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Voices | Christopher Muther

Turn on, tune in, dress down

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / August 6, 2009

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More than a few of my friends have waltzed over to AMC’s website, hit some keys, and instantly turned themselves into characters from “Mad Men,’’ the 1960s drama about Madison Avenue advertising, which finally returns for a third season on Aug. 16. On the site, you pick your hairstyle, skin color, and body shape, and suddenly you’re celebrating an era of glamour and girdles by transforming yourself into a suit- or cocktail dress-wearing cartoon through the nifty program called Mad Men Yourself.

As my friends are busy glamorizing their cartoon doppelgangers with martini glasses and elbow-length cocktail gloves, they’re ignoring a touchstone event that took place 40 years ago, coincidently also on Aug. 16 - the Woodstock festival. “Mad Men’’ and Woodstock represent polar opposites of the 1960s. “Mad Men’’ re-creates an orderly time when men dressed in suits on 90-degree days without a second thought. Woodstock represented an era of rapidly declining personal hygiene, mass burnings of underpinnings, and experimentation with hallucinogens.

A few fashion houses have meekly incorporated watered-down hippie elements into their summer and fall 2009 collections, but let’s be honest here. Woodstock wasn’t about fashion, in fact, Woodstock may have birthed the “Love the one you’re with’’ ethos of the 1970s, but it essentially killed fashion. There’s a reason why no one has created a computer program that allows you to create a cartoon version of yourself as a hippie. It’s because that’s called a Halloween costume and at one point or another, we’ve all dressed as a hippie, knocked on a door, and said “Trick or treat, man.’’

I’m not saying that the artistic contributions that stretched from San Francisco in 1967 to the violent Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December 1969 weren’t valid. But while music, art, and Mama Cass’s appetite flourished during this era, fashion suffered greatly, and we’re still paying the price.

To demonstrate how Woodstock killed fashion, take a moment to set up this flow chart in your brain: Birkenstocks begat Dr. Scholl’s sandals, Dr. Scholl’s begat flip-flops, flip-flops begat Tevas, and Tevas begat (and this is where it gets really ugly, kids) the evil footwear scourge otherwise known as Crocs. I’m terrified to imagine what could possibly follow Crocs.

“Counterculture attitudes gave fashion a huge push in a more casual, break-all-the-rules direction,’’ says Susan Reynolds, a local author who attended Woodstock and is collecting stories from fellow festival participants. “We wore our skirts up to our behinds or dragging on the floor; we wore dirty, ratty, bell-bottomed jeans with frayed edges that dragged on the floor.’’

It’s not just footwear, bell bottoms, and Joe Cocker’s tie-dyed henleys that put the nail in the coffin of glamour. Casual Fridays spread like a bad cold to the rest of the week, and khakis, jeans, and ill-fitting polo shirts have become workplace uniforms. How sad that we don’t see people glam themselves up like the men and women of the fictional Sterling Cooper agency from “Mad Men.’’ There is such nostalgia for this era that everyone from Michael Kors to Banana Republic has released a collection paying homage to fashion circa 1960.

“During Woodstock, fashion became about expressing yourself, decorating yourself, and showing your spirit in a very different way than it was before,’’ says Diane Davis, editor of Stylist.com. “Style and fashion became very democratic, but on the other hand, it opened up an era of anything goes.’’

I’ll spare you a 1970s polyester flowchart, but it’s clear that Woodstock’s anarchist take on fashion managed to wipe out decades of glamour as we knew it. Perhaps if people had known 40 years ago that a rock festival in a muddy field would eventually spawn an epidemic of Dockers and bootleg jeans in the office, they would have thought twice before heading out to hear Country Joe and the Fish.

Let me just state for the record that as I sit here and type this, I’m wearing jeans, a short sleeve shirt, and a pair of sneakers. If I were working at Sterling Cooper in 1960, I would not be allowed to work in the mail room in this get-up. Nor am I complaining about the lax dress codes found in most American businesses today. Between trips to Brooks Brothers and the dry cleaners, I’d probably be broke trying to maintain a Don Draper exterior.

But I’m one of the rare people I know my age who enjoys wearing a tie and occasionally looking like I didn’t crawl out from under a pile of laundry. One of these days, it would be fun to come into work or go out to dinner and not see flip-flops or fleece, and instead pretend that Woodstock never took a blunt instrument to old-school glamour.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.