The highs might be in the 90s but at the History Museum of Mobile (111 S. Royal St.), it’s all about the ’60s. The decade, not the temperature. The timing couldn’t be better as the world will note the golden anniversary of humanity’s 1969 lunar landing in July.
The museum survey takes the form of “Sensational ’60s,” a new exhibit focused on clothing as an avatar for deeper change and the speed with which it all happened. The exhibit opened at June’s start and continues through Aug. 18.
“This is something we spent about two months putting together,” Museum Director Meg Fowler said.
Fowler’s background lent itself to the aesthetic tangent. She spent two years teaching art history at the University of South Alabama, had a 2013 graduate internship at the New Orleans Museum of Art and a 2018 curatorial fellowship at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay.
“This is a real cultural history where fashion, which can seem so ephemeral and insignificant, [can show you] everything you want to know about politics and culture in that decade,” Fowler told Artifice in May.
Visitors actually hear the exhibit before they cross the threshold into the second-floor gallery. A host of musical creatures – Animals, Turtles, Beatles – fill ears throughout the tour, setting the perfect tone.
Immediately inside, a bikini-clad mannequin appears. High-waisted compared to today’s beach garb, younger viewers likely will have little idea how scandalous it was. Good thing there’s explanation and a photo of Ursula Andress, squeezed into skimpy swimwear in the James Bond flick “Dr. No.” I was grateful they included her, for educational purposes, mind you.
Setting the stage are examples of ’50s attire, a pair of men’s pants with a preppy sweater and a woman’s dress. So similar to 1940s attire, it’s easy to grasp the traditional standards in play.
A nearby array of women’s clothes touch on the new decade’s first years, the Kennedy administration’s “Camelot” period that in some ways was a continuation of the 1950s. Clothes are still traditional but there’s a subtle alteration in the cut, a sleeker, more stylish tailoring that appeals to the modern eye in a different way.
Signage throughout not only explains the impetus of shifts, but also hallmarks and icons who represented them. Like the early ’60s portion that nods to Jackie Kennedy, of course, as well as Audrey Hepburn who embodied a vibrant and more independent image.
If the 1960s was a storm of upheaval, the thunderclaps – assassinations, coups, riots – are accompanied by constant rainfall. A timeline running across the front of each exhibit space marks the deluge. The introduction of the birth control pill in 1960, the Berlin Wall’s appearance, NASA missions, civil rights marches and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” all spatter the viewer’s mind to show how fast the shifts accumulated.
When mid-decade arrives, European Mod trends and the space race manifest in ever more unprecedented attire. Bold colors and patterns become more commonplace, signaling a modernist approach with its vision trained into the future. Miniskirts and geometric shapes are en vogue.
In late decade, bohemian sensibilities are co-opted by middle-class clothiers. Earthy hippie and Asian influence comes into vogue. Silk, leather, velvet, corduroy and denim become more popular than ever before the 1970s take “garish” into new territory.
Visitors are invited to try on clothing from one specific rack. They can watch media examples of the day, even take a whiff of popular perfumes and aromas of the era.
Most of the exhibit is built from the museum’s collection, thanks to Gayfer’s, which donated stock when its downtown department store closed. A selection of formalwear and a lime-green Azalea Trail Maids outfits are courtesy of private collections.
A more in-depth discussion ensues at the museum’s July 10 Learning Lunch when author Frye Gaillard will speak about his 2018 book, “Hard Rain: America in the 1960s.”
Gaillard’s survey is more than a sterile analysis and is saturated with his own perspectives and experiences. From a native Mobilian who becomes embroiled in the civil rights movement and finds himself alongside truly monumental icons of the era, it gives a local and personal flavor to something too often awash in shallow stereotype.
It’s not just political notes. Gaillard looks at music, movies, literature and sports – all parts of a culture in rapid transformation. He’s told interviewers the zeitgeist of that era haunts our current climate, with a cascade of important events that seemingly multiply by the month.
Gaillard’s noontime event is free and attendees are asked to bring their own lunch. For more information, call 251-208-7569.
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