Monday, July 14, 2008

Hippies Remembered in Decades of Fashion

The once hippie area of San Francisco is alive with vintage clothing stores and who better to be running one of the best of them than a former Sixties teen model and 'flower child' herself.

Today Cicely Hansen cuts a distinctive dash around the streets of Haight-Ashbury to where she returned two years ago.

Her store, Decades of Fashion, has a small, though artistic frontage But step inside and you find yourself in a much bigger space, immersed in the fashion equivalent of Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium. There are a hundred years of history to browse through with magical clothes that would spin a yarn or two could they talk. Time-travel with a quick change and a flourish, or party with nostalgia, vintage clothes are hugely popular.

'There is so much fun going on,' said Cicely, revelling that afternoon in a navy 1920s dress. But then vintage clothing has been so much a part of the warp and weft of her life she has never truly been a child of her generation.

Her absorption with fashion began as a child in the home. With a grandmother who was a 1920s fashion model and a mother who was also a model, her young life was infused with style and design.

So much so she says of her schooldays, 'I thought I was always alienated at school because of how I was dressed. I was always way overdressed or too stylish.' Even as a teenager she wore vintage.

Her eye for style led to her not surprisingly being spotted by a modelling agency. Picture a precocious 14-year-old, stick-thin as Twiggy, tottering on heels with full 'beehive' and black-lined Bridgid Bardot eyes. The agency reeled her in and put her in teenage modelling shows in the intermission of music events called Battle of the Bands. Held in the city in the Cow Palace, the stage rocked to such Sixties greats as the Beach Boys, Moody Blues and Grateful Dead.

For a private schoolgirl living in the quiet district of Los Altos across the bay, the allure of the burgeoning hippie revolution proved too much: at the age of 16 years she ran away from home with a friend.

'I didn't tell my parents where I was for a month,' she confessed.

With the help of a disc jockey who befriended her, she began to make her own way in the world. She found lodgings among the teeming streets of Haight, at one point doing window-dressing as well as modelling for money.

'There used to be 10,000 people a day down this street!" she said, nodding towards the window.

Glancing down the narrow Victorian street of Haight, one can only wonder how they fitted in! But therein lies part of the folklore of the hippie movement that exploded with the 1967 Summer of Love in the Golden Gate Park at the end of the road.

The area was deluged with as many as 100,000 young people and one of the chief problems was housing. Cicely and her friend were given lodgings by a lady for whom they assembled earrings. The Victorian house was huge with eleven rooms and a long corridor, and each night their landlady would allow 50 homeless kids to sleep in the corridor.

'In the morning they would be gone. There was never any trouble,' Cicely said.

For the regular lodgers there was a cooking rota. 'Everyone would be vegetarian except me!' she said, recalling with amusement her fellow-lodgers reactions to her meaty meals!

It was a heady time of almost literally rubbing shoulders with some of the famous bands of the day who lived in the Haight. Cicely ended up in a flat opposite the Grateful Dead and had the unforgettable experience of being chased down the street by their enormous drummer 'Pigpan'! Other bands with whom she was friends included Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Country Joe, Salvation Army Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Blue Cheer. Janis Joplin was a resident, too, and walked the streets.

One of her regrets, however, is that she doesn't have photos. If she had only thought, she could have collected a priceless photo album.

'We were friends,' she shrugged. In other words, mixing with musicians some of whom were to become very famous, and being in and out of each other's flats in part of a scene that was to become a piece of history, was such a part of everyday life she didn't think to record it.

The early days of the hippie movement were fun and friendly, she said, with bands giving free concerts in the park. 'You never knew what you would be doing. There were always invitations to parties, surfing or to tour.' She went out with one of the members of Blue Cheer and toured with them as their cook. 'I was a majorally good cook,' she said.

Another aspect was politics. The hippies took on anti-Vietnam protests with a vengeance, which Cicely took part in wholeheartedly. Likewise, the racial issues of black Americans in places like Alabama. Given the ease of cultural mixing in San Fran 'we couldn't understand what was going on in the South,' she said.

But after about two years, the fun and friendly scene took a downturn. 'Alcohol and hard drugs came into Haight-Ashbury and ruined it. It hit it like a bowling pin,' she said. She remembers with horror 18-year-old girls being shot in the head over drugs and the prostitution that arrived with the hard drugs.

The hippie world fragmented. 'People went three ways: to Marin County, (across the Bay), Haiwaii and Santa Cruz. We were bouncing between all three and appearing in concerts,' she said.

But then she left the music behind her and turned her still-young head to business. At the age of 19 years, she ran two clothing stores in the bay area and later worked for an auction gallery. The auction house would 'cherry pick' the items they wanted but Cicely soon realised that what people really wanted was a house clearance, so she persuaded her bosses to let her go in second and sweep up the leftovers. Often she would find little gems, like a handmade quilt, tucked under bedding.

'That's one of the reasons I got into this!' she said of her life of owning antique and vintage clothing stores.

On a family trip to her then father-in-law in Idaho, she decided she might as well open up her own store. Called 'Something Old Something New,' it was in the city's Mission District. Her father-in-law would put ads in the local paper and Cicely would collect things like brass beds and lampshades.

Another source of goods was her father. As a probate attorney he bought whole houses which Ciceley was able to clear out.

With a skill of accumulating barns full of items, she moved to Los Angeles. There, for 30 years she specialised in lampshades catching a few celebrity customers along the way. These included Mick Jagger, Barbra Streisand, Don Henley of the Eagles and Chris McVie of Fleetwood Mac.

And as if her work hasn't been enough, as her own children were growing up and leaving home, she learnt to rodeo and scuba dive, and became a foster mother.

Today, back in San Francisco, much of her stock is brought into the store by people who want to sell their old belongings or are sorting through a family attic. One woman recently was passing and was prompted to go home and rummage in the attic for her great aunt's washboard and some vintage children's clothes. That board had pride of place in one of Cicely's window displays.

As for vintage children's clothes, Cicely is a collector of them to her grandsons' delight. When her four-year-old grandson asked for a white Fred Astaire outfit with tap shoes and tails, she was able to find one, though only in black. Imagine his chagrin when later Cicely was able to get her hands on a white one for his two-year-old brother!

Although she has only had Decades of Fashion for two years, in that time she has had Keira Knightley and Daryl Hana browsing, and Japanese and New York designers, including some from Nine West, looking for inspiration.

'It might be a tuck, a bow, material,' she said. Inspiration is there in plenty. Cicely has a fabulous range of hats and accessories as well as outfits, and also fashions and boots for men.

Much as Cicely is an ex-hippie who that afternoon was dressed in the 1920s, her favourite era is the 1930s as 'it's the most feminine.'

One of the most fascinating aspects for me, though, remains the 60s memorablia. I found suede fringed jackets, a catsuit, a beautifully homemade dress in material of a patterned blur of orange, yellow and lime green, a sugar-pink dress with mandarin collar and cut-away sleeves, and turqoise dresses.

Only Twiggy was missing, but then I did have a lookalike with matching memories!

pics by Julie. For more fashion pics click here

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