On the last night of the 1960s—that infamous decade of psychedelic creation and queer revolution—a wild theatrical spectacle was birthed on stage at the Palace Theatre in San Francisco. Called The Cockettes, they blended gender-fuck drag with outlandish send-ups of common movie tropes and popular performers of the day. Originally, they were to be named “The Angels of Light Free Theatre;” “The Cockettes” was just their name for a dirty, Rockettes-inspired can-can routine—but it captured their energy so perfectly that it stuck. Disco diva Sylvester was an early member, and artists as diverse as painter Martin Wong and drag star Divine were involved at various points over the years.
In part, The Cockettes’ goal was to eradicate the line between performer and audience, and performance and life. Or as Fayette Hauser (one of the original members) put it on her website, to create “experimental and experiential theater, real, no bullshit. Absurdist and Surreal, in life and on the stage.” A painter by training, Hauser created many of the group’s unique glitter-trash looks, and documented them extensively through her photos.
(Left) Fayette Hauser, 1972, Photo by Arvid Anderson (Right) Fayette Hauser, 1971, Photo by Clay Geerdes (Courtesy of Fayette Hauser and Museum of Arts and Design)
The costumes Hauser created drew from the already outlandish outfits The Cockettes wore in their real lives as Haight-Ashbury psychedelic freaks. Each was unique and handmade, combining feathers and beads, fur and leather, glitter and garbage, frippery and fashion. Miraculously, some of these creations have survived the last half-century, and are featured in the new show Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design (open now through August 20, 2017).
On the eve of the show’s opening, Hauser sat down with OUT to discuss The Cockettes, corporate-created culture, and Lady Gaga.
“My grandma taught me how to sew. She and I made all my doll’s clothes—I had a fantastic doll wardrobe when I was a young girl. I played with dolls up until I was 15 because I loved the clothes! My dolls had different personas and careers, and they all had wardrobes. Then I went to art school, where I was a painter. I learned a lot of art theory, art history.
Psychedelics synthesized all that information. In our scene, everyone was making their own clothes because there wasn’t anything available: The mainstream was so far away that whatever we wanted to wear to express our vision, we had to do it ourselves. So everybody was either shopping in vintage stores, or making their own clothes. There was a sewing machine in every commune, honestly.
That’s how The Cockettes started. We were all living together communally. Hibiscus [The Cockette’s founder] came from theater in New York, and he wanted to create a a psychedelic version of the avant-garde theaters there. So he came to us and asked to move in, and of course he moved in right away. He was such a fabulous freak. I mean, he was real brilliant, and he presented the idea of just taking our life as it worked in the commune and putting it on the stage. That was in the fall of ’69. He was determined to present something on New Year’s Eve – new theater for the new decade!
So we had dinner and got dressed up, wore a whole lot of drag, went to the theater, and jumped on stage! We did this chorus line for everyone, all of us freaks. It was maybe 10 or 12 of us, and the audience just flew out of their seats. It was an incredible burst of energy, and it surprised all of us on stage. Hibiscus was standing next to me, and I looked at him like, ‘What should we do next?’ So he put the record on again and we did it all over! By the end, we started taking our clothes off (of course), and then the audience rushed the stage and jumped up and took their clothes off – it was just mayhem, fabulousness, energy!
There was no turning back after that. That was it for us. That was our job, and that’s what we did, everyone embraced it. For me, that meant assembling outfits in a painterly way that would express the ideas I had in my head. I wanted to make it as mysterious as possible so that you would look at it and say, “What?”
But everyone had a very unique style—that’s the one thing about The Cockettes, everyone was very much individuated and full of psychedelics. Yet our vision and artistry brought us together and made us love each other.
The thinking at the time was completely different, almost the polar opposite of now. There was no profit motive, because we were so divorced from the mainstream. The counter culture in San Francisco had created a self-sufficient society. They were doing free food in the park, there was a free clinic... everything was set up so you could live as an artist and spend all your time being creative.
Now, no one has time to even have a creative thought, much less one that’s new and different. People are too busy trying to keep the roof over their heads, which is very sad. I think American culture has really declined because of this hideous profit pressure—it’s so limiting. It’s why the counter culture is the last full-on American art movement. There’s really been nothing since. And I think it’s important for kids to see this alternative way of thinking and creating, where you don’t immediately think of how much money you’re going to make. The minute you try to market it, that’s the end of the creativity. This generation now, they’ve been born into corporate slavery and they don’t know that there’s any other way.
The counter-culture legacy has continued in small groups, but it’s just more difficult for people do that kind of thing. There’s still a vibe of creativity in San Francisco that is right in the pipeline of The Cockettes. One group in particular is the Vau de Vire Society. They create the Edwardian Ball. They’re in the Cirque tradition—they’re complete freaks and extremely creative, they’re absolutely my favorite. And I love Lady Gaga because, first of all, she’s a woman that’s taking charge of her career. And I think she’s extremely talented. I love that she has embraced creating surreal drag and using costume as a form of expression. She’s a very strong woman, and I think she’s a role model for young artists, especially women that want to do something and don’t want to take orders from other people or corporations.
There’s a lot of other artists that I think really are under the thumb of corporations and the mainstream and that they’re afraid to be as individually outspoken as Lady Gaga. But she’s a triumph.”