Hippies live again at Boston museum

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BOSTON -- Does anyone else remember that early episode of "All in the Family"? The one in which Archie Bunker, wearing a tie at his daughter's urging, meets her boyfriend, Michael Stivic, who arrives in tie-dyed T-shirt and ripped jeans.

That encounter was not cordial, as Archie went off on a tirade about hippies and protesters, culminating in his rendition of "God Bless America."

'Hippie Chic'

Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Ave.

When: Through Nov. 11. 10 a.m-4:45 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Saturday, Sunday; 10 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Wednesday-Friday.

Tickets: $25, adults; $23, seniors 65 and over and students 18 and over; $10, students 7-17, but free after 3 p.m. weekdays and weekends; youths 6 and under free.

Information: 1-617-267-9300; mfa.org.

Well, no such frisson of disquiet can be found at "Hippie Chic," now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Psychedelic patterns, fringed jackets and tie-dyed gowns are on display but -- even with a jukebox playing 1960s hits -- there is little to experience that would justify a parent's distress at a son or daughter's choice of a mate or love beads.

Like "Punk: Chaos to Couture," which closed recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York, this is an exhibition that takes a once-rebellious lifestyle and reconfigures it as mere inspiration for haute couture.

With only a faint whiff of what it meant to be counterculture -- and this exhibition could use the scent of marijuana, just as Diana Vreeland once pumped Chanel No. 5 into exhibitions at the Met in the 1970s -- "Hippie Chic" mostly demonstrates how rapidly Woodstock wear was turned into flowing caftans and crushed-velvet suits, first by hip boutiques like Ossie Clark and Granny Takes a Trip and soon after by the designers Arnold Scaasi, Geoffrey Beene and Yves Saint Laurent.

While neither "Punk" nor "Hippie Chic" pretends to be a definitive take on a movement, they both raise serious issues about what fashion means at the moment and what should be expected from curators picking through clothes from the not-so-distant past.

Lauren D. Whitley, the curator of "Hippie Chic," made the point -- echoed by Andrew Bolton, the curator of "Punk" -- that a department in an art museum focuses on clothes only when they rise to the level of fine art.

"I am not showing a hippie's clothes," Ms. Whitley said in an interview. "While it could be interesting to present someone's old pair of jeans, we are looking at the point when this becomes a bigger idea and impacted designed clothes, artful clothes."

Mr. Bolton is fascinated by punk streetwear having a direct impact on haute couture, reversing the usual trickle-down disbursement of high style to the public.

"All good fashion, like all good art, is never constrained by the parameters of its profession," he said. "It comfortably borrows from high art and low art, often challenging accepted notions of its metier."

In the case of punk fashion, Mr. Bolton noted, "the designers lifted the hardware, the studs and the safety pins, but punk changed the paradigm for modern fashion. It introduced the concept that beauty isn't to be found in the haughty reiterations of social fashion but in the enlargement of fashion ideas."

Ms. Whitley insisted that hippies got there first. "Hippies wedged a foot in that door," she said.

Nostalgia is obviously a factor that is drawing museum-goers, as baby boomers remember their own participation in the '60s and '70s (even if it was just buying a lava lamp or attending a Ramones concert). "People are coming to museums now not for an experience of art, but for an art-centered experience, so an exhibition like this -- where many of the people visiting have lived through the hippie years -- has a kind of personal contact that is very special," said Malcolm Rogers, the museum's director.

"Some people are coming wearing the clothes or carrying a bag they used in the '60s," he added, "and with the jukebox allowing people to choose their favorite song, there is an interactive instant memory which again amplifies the nostalgia of the clothes."

An exhibition as much fun as this one may set off a second wave of bell bottoms, suede suits and granny glasses. But what one hopes it inspires is another counterculture, at least in fashion, where the young again choose to do their own thing and reject ready-to-wear offerings. Little at this exhibition -- not the star-covered boots by Granny Takes a Trip nor the chubby jacket by Yves Saint Laurent -- suggests that you can make your own style, rather than imitate Jimi Hendrix. Or, for that matter, Lady Gaga.

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