“We are stardust, we are golden”, sang Joni Mitchell of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held August 15-18th 1969, at a dairy farm in the Catskills near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York. The irony was, she wasn’t even there.
A further irony follows in that whilst a myriad of psychedelic colours are synonymous with the Woodstock nation, one of the most revered choices of dress, clearly shown in the documentary Woodstock (1970) is a simple white leather fringed lace-up tunic-style vest and bell bottom trousers. It is worn by one of the first female rock stars, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, Grace Slick.
As the biggest rock-folk fusion band to come from the 1960s San Francisco counterculture, Jefferson Airplane were the festival headliners on the Saturday. At the height of their fame in 1969, they were role models for a new generation: the hippies. Beginning in the USA, politically rebellious, promiscuous and regular consumers of marajuana and LSD (the hallucinogenic drug which caused the swirling patterns of the psychedelic clothes to appear in front of the eyes), they encouraged the youth of the day to be whoever they wanted to be. Wear clothes if you want to, or don’t. Listen to our music if you want to, or don’t. During this time, many young Americans rejected the bonds of Western culture in favour of Eastern freedom, feeling closer to nature when wearing the eclectic clothes and embellished fabrics of India, Peru and Turkey, for example.
Grace Slick’s style in the late 60’s was ahead of the times, many young women looking to her as a style guide for ethnically-influenced garments rather than the previous neat ‘mod’ style which was for “it” girls. It suddenly became fashionable to wear whatever the hell you wanted – nothing was too bizarre or zany. Grace had always been captivated by clothes worn centuries previously, for example long biblical robes, and so the kaftan became popularised in 1967 and she wore this to Jefferson Airplane’s first (and Grace’s favourite) major rock and folk festival, Monterey Pop. This fantastical way of dressing was Grace’s dream come true and she was like a child in a sweet shop, choosing costumes from theatres and goodwill stores and making clothes herself from towels if she had to. Grace needed no couturier – her creativity is as wild and imaginative off-stage as on.
Grace was in the spotlight during the ‘Woodstock’ performance, which was only heightened by her choice of white in the myriad of colour amassed from the peace-loving, anti-Vietnam flower children. Grace recalls in her autobiography how she chose the outfit because she wanted to be “clear” and “light”; without colour. It was a choice she wanted to make carefully as it was important to her to feel part of a tribe, to be fully accepted into this subculture. It is almost as if she wants to be naked, such was the importance of the artists being at the same standing as the audience at Woodstock. There were no “celebrities” here – everyone just hung out together. Whilst the colour (or lack thereof) actually makes her stand out from the crowd, the fashionable fringing and flared trousers put her firmly into the hippie movement.
It might be presumed that in the quest to get ‘back to nature’, the outfit is made from buckskin, a soft leather from the hide of deer, originally worn by Native Americans. When it is white or pale in colour, it is classed as unsmoked. These are often trimmed with a fringe, which was used originally for function rather than form by mountain men to allow the garment to shed rain and dry faster. Little wonder then that fringing was so popular with the outdoor-loving flower power movement. The natural features of Grace’s vest are heightened as snail shells appear to be used for the two top buttons at the chest, under which the lacing starts at an empire line. Further ethnic and craft-oriented detailing is included in the fringing with its subtle beading and feathers.
Other reasons for the choice of white in the outfit could be to subvert the audience’s mind. White is of course virginal, and this only adds to the sex appeal of the garment, with added irony as Grace was not known for abstaining, neither sexually nor verbally. This was a time of free love and free speech. It could link to their most famous song, ‘White Rabbit’ (not shown in the documentary), written by Grace and a popular character in the paintings she now produces. It is almost as though she tries to escape what is in fashion – now everybody is wearing the swirly, psychedelic, floaty paisley prints, she refuses to. She comments in her book that she would never have worn a tie-dye t-shirt as it was “too modern”.
Notice how she wears no other accessory – she doesn’t need to, apart from her serviceable Jesus sandals and octagonal gold-rimmed sunglasses when required as she waits to go on stage. The beauty of the way the fringing hangs from the shoulders, neckline, chest and bottom hem and moves with her is enough, and would only be cluttered with further adornment. She wears barely any make-up and her normally sleek hair with heavy fringe is left in its natural curls, which adds to her tribal appeal. Never one to be bound by the constraints of underwear (Grace once went topless to protect a beloved silk blouse), here is no exception – you can even see the tan lines above her breasts which shows an appealing normality.
Unfortunately for Grace, the band had to smoke pot, drink wine and eat cheese all night without a bathroom break and didn’t eventually take to the stage until 8am Sunday morning. There were moments that Grace regretted packing her case in hot, sunny California with just the one outfit, especially when in New York the heavens opened for the whole of Saturday and she was dressed in white! Needless to say, Grace didn’t become as acquainted with mud as some of the Woodstock nation.
It is now 45 years since Woodstock and festival fashion, also known as boho chic, is always a Summer staple in fashion magazines and retail outlets, with many trying to replicate the sartorial freedom of the flower children at the variety of outdoor music events on offer now. Perhaps some should follow the simplicity of Grace’s outfit rather than piling on the leather woven beaded bracelets and necklaces like there was no tomorrow. The idea is to show off the rock-and-roll nonchalance displayed by its namesake in a simple way.
As for the original outfit, you can view the vest/dress part at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Cleveland, Ohio in its exhibition ‘Common Ground: A Music Festival Experience’ which runs until January 2015.
Grace continued to make music and be fashion-forward with Jefferson Starship, Starship and in her solo career until 1989. Ironically, when Jefferson Airplane reformed briefly in 1989, she wore a white suit during some of the tour, perhaps a conscious nod to a career highlight? Maybe Joni Mitchell was right – at Woodstock, everyone was “golden”. For that magical weekend, troubles were gone, peace reigned and everyone was the same.
Written by Sarah H
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.