Fans of Beat Generation writers will know that there is a huge difference between the “beatnik fashion”, the bongo-beating, beret-wearing Beat Generation writer, and the actual people who lived and created the Beat philosophy in their time. In preparation for our November “On the Road” event, I have compiled a list of looks for men and women that blend 1950s fashions with enough bohemian sensibility so you don’t look like a stereotype (unless that is what you really want).
Most people associate “beatnik” with boring-looking, bohemian girls in berets and strangely shaped goatees. Although these stereotypes may be true, they aren’t representative of the movement or the counterculture philosophy. In reality, the intellectuals, artists and antibourgeois iconoclasts from mid-twentieth-century America looked a lot like everyone else.
Herb Caen, the legendary San Francisco columnist, fashion frenzy created the term “beatnik”, in 1958. It was a combination of “beat” (as the Soviet satellite) and “Sputnik” which was intended to poke fun at the common notions of counterculture. The group consisted of lazy opportunists who had far-left political leanings. Caen claims that Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation’s mainstay (Figure 1), didn’t find the whole thing very funny. Kerouac said to him, “You’re putting down us and making us sound like idiots.” “I hate it. It is time to stop using it.
Kerouac was actually more Libertarian than the left. The core of the movement was supposed be about intellectual independence and spiritual purity. It was also meant to distance itself from materialistic concerns. How should we approach an event that is often associated in style but not really into fashion?
In his 2003 work Beatnik fashion vs. Beat, Josh Agle (also known as Shag), illustrated the distinction between style and substance. The piece’s beatniks have taken on the trappings and bohemian stereotypes to make them feel more Beat-like, while Kerouac looks unglamorous typing away at his typewriter. There are two options for sartorial direction: ironic parody or the real deal.
These are the clothes we associate with the lifestyle of an active Beat writer. Jack Kerouac was photographed wearing everything, from Pendleton-style shirts, khakis, corduroy slacks to jeans or t-shirts. His literary companions kept him warm in old bomber jackets and twill jackets. They also wore Irish knit sweaters and pea coats (both for men and women). These were red pants womens all practical, comfortable clothes that anyone in the late 40s to 60s could have worn.
Beat poet Diane DiPrima (Figure 3), presents a crisp blouse, capri set, and strappy sandals for women. This look is also reflected in the stereotypes. Audrey Hepburn’s signature casual look is black capris and cigarette pants with a slim, boat neck top in neutral colors. She also wore flats.
Boxy, cropped jackets, such as the one worn on Figure 5 by the girl in the “Miss Beatnik fashion” beauty contest photo – it may seem odd, but this is Venice Beach. Turtlenecks, like the one worn in Bell Book and Candle by Kim Novak (Figure 6), or fluffy mohair cardigans, are another medium length nails variation on the theme. You can also use slim pencil skirts in dark colours and stretch belts. Avoid fuss and keep it simple. You can have very short hair, but it doesn’t matter if your hair is long, flat or messy. The counterculture didn’t care about a weekly roll set!
This is either the original Beatnik fashion or its direct ancestor. The Beatnik stereotype’s quirky facial hair, jive-inspired language and bebopy “rap” speech draws heavily from 1940s New York’s urban jazz scene and the gritty street culture associated with it. Although it might seem a little outlandish, a double-breasted suit isn’t as unusual as you might think, especially within the context of Hipster culture in the 1940s and early 1950s. Even Beat Generation crib skirt members wore suits from time to time. William S. Burroughs, the writer, wore three-piece suits almost every day. A fedora, or beret is a great alternative to a suit. It’s enough to get you in the company of hep cats such as Dizzy Gillespie (Figure 7), and Bing Crosby.