How the Sixties changed our lives forever

L-R: The Beatles, the Souper Dress, Angela Davis
L-R: The Beatles, the Souper Dress, Angela Davis Credit: Reuters/V&A

A new exhibition at the V&A shows how the hedonism of the 1960s left its impact on the way we live now

As far as can be established, Che Guevara, Argentinian medical student turned Cuban revolutionary, never met Lesley Hornby, the former hairdresser’s assistant from Neasden turned Sixties supermodel Twiggy. The LSD guru Timothy Leary might have urged America to turn on, tune in, drop out, but there is no record of the Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders heeding the call.

Yet all, in their own way, were instrumental in the revolution in culture and politics that swept across the Western world in the Sixties, and all feature in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. Tying together the elements that comprised what we know as the Sixties – drugs, music, the rise of disposable income among the young, the challenge to authority and convention, the sexual revolution – is a formidable task, and You Say You Want A Revolution? doesn’t lack for scale and ambition.

Fashion design for an outfit to be worn by Twiggy in Vogue, Bill Gibb, 1969 Credit: Paul Robins/V&A

This could easily have been divided into five different exhibitions, such is the profusion and variety of exhibits on display: psychedelic posters, underground magazines, images of riot, war, drugs, Swinging Sixties fashion; along with photographs and memorabilia of the icons of the age: Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground; the Black Panther Huey Newton; the Beatles (of course); Jimi Hendrix; Mao and Allen Ginsberg – naked but for a hotel “do not disturb” sign. (The latter was taken at a London party in 1965, also attended by John Lennon, there with his wife Cynthia, who took one look at Ginsberg and hissed: “You don’t do that in front of the birds.” Three years later a liberated Lennon was doing it in front of everyone.)

The Rolling Stones line up outside the Tin Pan Alley Club in London, 1963 Credit: Iconic Images/Terry O'Neill

The exhibition has been curated by Victoria Broakes and Geoffrey Marsh, who were responsible for the David Bowie exhibition in 2013 – the fastest-selling in V&A history, seen by more than 310,000 people.

“With Bowie, we recognised that covering music not from the musical standpoint but from the contextual standpoint had been a huge hit with the public and something that no other museum in the world was doing in the same way,” Broakes says. “Following that, we had a lot of bands saying ‘Do you want to do us next?’ But we wanted to step back from that and look at the revolutions that were inspired and carried by the music in the Sixties, and the people who were driving those things forward.” (Next year the V&A is staging a major Pink Floyd retrospective.)

Christine Keeler, photographed by Lewis Morley, 1963 Credit: V&A

Moving through a series of themed rooms – Swinging Sixties fashion, political upheaval, the drug culture, consumerism – the exhibition illustrates how in an age before social media, rock music became the principal vehicle and soundtrack for the dissemination of countercultural ideas, whether in the coded (and not so coded) references to drug use and social dissent and change, or as a platform for style and design (250 album covers from the period, borrowed from the late John Peel’s collection, form a kind of frieze running through the exhibition rooms).

A section on the “Revolution in Gatherings” focuses on the music festivals. A collection of ephemera shows how Woodstock was planned, quite literally, on a single piece of paper, and that Jimi Hendrix was paid $30,000 for his appearance.

Jimi Hendrix poster by Larry Smart (UK, 1967) Credit: V&A

More than simply an exercise in “oh wow” nostalgia, the exhibition seeks to draw the connecting lines between the past and the present. “A Revolution In Communication” looks at the “back to the land” communalism that gave rise to the visionary Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog – a do-it-yourself manual offering everything from building a geodesic dome, to access to the Hewlett Packard 9100A tabletop calculator, and which Steve Jobs would describe as “Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along”.

While the sheer number and diversity of exhibits can be overwhelming (“We don’t expect everybody to look at everything”, Marsh says), much of the pleasure comes from the unexpected conjunctions, from the Souper Dress – a paper dress produced by the Campbell’s Soup Company and based on Andy Warhol’s artwork – to the spacesuit worn by William Anders (who snapped the Earth from the Moon in the iconic photograph, Earthrise, in 1968); from the stark demands of the Black Panther manifesto (all black men held in prisons and jails to be freed; black people only to be tried by black juries) to the dazzling, kaleidoscopic fantasies of psychedelic poster-art, combining Mucha, Beardsley and Rackham.

Concert poster from San Francisco, 1966, designed by Alton Kelley, inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha Credit: V&A

Recently, the Sixties has become the object of cultural and political revisionism – attacked as a time of flippancy and naivety, less the cradle of utopian idealism and self-expressionism than of hedonism, self-gratification and all the social ills that plague us now. But what the exhibition illustrates is how for better or worse, the period changed the way we live and think.

For Marsh, the principal legacy of that era is one of personal freedom and equality.

‘‘Civil rights, gay rights, equal pay for women, the right to abortion – all of those changes in the law come from that period,” he says. “Although there have been attempts on the ultra-right to try and push back on those things, by and large Western society has accepted those changes. I think that period established a new social contract which was that, whatever your political views, most people believe the state doesn’t have the right to tell you what to do any longer, and as long as you don’t upset or hurt people you can pretty much do what you want.”

You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 is at the V&A, London SW7 (vam.ac.uk; 020 7942 2000) from Sept 10 until Feb 26 2017