115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Beat Women Writers and Counterculture Fashion

Lauren Cardon, University of Alabama

The Beats collectively rebelled against fashion, and yet their style was eventually marketed in a mainstream forum. However, it was not the more recognizable Beat writers who solidified a distinctive countercultural style, but rather, the often-overlooked female Beat writers and poets Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, and Elise Cowen.


When she began working at Vogue in the 1980s, Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour immediately looked to the streets for creative inspiration. In the documentary In Vogue––The Editor’s Eye (2012), Wintour remarks that she did not see fashion as “trickling down from a very particular, rarified couture sense of fashion,” but instead, “I saw young women in the street dressing in a way that I thought was influencing the designers.” This “trickle-up” idea of American fashion can be traced back to the 1920s, when some of the first bohemian-inspired trends hit the pages of Vogue; however, the post-World War II era solidified the trend of fashion emerging from street style, sparked by various countercultures and youth culture as a whole. Like many fashions of the 1920s, street style initially grew from working-class dress. T-shirts were typically worn by laborers until the Beats helped popularize them as youth fashion; by the 1960s, members of countercultural movements wore tie-dyed t-shirts or t-shirts with slogans, and the first designer t-shirts appeared a decade later. The rebellious young icons of the 1950s celebrated items of clothing––jeans, t-shirts, flannel shirts, chinos, and leather jackets––that have long since become staples of American fashion.

The Beats were arguably the first group to collectively rebel against fashion, to outright reject it rather than merely push its boundaries like Chanel, and then––ironically––to have their style marketed in a mainstream forum. Beats and other counterculture groups that inadvertently used clothing to express their difference paved the way for this liberation of the industry, its celebration of cultural expression and affiliation, its shift to a “trickle-up” model. However, as I argue in this paper, it was not the more recognizable Beat poets and writers who solidified a distinctive, identifiable countercultural style, nor even the controversial “beatniks” of the next generation. Rather, the often-overlooked female Beat writers and poets Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, and Elise Cowen, through their writing and poetry, established the distinctive signifiers of bohemian identity through their dress and writing. In my presentation, I illustrate how these women laid the foundation for counterculture fashion, through both their own dress and the way they wrote about the symbolic power of clothing in their poetry and prose.