anti-establishment movement of the ’60s with a shopping call to arms, Doonan readily acknowledges there is no such reconciliation. “It’s very hard for girls to be counterculture now, because they’re all so materialistic,” he told us that morning as we dodged foot traffic on Madison Avenue in front of the flagship’s store windows. “I don’t [reconcile it]! Shopping is the only thing that matters! Buy handbags!” He’s kidding! Oh, wait, no, he’s not.
There are such trials and tribulations for those trying to do good and look stylish in the 21st century—it feels impossible to identify oneself as countercultural through one’s style. But even so, what exactly does one wear to a protest these days to distinguish oneself? How do you say no to Prop 8 with the right sartorial choice?
There was a time, in the ’60s, when all it took was long hair, a pair of jeans, and a work shirt, and one was immediately identified as a part of the counterculture. As the popularity of hippie fashion spread post-Vietnam War, it lost its ability to shock and was reduced to a set of meaningless signs. So meaningless, in fact, that to dress like a hippie might, instead of indicating one’s anti-establishment ways, have the reverse effect.
Now it’s not enough to dress a certain way. In our jaded culture, we’ve maxed out every possible sign of rebellion. There’s little you can tell about someone’s politics based on their outward appearance, except maybe—and this is a big one right now—their sexual politics. Flamboyant dress—serious, over-the-top fashion, whether worn by someone straight or gay—might be the last vestige of “bohemian” style.
In our jaded culture, we’ve maxed out every possible sign of rebellion. There’s little you can tell about someone’s politics based on their outward appearance.
At a 2008 protest, what you see are people expressing themselves through language: placards, T-shirt slogans, chants. It’s their actions that set them apart, not their clothing. Earnestness no longer has a collective symbol or uniform; the message is the medium. Times have changed.
Back at Barneys, before Simon Doonan gushed about peace and love and having a hippie holiday, he sat in the corner of the restaurant lamenting the null-and-void fate of his recent marriage in California to longtime partner Jonathan Adler, thanks to the passage of Prop 8. “They’ve taken away our civil liberties!” he said. “I hope you’re all going to go out tonight and protest on 65th Street in front of the Mormon temple.” Action, not fashion.
Though the world’s problems won’t be solved with a dress, it can help take the edge off, and that ultimately is the underlying theme on display at Barneys. If we’re feeling happy, we’ll probably be more inclined to take action so that others will feel the same way. Here, a gallery of a few of the peace-sign inspired looks from the Barneys windows, attempting to turn sneers to cheers.
Renata Espinosa is the New York Editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."