All smiles in their ribbon-and-lace-trimmed mini-dresses, the three winsome young women could not have been more eye-catching. That they were members of the Manson clan, photographed, hair swinging, on their way to court, is chilling of course. But fashion, perversely, cannot look away.
Like the culture at large, the style world has been fixated of late on these and other profoundly unsettling representations of the 1960s counterculture, designers and marketers viscerally drawn to hippiedom’s sketchily improvised manner and style, intent, it would seem, on exploring its dark side.
Indeed, there’s a lot to suggest that, to some minds at least, hippies are fashion’s new Goths.
Creepy variations on this enduring archetype began turning up more than a year ago as the subjects of “Wild Wild Country,” a Netflix documentary series about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his flamboyant, often lawless followers. Today hippies lurk in the shadows on the USA Network series “The Sinner,” its commune-dwelling populace “hypnotizing you,” as one character puts it, “so you don’t even know who you are.”
“Charlie Says,” Mary Harron’s biographical drama, is largely focused on Manson’s profoundly troubled female acolytes. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s unnerving summer release, hurls its audience straight into the heart of the infamous Spahn ranch, with its haphazardly outfitted denizens. Witchy in their crocheted tops, frayed cutoffs and muumuus, Charlie’s girls, as they were known, mind the ranch, thumb rides in the desert and offer themselves on no more than a whim to bewildered passers-by.
They share a psychic and aesthetic bond with a brooding type that has long existed in the literary imagination. Sasha, a minor character in “The Last of Her Kind,” Sigrid Nunez’s novel about coming of age in the era of Manson, was a striking figure, “with masses of dark, wild, wavy hair.” Never without a cigarette and always in black, she liked to mix leather and lace.
It is not by chance that Sasha and her brooding sisterhood have been resurrected on the runways, designers investigating both the somber and more garishly festive aspects of cult and commune culture. In the 2020 resort collections Missoni unveiled, among other dour looks, a midi-length coatdress the color of blood pulled over tapestry flares; Gucci highlighted pajama-style tunics and harem pants; and Coach clambered on board with a black and a claret-tone update on the billowy granny dress.
All of that is to say nothing of the floral-patterned maxi-dresses cropping up at fast fashion outposts like Zara and the homespun vests, frayed cutoffs and fringe-festooned Western jackets for sale at Forever 21.
Like its counterculture progenitors, the look smacks of escapism mingled with a moody pessimism. Its recent doomy associations have given rise to a proliferation of shroudish garments, trinkets and amulets, some that evoke the Source, that eerie ’70s Los Angeles cult, its members draped in shapeless white robes and pendants, heads garlanded in flowers.
What could account for fashion’s ghoulish fascination with these vagabond styles and subcultures?
The trend is obliquely related to the modesty movement, one high on puffed or belled sleeves, smocklike frocks and ankle-skimming hemlines. It is, in its most recent incarnations, embraced for its currency and social cachet. Simultaneously starchy and louche, the look is meant to be subversive.
Hippie style, at its most feverishly vibrant, strikes a similarly dissonant chord that resonates with the fashion tribes. That disharmony has long captivated designers — Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen the most obvious among them — using the runway to battle their demons, suggested Cassidy Zachary, a fashion historian and specialist in the fashions of the ’60s youth quake.
“With their smiling faces, long manes and flirty mini-dresses, hippies can seem at once both beautiful and horrific,” Ms. Zachary said.
“Fashion is one place where you can explore those contradictions,” she said. “The counterculture’s unlikely fusion of darkness and glamour was fascinating in the ’60s. And it’s fascinating now.”