For many the 1960s was the epitome of freedom, style and youth culture, an explosion of colour, music and fashion that inarguably shaped the subsequent decades, an influence that is still felt today. Or so goes the argument of the V&A’s latest major exhibition that looks at the ‘significance and impact’ of the late 60s. For those of us who weren’t there, the V&A makes a strong case and throws in a few surprises by considering not just the obvious pop culture aspects, but also the emergence of political protest in multiple countries, key technological innovations and a growing concern with an eco-friendly lifestyle.
But it all begins with the more obvious, but still highly entertaining, story of swinging London, political scandals and the integration of music and fashion. We may have heard it all before but the V&A takes a more academic approach to presentation with detailed descriptions of every object as well as an admirable collection of exhibits that add considerably to the argument the exhibition is making. It’s clear the museum has learnt so much in recent years from its blockbuster shows and the importance of visual design is now as valuable as the objects on display. Technology too is integrated into this show with video screens and presentations throughout, but most importantly a headset (for once included in the price) that wirelessly connects to films and recordings as you walk by allowing you to listen without having to control the audio guide yourself, and plays a variety of 60s tunes to you – from John Peel’s record collection – the rest of the time, immersing you entirely in the years under discussion.
Utilising the citrus colours of psychedelia, the first section looks at youth culture, art, fashion and music with examples from clothing store Biba, a video of stylist Vidal Sassoon cutting a V-shape into the back of a woman’s hair and posters referencing art nouveau from the First World War. Everything changed is the message here; from hemlines to morals, the late 1960s was a blast of fresh air on a fetid backward-looking society. A lot of that is debatable and arguably it is the older generation who did much to alter the laws that decriminalised homosexuality and abortion, but seeing this collection all at once certainly replicates the vibrant feel of the times.
From Twiggy’s clothing line on a mannequin that is frighteningly designed to look like her, to Mick Jagger’s all-in-one white stage outfit, Sandi Shore’s dresses designed by husband Jeff Banks (and let’s not forget he went on to design clothing for Sainsburys), the chair Christine Keeler provocatively posed on during the Profumo scandal to the newly launched magazines of the era, this section is all about fresh faces and creative endeavours. Interesting too is the focus on fame and how the perceived lifestyles of particular celebrities helped to shape the commercial and cultural effect of the era leading to clothing catalogues replicating celebrity outfits and the craze for shopping that resulted. The new photographers like David Bailey and Ronald Traeger took pictures of people like Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and even the Krays that are on display here which define this confluence of art and style.
Unsurprisingly, at many points this feels as much an exhibition of The Beatles as it does an examination of their era, with almost every section containing costumes, clothes or handwritten lyrics jotted down on scraps of paper. In section two on the effect of LSD, which was legal until 1966, their stage outfits from Sergeant Pepper and a sitar. There’s a lot of material in this section that looks at the growth of “counter-culture” clubs and their impact on design, which is interesting but a little too text heavy, and you’ll find as with the rest of the exhibition, it is The Beatles sections everyone is crowded around.
Most unexpectedly the V&A has included a large section on the political disputes, activism and riots of this period, many in response to the Vietnam War, and developing attitudes to race, sexuality and gender politics. After the brash whirl of the early sections this is a tonic, clearly showing that beneath the façade of cool celebrities and consumption, dark and complex changes were occurring in societies across the world that laid the foundation for many of the freedoms we take for granted today. There was a shift to using posters for political purposes and many are on display, along with protective clothing worn by The Black Panthers and French Police, as well as brutal photojournalism showing dead students in America as a result of an out of control protest – a stark and fascinating contrast with the slick image of celebrities in the previous room. Clearly, the late 60s saw a flowering of popular culture but also of youth engagement with pertinent political and social injustices.
Being the V&A a section on design is almost mandatory and while this section on consumerism and technological development has some interesting objects, it almost warrants a whole exhibition on its own. It’s a very broad ranging room, taking in developments in advertising, paper dresses printed with a Warhol-influenced soup poster print, space suits from the moon-landing, Expos and a Kodak Carousel anachronistically accompanied by a relevant scene from Mad Men. It feels a bit too lightweight on its own and could have made more sense if tied into the later room on the growth of communication technologies and personal computing. It’s nice to include but is a little flimsy in linking such innovations to its overall argument about the ongoing influence of the 60s.
One of the showcase sections is the semi-recreation of Woodstock, shown on enormous surrounding screens including performances from Hendrix and The Who while the floor is covered in fake grass strewn with beanbags for visitors to lie-back and enjoy. Around the room are several of the costumes worn by musicians as well as Keith Moon’s drum kit and Jimi Hendrix’s guitars in various states of destruction. For music fans this exhibition is a must and the amount of original material the V&A has gathered is incredible, and if you can fight the reminiscing baby boomers for a beanbag this room is well worth a longer stay. But it links neatly into the section on the creation of ecological communities, who rejected technology and traditional city life for country communes. It’s certainly clear that festival-going has moved from its alternative roots into a mainstream preoccupation for many in the summer, with environmental concerns are hotly debated, while our modern preoccupation with being permanently “online” is developing its own backlash – a return to counterculture modes perhaps?
The exhibition ends with 1970 and the ushering in of a slightly different era typified by calls for peace, love and social cohesion. It ends with Lennon’s Imagine – a song many will have an ambiguous relationship with now – as well as a jacket he wore at the time. Its tone is a bit of a whimper after such a furious beginning and high-stakes political discussion, but perhaps that’s how all decades end, a quiet slide into the next one taking only some of their style and substance with them. Yet the V&A makes a compelling case for the influence of the period 1966-70 on the modern world, and while a lot of the changes it trumpets were grounded in the post-war upheavals of the 1920s-1950s, the 60s has a hold on our imagination that is hard to shake. This is a full-on and at times overwhelming show, full to the brim with interesting exhibits – to wallow in it, head to the V&A and enjoy this anthem to the decade of style.
You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the V&A until 26 February 2017. Tickets are £16 and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1