Gwen Davies

Clothes (and hair) and tribal culture in the 1970s

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Clothes on the culty side:
On the driveway, where [Emily] has to follow a set of tire tracks up the long hill, the car slides off at a turn. No traction when Emily tries to rock it out.
She opens her door. No one moves. “We have to push it out,” she says. What do they think will happen?
The four girls, ski jackets over their saris, stand aside as the guy gets behind the car. . . . There’s no help for it. She looks at the shivering girls and motions them to the back of the car.

Hair on the communal side:
In the summer they would sit in the sun porch having a beer and painting each other’s toenails. Or doing an oil treatment on their hair with their heads wrapped in plastic bags.

display for Ingrid in purple

display for Ingrid in purple

From the book Facing the Other Way, from the story “Marrying Gilbert”

For many people, clothes are the picture of us that’s worth a thousand words. In the 70s, I walked around in a long Indian cotton skirt, a light embroidered blouse with no bra, beads or a bell around my neck, with bare feet (bad on city streets) or steel-toed Greb Kodiaks, hair down to my behind. The guys wore blousy shirts made of unbleached cotton (hand made from cotton flour sacks, sometimes) or plaid, heavy flannel shirts – and like as not, they had a headband tied around long hair or a pony tail. (See the previous blog for a great picture in full regalia.)

Clothes suggested where your loyalties lay. Who you associated with. And who you did not associate with – we did not want to be mistaken for our parents.

Guys pierced their ears – well, one ear, and you had to pierce the correct one. One side meant you were sexually gay and the other meant you were straight and we beginners, tying to take cues from people around us, often didn’t know the rules. Everyone was a newby when they started.

In “Marrying Gilbert” the yoga guys wore white tunics over loose pants with turbans, and the girls wore saris because they studied under a guru from India. There is not just safety in numbers – there is a tribal affiliation people seem to need – check out the recent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In the 70s we were exploring tribes in communes. Like in the little quote at the beginning of this blog, braiding and brushing each other’s hair (and getting our periods at the same time), trying out each other’s clothes.

But the clothes in the stories can also be symbolic. Back to “Marrying Gilbert”, Emily goes to the Goodwill store and buys herself a dress to wear to her wedding that’s too small – she plans to let it out.

Since many of us lived on next to nothing, clothes were often tattered and patched. Worn and patched soon became a badge of right living. It was not a vow of poverty so much as an experiment to see what would happen if we could overturn corporate culture and dependence on comfort. We lost our innocence, however, and corporate culture met us at every turn, selling stone-washed jeans and clothes made of distressed fabric that came with rips and patches.

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