I lived on St. Marks Place in the East Village in the late 60’s. People lived on the street, crowded the streets, the cafes, the stoops….everything, everywhere, everyone was happening! It was a foreign, exotic bazaar and one of the nuclear spots for the worldwide youth revolution…drugs, free sex, free thoughts, new ideas, new religions, message and music. It was as viral as the internet of today and as momentous. It was like passing through a door to a somewhere else where you could never go back the other way again.
We were called Hippies but that seems too conventional, too limiting to this movement of rampant self expression which exploded at this time. It was our time! If you were 16 or younger, you still had parents. If you were over 28, you were too ingrained in the “old ways.” Whatever it was -- the music, the drugs, the Eastern religion -- the message was infectious and it was our fantastic kingdom…a mythological place where people dressed as they never had before, trusted easily, spoke a new language and tore down conventional social norms, in the snap of a finger.
It wasn’t all great, however. Some people OD’d, never came back from magic-kingdom thinking and some radicalized this “good vibe” and morphed things into anarchy and violence.
For me, it was about the clothes! Every day was a chance to be a new fairy princess dressed in a fantastic confection of whimsy and wonder, at court in this new mystical world I was now living in.
I started college in upstate NY at a well regarded all girls school. (Women were called “girls” then.) I wore Villager skirts, Shetland sweaters, round collared oxford shirts with circle pins. My curly hair was always a problem as I could never quite get it straight enough to fit into a “waspy” stereotype. On the weekends, my roommate would iron it. If it was humid or I was at a sweaty frat party, I might as well have called it a night, as Cinderella might soon turn into a version of the ugly “stepsister.”
I was a sophomore when I decided to transfer to NYU downtown. Either the upstate girls college was too small for me or I was too big for it…besides, I was a bohemian and a whole world was happening that I just had to be a part of. Because I applied too late, I was denied dorm space but that was quite ok with me. I wound up sharing an apartment with another student I met at a party one evening. Someone I had just met on the street invited me to the party in a crowded walk-up apartment. It was the first time I dropped acid and the first time I really heard the Beatles and boy, I really heard the Beatles. It was a religious experience and as an initiate into a new religious order, I knew I had to shed the old duds.
I was poor, living on my own, with minimal help from my divorced parents….but I knew all about couture clothing. My mother had been a model and both my grandfathers made my clothing from an early age which my mother had designed for me….and so, I hit the thrift shops. In those years, one could find a tattered Chanel jacket, dresses from the ‘40’s and maybe a Mainbocher coat, even though it only had one sleeve. I didn’t exactly have a concept of a “good working wardrobe” and didn’t read Glamour magazine. I bought as much as I could of great loot, as cheap as possible and hauled it home in large garbage bags. Our aptartment only had one bedroom -- a tiny one -- and I had it and arranged my clothing in bags by color, fabric, or mood so I could get at what I wanted more easily.
So it started….my love affair with visual fantasy. In a short time, I became really good at it, layering layers over layers, cutting out patches, making slits and strategically inserting other wisps of whimsy, chiffons, prints, you name it!....pins, buttons, feathers, threads, changing everything as I went along. I never wore the same outfit twice. How could I? I didn’t stop at just the body. There were headdresses
with veils, hats with jewels and plumes; everything had something, somewhere to look at, dangling, jiggling, and shining. I was a moving piece of art!
When the tour buses came to the East Village they always pointed me out. I was told I looked like Stevie Nicks…but I was more a Lady Gaga and then some. I became known as a “visual artist” and clothing was my métier. I got into all the clubs and was invited everywhere…a regal denizen of an illusionary world.
After I graduated college, I got a serious job as a writer for a small business journal. I had to tone my wardrobe down and decided a small gold head band and bright purple maxi coat on which I had sewn yellow stars were suitable conservative work clothes. Whoever I interviewed would initially stare at me in disbelief but once I started asking the questions for my story, my curious intelligence compelled them to answer and we started a dialogue. I always got a byline.
My family never quite adjusted to my eccentricity. When I went home to visit them in suburban NJ, in what I thought was appropriate “garb” -- a long black man’s tailcoat with 100 rhinestone pins and a feather skirt and polka dot hat -- they would open the door and then sometimes slam it in despair. My mother would weep. How was I ever to find a suitable husband looking like that?
Years later, when I became a successful fashion designer, it was she who always rushed up with a huge congratulatory bouquet at the end of my runway show. Tears in her eyes, she would say, “You’re perfect, you’re brilliant…You had us all fooled.”