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New Allentown Art Museum exhibit looks at 1960s ‘fashion experiment’

The Allentown Art Museum is the place to be with its groovy new exhibition, “Fashion as Experiment: The ’60s.”

The exhibit, which opened Saturday and runs through Sunday, Sept. 24, explores clothing as a tool for change and focuses on the mid-1960s styles that offered young people of the era a laboratory for imagination and play as well as a growing sense of activism.

The new exhibition will be structured in two parts and will feature more than 100 garments and accessories from the museum’s vast collection, some of which by iconic designers such as Geoffrey Beene, Emilio Pucci, Bonnie Cashin, and André Courrèges.

I recently spoke with museum curator Claire McRee about the upcoming exhibition and more in this exclusive new interview.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the new exhibition, “Fashion as Experiment: The ‘60s”?

Claire McRee: We have a strong 1960s area in our fashion collection with a lot of depth and interesting garments. That was really the inspiration. Then as we thought about the issues and conversations that were happening during the 60s we realized a lot of the ideas about things like gender, race and the environment still resonate today. It felt like a great moment to take a closer look at this important era in history.

Josefa (Mexican, 19192010), Dress, 1972, natural cotton and ribbons. Allentown Art Museum: transferred from American Textile History Museum, Gift of Ellen Pinzur, 2017.
Josefa (Mexican, 1919–2010), Dress, 1972, natural cotton and ribbons. Allentown Art Museum: transferred from American Textile History Museum, Gift of Ellen Pinzur, 2017.

Q: What can visitors to the exhibition expect to see?

McRee: This exhibition is larger in scale than some of the other fashion exhibits we’ve done in the past and will take up the entire second floor of the museum. We’ll have two main groups with the larger one fitting into the category of disruptive youth. It contains styles that are mod, streamlined, minimalist and Avant-garde. We’ll have paper dresses and ones that reference pop art. There’s also a lot of floral and psychedelic prints as well as some very flamboyant men’s wear.

Another gallery will explore counter-cultural and how those styles worked outside the fashion system. Things like thrifting and mending that drew inspiration from global and historical styles and the eventual commercialization of those grassroots fashion trends. There are about 120 garments and accessories in the show and 46 mannequins in dress form.

Q: How did the museum acquire such a vast collection?

McRee: We received a significant gift from a local collector, Ellie Laubner, who gave us several thousand garments and accessories from her personal collection in 2009. That really established the fashion collection of the museum. Since then, we’ve also had other gifts build on areas in that collection. We’re very fortunate that our community supports and enables us to do these projects.

Q: Why “Fashion as Experiment?”

McRee: As someone who specializes in fashion history, I think there’s always a meaning behind clothes. It’s an interesting lens into our culture. For instance, in the mid- to late-’60s there was a lot of emphasis on new things, novelty and being in the moment. Designers were looking for ways to speed up the timeline of production and consumption with the focus being on innovation and getting out new looks. It was something young people really responded to. The disruptive styles had a lot of fluorescent and brilliant color combinations where the focus was on the future, and was more youthful, exuberant, and carefree.

Another would be the counter-cultural styles which were more grassroots and experimenting with things like mended clothing, patching, and embroidering. It was something you saw go from a do-it-yourself trend to something you could buy. A shift in western history where styles from outside the design world had a huge influence on designers.

Q: Do you have a personal favorite piece in the collection?

McRee: That’s always a hard question to answer. There are multiple pieces by Vera Neumann I like. She designed clothing but is also known for designing scarves and housewares linen. Her big thing was that she would hand paint designs that would then be printed on fabric. Her creative use of prints includes amazing floral dresses with vibrant colors that really embody the spirit of the 1960s.

Women's Boots, late 1960s/early 70s, vinyl with embroidery. Allentown Art Museum: Collection of Ellie Laubner, 2009.
Women’s Boots, late 1960s/early 70s, vinyl with embroidery. Allentown Art Museum: Collection of Ellie Laubner, 2009.

Q: Is there a message you’d like visitors to take with them after viewing the exhibition?

McRee: Part of it would be to have people think about the significance of clothing and the objects we surround ourselves with in our daily life. What do they say about us or about the
society we live in and how does it express certain values or viewpoints?

It’ll be wonderful for people to look back at an era that’s still within living memory. I’m sure there will be a lot of people who will have nostalgia and be excited to recognize things that they remember wearing or maybe saw photos of their loved ones wearing. I also hope we surprise a few people about the era that they may not have known or thought about before.

Before the 1960s, fashion was about self-presentation and getting into the proper rules of dress. By the ’60s there was more of an emphasis on rebelling against those trends and claiming clothing as a tool for self-expression. It’s something that really holds true today.

James Wood is a freelancer for The Morning Call. 

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