I entered the 164-year-old V&A museum around 8 p.m. The front room was lit up with blue lights fixed upon posters of rock ’n’ roll legends like Mick Jagger and John Lennon. London socialites shimmied around the space in leather jackets and lived-in Levi’s, greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks and rambunctious conversation. After snagging a cucumber cocktail, I made my way farther back, down a hall chock-full of sculptures I probably studied during college (and have since forgotten), and came upon the entrance to You Say You Want a Revolution? Rebels and Records 1966–1970.
The exhibition, through which my fellow partygoers and I were so luckily about to receive a private tour, is a colorful exploration of this transformative time in culture that indisputably continues to affect society. Levi’s is a partner for the exhibition (open until February 2017) and graciously hosted me for the psychedelic journey. The docent handed me a set of headphones, and as soon as I slipped them over my ears and heard tunes from the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, I knew I was in for a very groovy trip.
As you enter the foyer, you’re greeted with several artifacts that lay the groundwork for what you’re about to experience, which we were told was less about nostalgia and more to do with looking forward. Most notably, there was a glass box holding Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, which underpins the part of the human psyche that’s always seeking progress. There’s also Ah! Sun-flower by William Blake, widely considered the patron saint of the 1960s. His work, though dating back to the 18th century, influenced the beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg.
Winding around the corner, you’re greeted with a charming replica of a Carnaby Street sign and a larger-than-life mannequin resembling Twiggy—the face of 1966 and of Swinging London. There’s also a nearby pit stop to Vidal Sassoon, who revolutionized hairstyles of the time. A few steps over, you land upon a stylish fashion boutique scene. This section represents the shops that multiplied in areas like Kings Road and Carnaby Street and encouraged the burgeoning fashion trends among the youth of the time.
It’s worth mentioning here that as you walk about the exhibition, music and sounds play in your headphones depending on where you’re standing. It’s pretty amazing.
Making my way deeper into the exhibition, I came across the next room that spotlighted the arts, particularly film and photography. A jumbo-size poster for Michelangelo Antonioni’s feature Blow-Up takes up most of the wall, and across the way, there’s also a white ladder provided by Yoko Ono, who used a nearly identical version for her 1966 installation, which is coincidentally where she met John Lennon (romantic!).
As you enter the next room, things get a bit darker, and sounds of Ravi Shankar and other psychedelic musicians begin to fill your headphones. This, of course, is due to the era’s fascination with LSD, spiritual literature, and bands like The Beatles, who released their highly successful album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. Though LSD’s not really our forte at Who What Wear, I will say that getting to see the Technicolor band uniforms John, Paul, George, and Ringo wore on the album cover in real life was one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. Fashion, mate!
No observation of the ’60s is complete without mention of the political turmoil and unrest that occurred during this period. The next room of the exhibition did an excellent job of showcasing an array of what was happening, including the feminist movement, fight for gay rights, civil rights issues, and the war in Vietnam.
Lightening things up a bit, the next hallway is a visual analysis of the booming consumerism and innovation that took place during these years. Early jet planes, the trip to the moon, rise of media and advertising—even the first credit card! Levi’s first radio ad took place in 1967, and its television ads also began to release, igniting a generation of young Levi’s lovers.
While observing William Anders’s space suit and an actual piece of moon rock, I tugged my headphones off my ears and heard a loud raucous coming from the next room. Around few sharp corners, I entered a ginormous, high-ceiling space that was playing scenes from Woodstock on huge screens. Lower down, I immediately noticed the ground shifting from museum wood floors to a grassy scene with printed pillows to sit on. Encircling the room were several mannequins adorned in festival fashions like embroidered tunics, fringed jackets, and the absolute coolest pair of patchwork Levi’s I’ve ever seen—hell, the coolest pair of jeans I’ve ever seen.
Later in the evening, I spoke with Levi’s President James Curleigh. He half-joked that 90% of people at Woodstock wore Levi’s, and the other 10% were naked. Perhaps there’s no definitive way to prove this, but it can’t be too far from the truth.
After spending an extended period of time plopped atop a beanbag watching Jimi Hendrix play the national anthem, I made my way to the end of the exhibition, which addresses the final revolution in communications as well as environmentalism. It ends on this sentiment: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Though there may be no time quite like the ’60s, looking back at how feasible it is to transform culture through mediums like fashion and music was an immensely motivating experience. If you plan to visit London in the next few months, don’t miss the exhibition. However, if a hop over the pond isn’t in the books, thankfully Levi’s recently relaunched its 505 jeans so you can take a slice of 1967 home with you.
What aspect of the 1960s do you love the most? Tell us in the comments.
Who What Wear was not compensated for this post.