The Subversion of War: Decoding the Hippie Movement’s Military Wardrobe

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The 20th century was a time of remarkable change. Known for completely revolutionizing the way people lived, with innovative opportunity harnessed across a great many fields, it also marked a shift in the public’s opinion towards the idea of war, and more generally, “war institutions.”

In the first installment of One Block Down’s “The Subversion of War”, we explored how the Vietnam War was crucial in sparking an unstoppable cultural revolution. We now turn our gaze towards the implications of this cultural shift and look to understand how it led to a complete subversion of the symbols commonly associated to war, focusing on military clothing’s role in the outfitting of early hippie movements.

Scroll down to read the second installment of“The Subversion of War”, where we focus on the legacy and style impact of the hippie movement and how they revolutionized the perception of military clothing.

The hippies began as a youth culture movement in the ’60s that grew rapidly over the proceeding decades. Soon reaching all corners of the globe, their alternative approach to living and various capitalist structures saw them leave an indelible mark on the concept of counterculture.

The movement has its origins and base in philosophies which have gained considerable traction in recent decades and date back to ancient times. They also sprung forward from the “Beat Generation”, a literary movement born in the 1950s, with famous authors such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among its followers.

The union of these two philosophies was incredibly interesting. On one hand, you had ancient philosophies that preached harmony with nature, communal living, vegetarianism, free love, and the use of recreational drugs, whereas on the other, the Beat Generation rejected materialism in favor of a deeper relationship with nature and connected with eastern religions such as Buddhism. While many parallels can be drawn between the two, the Beat Generation focused much more on these philosophies as a means of combatting the zeitgeist, whereas the movement’s more ancient beliefs were simply a way of life.

Mainly composed of middle-class white youth, the hippie movement united those who felt confronted by the era’s many difficulties, who felt alienated from society, and who looked for new meanings of life. They opposed the status quo, which reinforced materialism and repression, to fashion the earliest meanings of “freedom”.

The hippies lived mainly in communities, initially in historical countercultural points such as New York’s East Village and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, before expanding into the endless countryside of the United States, reverting to the philosophy and idea of ”back-to-land-living.

One of the significant characterizations of this group was also, outside the appearance — which was shallowly and regularly characterized by long hair and colorful tie-dye outfits — was the use of drugs like LSD. As stated by the historian W. J. Rorabaugh, “The hippie counterculture, more than anything else, was about taking LSD. Seeking spiritual perfection through drugs, but mainly through psychedelic drugs.”

Over the years, the movement amassed hundreds of thousands of young, “wide-eyed” followers, who joined together for festivals and events related to music like the famous 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco, or the iconic 1969 Woodstock Festival. Both of which are now considered some of the most important cultural moments of the last century.

The hippie movement was not only important for how it urged a greater sense of belonging among the youth of a disillusioned world, but how it actively changed — and to some degree, combatted — the mainstream with counterculture.

Some of the most famous musical groups and artists in history, such as The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, played at such hippie events and festivals, or at least embraced the fundamentals of the movement to some degree. Then in 1969, films like “Easy Rider” depicted aspects of the movement and made it an increasingly important part of popular discourse.

The movement’s legacy has grown so prolific that it has — in many ways — exceeded that of any other countercultural activation from the last century including sexual freedom, the use of drugs, the policy of non-violence, the rejection of formality, and attention to the environment.

However, the importance and iconicity of this movement also derive from one of the most decisive and influential events of the second half of the last century; the Vietnam War. As explained in our preceding chapter, the Vietnam War deeply divided American public opinion, sparking protests and demonstrations on a considerably larger scale than ever experienced before.Although it may seem strange, as the hippies followed the “politics of no politics,” the movement’s followers mostly came from American college campuses (i.e. scholars with a well-informed grip on the American political situation).

This naturally led the movement to embrace the cause; the authority was seen as the author of all the evils of society, including war and racial segregation, even if, as pointed out by Rorabaugh, “Hippies would agree with that, but they would not protest. That was the difference — hippies were not protesters.”

One of the aspects in which the hippie movement had the most remarkable legacy, following participation in Vietnam’s anti-war protests, was the style and subversion of the concept of militarywear.Initially characterized by simple clothes, at most, core military styles embellished with non-conformist modifications, these anti-war demonstrations allowed millions around the world to experience the symbols of war in a more pacifist way.

“In general, people’s perceptions of military clothing are likely colored by their personal attitudes, morality and politics.”

— Hardy Blechman, Maharishi

Emotionally and psychologically destroyed by what they had seen and done during the war, many veterans became part of the hippie movement. Not only did the movement’s recreational drug use help them overcome their terrible past, but its underlying philosophy was the complete opposite to that which they were trying to escape.

Resultantly, these veterans brought the experiences and symbols of their past into the movement; with one of the most pervasive symbols being their clothing. And while they wore these clothes as it formed such an integral part of their own identity, there was a driving need to give it new meaning and value. It was exactly here that old M65 jackets became emblazoned with symbols of peace and love, a stark contrast to the strict uniforms once give to them by authority.

It was here that garments such as aviator bomber jackets and military boots were transformed into hallmarks of the leftist counterculture. Jackets like the M65 were turned into a hippie staple, modified with symbols of peace, idyllic designs, and pins shouting pacifist slogans. Furthering this thought, Hardy Blechman addresses whether clothing can change someone emotionally or spiritually:

“Uniforms are much like any other social indicators that civilians wear. Used as a means to openly demonstrate that you belong to a certain subsection of society or ‘tribe’, which is another deep rooted need within the human psyche. As such what you wear can absolutely have an impact on you emotionally or spiritually.”

Together with war veterans entering the movement wearing military clothing, another critical aspect that influenced the hippie wardrobe was the cost and availability of it. Given its philosophy and general way of life, the hippies were never rich in the monetary sense. On a fundamental level, they wanted to live without traditional economic means — they didn’t want to focus on money in the slightest — and it is for this reason that military surplus and vintage stores became a local haunt.

Through such stores, they could buy durable and cheap clothing, such as the aforementioned M65 jacket, cargo pants, and boots. There was also a philosophical argument to be made about hippies wearing military clothing: while the military had to provide cheap and durable clothing to their soldiers to keep the engine of war going, the hippies took what was made and deployed it for peace.

This fundamental stylistic change made an ever-lasting impact, and after the ‘60s, it became more common to see various countercultural movements wearing military clothing and shopping at army surplus stores.

The strange contrast between those who were forced to wear certain clothing and those who did so out of choice or circumstance served as the impetus to use it as a mechanism for subversion. It also went on to lay the foundation for later movements such as the punk revolution, where members also sought out styles they could customize and give new meaning to.

Over the following decades, this very coincidental stylistic turn only manifested itself, going on to outfit countercultures around the world. And thanks to the fact that those at the heart of the hippie movement were themselves young, they were a defining force in the beat of mainstream culture.

And while many people believe that the mainstream has greatly affected the core of what it means to be a “hippie”, we cannot forget the pivotal role that the hippie movement played in shaping the mainstream. Without them, we may have never known true “Freedom”.

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