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Hippie wigs in Woolworths: Who sold the counterculture movement?


When you think of the hippie age, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Long-haired 20-somethings frolicking in the grass? Volkswagen Campervans? Sun-kissed women with flowers in their hair? The 1960s was a period of immense social and political upheaval which birthed new subcultures, forms of protest, political ideologies and economic models. Why, then, do so many of us remember only the most superficial aspects of the hippie age? Perhaps because they were the most marketable.

Flower power, peace-and-love, paisley shirts: these base signifiers of the hippie dream are all indications that the ’60s countercultural movement was never a cultural revolution but a commercial one. Many at the time knew their ideology was being sold off for profit. In the 1969 classic Withnail and I, Danny the drug dealer marks the arrival of the first year of the 1970s with the immortal line: “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” But the question remains: who was doing the selling, and why?

Hippiedom was by no means the first countercultural movement in the West. In essence, any cultural formation that opposes mainstream values is countercultural. The Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries was countercultural, as were the Bohemians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pretty much everything that we now associate with the hippie age (nudism, veganism, free love) was pioneered by these European intellectual circles. Most counterculture movements follow the same pattern regardless of historical period or geographical location. A small group of free thinkers start attacking the fundamental ideology of mainstream society, using art and theory as a means of imagining and publicising an alternative way of life. Eventually, the trend catches on, and while initially resisted, this new vision soon becomes an accepted social movement. After influencing social behaviour and political discourse, the counterculture becomes the dominant culture

While the Romantics were opposed to Enlightenment thought and the Bohemians to the mundanity of bourgeoisies culture, hippies reacted to the established order in a much broader sense, attacking the whole concept of power and authority in a post-war world. William S. Burroughs sums up the mood of the era in Minutes to Go when he writes: “Nothing is true—all is permitted.” With the world in ruins, hippies sought new ways of living together and experiencing reality as a collective unit. They advocated non-violent protest and preached openness and tolerance. Adopting the facets of previous countercultural movements, they practised open sexual relationships and sought spiritual guidance from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, embracing Buddhism, Hindusim and other Eastern religions. This quest for spiritual Enlightenment incorporated the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, which were promoted as a way of expanding one’s consciousness.

Like most countercultural movements, hippiedom originated among a small group of outsiders: people who felt excluded from mainstream society. Most of the young men and women who eventually became hippies felt unfulfilled by the mainstream model of happiness, one based on marrying rich or building a corporate career, accumulating wealth and advertising that wealth by purchasing consumer products. Young people inspired by beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg denounced the materialism and greed of their nation and set about formulating a new world based on individual freedom. However, it wasn’t until the outbreak of the Vietnam War that the movement really had cause to spread beyond the confines of this fringe intellectual movement. As the public grew increasingly frustrated with the government’s desire to send young men to their deaths for no obvious reason, crowds of students, veterans and hippies took to the streets to protest. Suddenly, culture became a way of expressing one’s opposition to an imperial project rapidly falling out of favour. It had a purpose and, by extension, meaning.

As hippiedom spread, artists like The Beatles started aligning themselves with the anti-consumerist ideals of the movement. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were determined for their audience to view their music as art rather than commerce and so made the move from pop to rock on their 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Many of the groups revered by hippies: Cream, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, were lauded precisely because they too rejected chart popularity. The paradox was, of course, that these artists’ commitment to integrity and authenticity was what was making them so much money. Groups such as The Monkees clearly recognised that there was a lot of cash to be made from the blossoming hippie movement and, in 1968, decided to do exactly what the Beatles had done the year before – ditching the sharp suits for loose-fitted shirts and bellbottom trousers. Many acts adopted social protest themes in their songs, which were readily promoted by labels and advertisers keen to sell records to young consumers. With it being the golden age of FM radio, this was a simple enough task. While Radio stations pumped out Jimi Hendrix, magazines like Rolling Stone started articulating the philosophy of hippie culture in accessible terms. Soon, hippiedom moved from the West Coast to Broadway with plays like Hair, a 1967 rock musical which focused on the life of a group of unkempt hippies living in New York during the Vietnam War. At the same time, soldiers over in the real Vietnam were being sent peace-and-love-themed products by the US government to boost their morale.

As Thomas Frank notes in his 1997 book The Conquest of Cool, American businesses adopted the language of social rebellion to increase their sales, absorbing the youth movement as a way of nullifying its destructive potential. “Business mimics and mass-produces fake counterculture in order to cash in on a particular demographic and to subvert the great threat that ‘real’ counter represents,” Frank writes. Businesses worked with the media to cultivate the idea that being a hippie was something to aspire to. Individualism became the new model of happiness, one that advertisers could exploit to sell lifestyle products that, in the end, only offered the illusion of freedom. Now, those businesses are world leaders in their respective fields.

Take Harley Davidson, for example. During the war, the manufacturer produced motorcycles for the US Army. By the 1960s, however, the Harley Davidson had become the symbol of freedom and independence, thanks in part to the 1969 film Easy Rider. According to Jolanta Szymkowska-Bartyzel, “the Harley is just one of the many symbols of the revolution of the 1960s that sells freedom and independence to their users trapped in the mechanisms of capitalism.” Music, fashion, vegetarianism, ecology, and individuality, were all factors of a new revolutionary lifestyle that were eventually absorbed into the system the hippies sought to destroy. Or what about silicon valley pioneers such as Steve Jobs (Apple) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), both of whom were children of the hippie age and interpreted the movement’s philosophy as a call for individuals to think outside the box. Today, these figures are some of the richest people in the world. So the next time someone tells you that the hippie dream is dead, remind them that it is sold back to us every single day.

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