Woodstock 50th Anniversary: When Festival Style Still Had a Political Spirit

“Dear couple,” Jimi Hendrix scrawled to his designers, circa 1969, on a scrap of hotel stationary, “I would like to have at least 4 of everything, including diffrent [sic] but comfortable arm bands.” He went on to suggest a “fine fur black suit,” “more shirts with odd sleeves,” “large flowing collors [sic],” “flowing ruffles down the front,” and “try working stones and jewelry in vests and pants.” He concluded: “Any other things you come across, please don’t be hesitant to take and make something. Anything to your fancy, as long as it’s specially made as art.”

Hendrix was writing to Michael & Toni, the Florida-based design duo of Michael Braun and Toni Ackermann, who made the musician’s clothing from 1967 until his death in 1970. Hendrix wore their designs almost exclusively: for the Monterey Pop Festival, in a 1969 story for Life Magazine, and of course, onstage at Woodstock, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. In his blue bell bottoms, belly-baring poncho top with blue beaded fringe, and red headband, Hendrix’s Woodstock outfits is one of the most iconic in rock history, the paragon of a style that mixed multiple cultural references, sexy gender fluidity, and self-expression above all else. “If you’re making clothes for Jimi Hendrix,” Braun tells me on the phone, “it’s like making clothes for God.”

Jimi Hendrix Letter

Hendrix’s style, and the hippie style it came from, is one of America’s most mimetic, but it was also one of the first moments at which clothing was intrinsic to the politics and social concerns of its wearers. Music icons like David Bowie and Madonna have made high art out of their image, proposing the wardrobe as a requisite for understanding the music. But if those musicians were about control, Woodstock was about a lack of it. Only punk can compete with the urgent premium hippie fashion put on self-expression. For hippie style—and its wicked descendent, festival style, who we’ll get to in just a bit—the clothing was intrinsic to a new political fervor a new social agenda of acceptance and global curiosity, and a new lifestyle of possibility and freedom, sexual and otherwise.

Hendrix was as demanding and free-wheeling about the expressionism of his clothing as he was about his playing. After seeing another band in Michael & Toni’s clothing in early 1967, Hendrix became obsessed with working with them; he soon had a series of concerts lined up in Florida, and he got off the plane and immediately asked: “Where are the clothes people?” Braun bought fabrics from “proper ladies stores,” using silk chiffon to make blouses with six inch-long ruffles and what Hendrix called “witch sleeves or wizard sleeves,” and crushing rayon velvet by hand, with an iron, to make too-tight pants. “All you can do is take pictures in ’em and stand around,” Braun recalled telling Hendrix. “Don’t drop your ass all the way down to the ground with your guitar out in front of you, because you’ll split these pants.”

“If you were making clothes for Jimi Hendrix, you were making clothes for God.”

Of course, he did, and the reason that Hendrix wrote, “Please have them ready EXPRESSO” was that the crotch of his pants kept blowing out. Plus, women were always stealing the clothes. Perhaps that’s why he made bell bottoms for Hendrix with a button fly that unfastened further down the crotch than a zipper would, so “that the man can have sex in the car and be like, inhibited. He didn’t even need to take his pants off—all he’d have to do is button-button-button-them. You get what I’m saying?”

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