I look like a mad scientist on the verge of a monumental discovery when I create my tie-dye works of art. I spend hours tying elaborate knots in T-shirts as if I were practicing some form of torture. I place the dye meticulously on each shirt in its designated design.
Husband Kermit and son Chase give me a wide berth, wondering if I’m Dr. Jekyll or Mrs. Hyde. I mix powders and liquids as though they were potions for a long-awaited cure to something or other. And in a way, they were.
For about 60 years, tie-dye T-shirts have symbolized freedom. They are not the standard red, white and blue official symbol. They are explosions of color in riotous designs, and they symbolize freedom of expression. That is a right we demanded when America declared independence from European oppresssion.
It is a right we used in the 1960s when almost an entire generation of Americans declared independence from American conformity and oppression. Tie-dyeing clothing was a small part of an unacknowledged exploding American movement.
Before that movement, we lived in a black-and-white world. Everything was cut-and-dried, men had jobs, women raised children, men wore pants, women wore skirts. It was the Dwight D. Eisenhower era, 1952 to 1960.
Even television, so new, was also black and white. John F. Kennedy was a light at the end of the tunnel until his light was snuffed out mysteriously. He was followed by the shadowy Lyndon B. Johnson years until we fell under the suspicion of the Nixon administration (1963 to 1973), the decade of distrust.
Few believed any longer in Donna Reed, or that Father knew best, and they weren’t gonna Leave it to Beaver anymore. The nuclear family exploded in a hail of bullets shot by soldiers during a peaceful Kent State University protest, and the American movement began. Nothing was simply black-and-white ever again.
It was the Age of Aquarious and men grew their hair as long as women’s. Women burned their bras in protest of their expected lot in life. Freedom went on a rampage in a riot of psychedelic colors, drugs and music. College students participated in protests and sit-ins in a form of organized chaos to rally against the draft which forced young men to fight in wars we didn’t even officially call wars. There wasn’t even a choice back then. You were either in college or drafted.
The college-age generation found a choice and made it perfectly clear they were not going to march to anyone’s drum. They hitch-hiked to a concert in New York called Woodstock or to the Haight-Ashbury district in California. They continued hitch-hiking around the country and some just up and left the country. It was all in an effort to promote peace, abolish the draft and protest war. Peace signs, tie-dyed clothing and slogans like “Make love not war” were everywhere. I think my favorite was “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
I was 10 years old in 1969 when my only brother’s (draft) number came up. It was terrifying and everyone cried and I didn’t understand. I still recall ducking under desks at school, tucking my head down and occasionally darting to fall-out shelters in case of air raids or worse. I did understand the Korean war was now a police action and the Vietnam police action was soon to be a war. I didn’t want to duck and run anymore. I didn’t want everyone to cry or my brother to leave. I, too, wanted peace.
My brother went to Korea for about 20 years. We were lucky. We got him back. Way too many people weren’t that lucky. An unknown number of loved ones never came back. I think tie-dyed clothes and peace signs are an ongoing memorial to them and to the generation that stood up for itself and exercised its right to freedom from oppression and freedom of expression.