FLOWER CROWNS AND THE PUNCH OF PROTEST (PART 2)

IN A 3-PART SERIES, WE TALK TO WOMEN ABOUT HOW ACTIVISM AND FASHION HAVE CHANGED SINCE THE COUNTER-CULTURE OF THE ‘60S AND ‘70S — AND WHAT THEY’VE LEARNED OVER THE YEARS

By Genevieve Finn

10 • 24 • 2018

Collage by    Isabel Bina

Collage by Isabel Bina

 

Clothing is semiotic.

When President Obama eased the U.S embargo on Cuba in 2014, tropical prints and Cuban-inspired silhouettes filled the following New York Fashion Week. During the 2008 economic recession, workwear’s turn on the trend cycle illuminated an American yearning for a time when unemployment wasn’t a national blight. Now, I see ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired fashion everywhere: floral dresses on campus, fur-trimmed coats on runways, bell bottoms in my own closet. Why?

I see major parallels between today’s events and the most iconic moments of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Women’s March Instagram posts mirror vintage photos of Vietnam War Protests; the Parkland High School activists of last Spring have used their voices similarly to the youth of yesteryear; a sexuality-related revolution seems to be under way, though this time it might be a reckoning of sexual harassment and a wider acceptance of LGBTQ+, as opposed to the more general Free Love Movement of past countercultures.

Curious as to if those who actually lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s are seeing it too, I interviewed three very fascinating, very different women on what has changed and what remains – or rather, what has reawoken – between the era of their twenties and this current one. Did people really wear flower crowns and hair down to their waists? Were people really doing as many drugs and having as much sex as we’ve been told in school? Have we leapt forward in gender equality? Is the punch of protest still as potent? Leslie Ayvazian, an NYC-based playwright and professor, Jesse Cool, a Bay Area-based pioneer of the “slow food” movement, and Gerry Fleuriet, a Texas-based community organizer and homemaker, generously enlightened me:

Jesse Cool is, and has been for 40 years, dedicated to sustainable food practices. She is the founder of five restaurants, author of seven cookbooks, a lecturer at the Stanford University Department of Education, and a passionate road biker. But she spent her youth crisscrossing the nation in a van painted with rainbows, throwing eggs at tanks, and raising her children as a single mother.

What did your life look like during your twenties?

I went to Temple University, but I got pregnant during my sophomore year, and ended up having a divorce by the time I was 23. It was the ‘70s, and at that time I was hitchhiking (not with my child). One summer, I ended up in Vancouver and did not want to travel with the person I was with anymore, so I woke some guys up in a youth hostel and asked them if they’d get me back to the United States. They were(?) computer programmers from Palo Alto, driving a 1967 Volkswagen bus.

So I got in their bus and spent two weeks with them. I painted those rainbows and the tao and the sun on the side of the Volkswagen. Neither of them were lovers. We were just these three cute little people traveling around. They realized that I’d traveled across the country, across Canada, with a sweatshirt and a backpack meant for a six-foot-seven guy. They took me to REI, outfitted me, and flew me back to Philadelphia where I was living in a community with a bunch of guys. Joshua (my older boy) was about five. I was living with a bunch of guys so he’d have male role models around.

Then, one of the guys from the van, Peter, sent me an email that said, “You know, I think we should actually be in a relationship. I’m gonna come and get you.” He drove the ‘67 Volkswagen bus across country. I finished college. I had been on welfare because I was a single parent and needed it to survive so I could get my college degree. I got it, went off welfare, got in this bus a few months later, and came to California. It was magical, but it was definitely not easy for my now 48-year old. I mean, we would stop in high schools and sneak into gymnasiums to take showers.


Were you happy in your twenties?

Well, I was getting a divorce. I was scared, insecure -- and being a single parent and a woman at that time? Nobody was! All the people who were having fun with sex, drugs, and rock and roll didn’t have a kid. I had this child. The truth is, I didn’t even notice that he was on the journey with me a lot, which is probably why he’s pissed off with me (but he grew up to be successful and we love each other). Was I happy? I would say I felt more connected to the simplicity of spirituality and giving and kindness and community. It was the source of my business, which is food and organics and feeding people. Because it was simpler, I’d say it was happier, but I was a single woman, and that route was not that easy.

What was it like being young during the Sexual Revolution, the Vietnam War, the rise of counterculture, etc.? How did that affect you as a person?

I’d call myself a Love Child. My former husband was a conscientious objector. I was a draft counselor. I was throwing eggs at tanks, anti-Vietnam War. I think it was the roots to my business. A lot of that came from my family. My family was in a small coal mining town. My dad was the first person to hire a black man in this small town in Western Pennsylvania. He was friends with Satchmo (*Louis Armstrong) because Satchmo couldn’t get a room in our town, and my dad listened to his music and he got him a room. My family gardened; they were Old World, community people. So in a way, even though my mind and fashion was contemporary, I was very Old World.

As for the Sexual Revolution, I was a virgin when I got married and all I can tell you was I made up for lost time. There was no AIDS. There was no judgment. The community didn’t think that you were bad if you expressed yourself with intimacy. We did LSD, but it was mind opening, it wasn’t destructive. It was love. It was truly the Love Generation. My poor kids, when they read everything, will probably look back and think “You were so unstable. We know you were searching for a father role, but obviously, you didn’t really want one because you couldn’t stay put.”

Do you see more similarities between that time period and now, or more differences?

I’m a part of farming communities. They’re my heroes, not cookbooks, not famous chefs. For a while there no one was farming because there was no money in it. It’s brutal, it’s hard. But this next generation of farmers -- what we’re noticing is that a lot of the young kids are showing up with dreadlocks and patchouli and smoking pot, and they’re just so lovely so it feels like it’s a Love Fest. I really feel it genuinely.

In regards to some of the protests, I think yes, the marches and protests and shift in values for some is very hopeful, yes, there are good causes again. But it’s not the way it was. It was really different. This current moment in governance is so off-balance and upside down. I’m glad many of you are hopeful and optimistic, but I personally am struggling to see it.

What was your favorite thing to wear in your twenties?

I was very poor then. My parents lost all their money and I was on welfare. I learned so much from having nothing, because when you have nothing, sometimes you have everything. I had to make my own clothes, so I made them out of bedspread remnants and scraps of cloth. I have this dress, this blue dress, that of course I can’t get into anymore, but I wore it all the time. I still have it. It’s navy blue. There are holes from smoking joints and cigarettes or whatever that I embroidered around so I could fix it. During the gas crisis, I would sit in line waiting for gas, and I take a pair of bell bottom jeans and I sew on panels of paisley and embroider all the holes. And I have my vests that I embroidered -- I thought I was going to be an embroiderer for a living! Then I became a waitress; then I became a restaurant owner.

Looking back on that time, what do you think of it?

It was an amazing journey. But you know, it always seems more glamorous from the outside in. It was very hard for my children. We didn’t have much. My children are still very frugal and fiscal because they went though having nothing in the midst of Palo Alto where everybody else had money. Both of them are both doing really well! Oh my god, my son has a PHD in Cell Biology and works for the Tan-Zuckerberg Initiative. My oldest boy is a project manager for Amazon. But anyway, it looks different from the other side. It was hard, but it was fun.

Any final pieces of advice?

Stay happy and keep to your values.

You can find Jesse on Instagram at @jessecooleatz, @fleastreetcafe, and @flea_street

Read part 1 of the series here.