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This Year in Pop Culture: 1964

In the early 1960s, Mary Quant took the place of Jackie O as fashion icon, replacing kitten heels with mini skirts. This is just one example of the changes sweeping pop culture in 1964.
In the early 1960s, Mary Quant took the place of Jackie O as fashion icon, replacing kitten heels with mini skirts. This is just one example of the changes sweeping pop culture in 1964. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Samantha J. O'Connell, Crimson Staff Writer

Few years signify as much American transformation and upheaval as 1964. America was still suffering from the grief and aftershock of JFK’s assassination. Newly sworn-in president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the ground-breaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, sent troops to Vietnam, and entered a re-election campaign against the staunchly conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. China successfully tested its first nuclear bomb, skyrocketing Cold War tensions. The world was awhirl — particularly after the notably reserved “cookie-cutter” decade of the 1950s, which valued stability and conformity. 1964 marked a drastic shift, bringing issues of class inequality, institutionalized racism, gender roles, sexuality, and the growing generational gap to the forefront.

It is obviously wrong, however, to think about these huge political milestones as merely isolated to history curricula. The interplay between politics and pop culture are dynamic and inextricably linked, so the increasing conflicts and nail-biting tensions of Johnson’s presidency are reflected in what Americans watched, what they wore, and what they ultimately rooted for in this decisive year.

Kubrick Makes Nuclear War Funny

A movie about incompetent leaders allowing for the complete nuclear destruction of life on earth — it’s hard to imagine that this could be funny. But whereas most filmmakers avoided anti-Cold War commentary and the anticipated backlash, director Stanley Kubrick created a timeless classic in 1964 in the form of his dark, sarcastic comedy, “Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

Mercilessly mocking the ridiculousness of “deterrence” and “mutually assured destruction,” Kubrick shined the light on American politicians treating the Cold War like an inconsequential game while using humor to help the medicine go down. No line better encapsulates the biting derision and goofy humor of the film quite like President Merkin Muffley’s “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” In a year full of blockbusters like “Mary Poppins,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Goldfinger,” the polarizing “Dr. Strangelove” still managed to be a commercial success despite its controversial subject matter, grossing $6 million with a budget of less than two million. It proves the power of satire to stir the pot and raise public awareness, even if it doesn’t present an immediate solution.

Television’s Rise of the Supernatural

After a decade of conventional sitcoms like “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” — which focus on the “normal,” nuclear family — the 1964 TV season must have seemed like Halloween had come early. All within the same year, networks ABC and CBS released “Bewitched,” “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family,” bringing witches, monsters, and all things creepy and kooky to TV screens all across America.

It might seem like a strange coincidence that two separate channels independently created shows about monster families, and that’s because it’s not — “The Munsters” was CBS’s conscious decision to try to compete with rival ABC. Nevertheless, this consumerism in action does nothing to detract from the the two shows’ ambitious themes and risk-taking. Both seemed to present an interesting twist on the “typical” American homelife and to question the definition of normalcy, but “The Addams Family” has left a particularly lasting legacy despite a short two-season lifespan.

Beyond its infectiously catchy theme song, the Addams Family boldly embraces the macabre and weird, with characters who enjoy stretching on the torture rack or billow smoke on command. They present a rather radical perspective on daily life, yet what makes the show so subtly meaningful is the way members of the Addams Family still show love for one another and respect for their guests, defying any preconceived notions based on their gothic appearances.

So Long to ’50s Fashion

The legacy of conservative house dresses, kitten heels, and modest accessorizing that defined the 1950s trickled into the early 1960s. With her pillbox hats, boxy jackets, and overall couture, sophisticated, style, First Lady Jackie Kennedy was America’s leading fashion inspiration during her husband’s administration, helping extend the ’50s ideals of both glamour and reserve into the new decade. However, after Kennedy’s tragic assassination and the upheaval of 1964, new fashion icons began to take Jackie O’s place and radically shift the way that women, in particular, dressed.

Taking the place of Paris as the fashion trendsetter of the world, London took control in the mid-60s in the form of the subculture called “modernist” or “mod” for short. Standing in sharp contrast to the modest, somber outfits of the previous few years that kept women covered up, the Baby Boomers coming of age opted for bold colors, geometric patterns, and mini skirts, valuing exploration and experimentation through their clothing. Mary Quant, an influential British fashion designer at the time, popularized both the short, sleeveless shift dress as well as “hot pants,” which might today be described as “booty shorts.” Women showed off more skin than ever before and began to embrace their sexuality as best exemplified by French actress and model Brigitte Bardot. Putting the philosophy “anything goes” into action, her tousled yet stylish hair, off-the-shoulder neckline, and pink gingham wedding dress set a powerful example for youth at this time. Perhaps the most extreme example of ’60s fashion as a form a revolt against the conformity and domesticity imposed on women of the ’50s is designer Rudi Gernreich and his controversial monokini. As an advocate for the sexual revolution, Gernreich created this completely topless bathing suit, startling American households with his attempt to celebrate the female form.

Music’s “British Invasion”

It would be a crime to discuss 1964’s cultural revolutions without mentioning the arrival of British rock in America, a pivotal phenomenon coined “The British Invasion.” Although it was intended as a mere joke, when “The Jack Paar Program” aired some concert footage from an up-and-coming British band known as The Beatles on Jan. 3, 1964, about 30 million Americans tuned in, foreshadowing “Beatlemania” on the horizon.

Within a few weeks, the Beatles’ first smash hit “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” vaulted to the top the U.S. charts, electrifying the youth, upsetting the parents, and marking England’s first huge success at staking its claim in the rock music genre in America. “Beatlemania” continued to accelerate at an almost unbelievable rate and when John, Paul, George, and Ringo all made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, an estimated 45 percent of America’s population tuned in. After issuing their album, “Meet the Beatles!,” the group held all the top five slots on the U.S. charts, a totally unprecedented musical achievement.

Although this British band from Liverpool completely dominated the music industry in 1964, their success opened a window of opportunity for a plethora of other rocks groups like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and The Animals in the following years. Some critics argue that the “British Invasion” choked out other forms of music in America such as the folk revival and country music and yanked popularity from most other popular idols at the time. Regardless, this musical milestone completely redirected the course of music, internationalizing the rebellious genre of rock and legitimizing a few musicians playing guitar and drums in a garage and writing their own songs as a veritable and unstoppable expression of art.

— Samantha J. O’Connell can be reached at sam.o'connell@thecrimson.com.

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