It was like Sinatra headlining in Vegas. On April 21, 1959 — 60 years in the past this Sunday — hundreds of adoring New Yorkers gave a tumultuous welcome to a younger celeb rising from Penn Station: Fidel Castro, chief of the Cuban guerrillas.
Less than 4 months earlier, he had overthrown a vicious navy dictatorship after an against-all-odds marketing campaign, and he was wildly well-liked within the metropolis, drawing crowds bigger than any overseas chief in its historical past. As throngs chanted “Fi-del, Fid-el, Fi-del,” Castro burst by means of police traces and started shaking arms, as if he had been working for workplace.
It was the opening public-relations volley of a four-day victory lap that captivated New York, and it was a milestone within the historical past of trend. According to Sonya Abrego, a historian of males’s trend within the 20th century, this was the second when what later grew to become referred to as radical stylish (the once-provocative use of visible markers associated to militant causes that also influences what we put on right this moment) was actually born.
When Castro’s picture appeared on the entrance web page of The New York Times after his arrival, it hardly wanted a caption: He was immediately recognizable for his distinctive sartorial type, combining navy fatigues, forage cap and unkempt beard.
His 70-strong entourage was filled with khaki-clad ex-guerrillas, whose raffish facial hair had turn into such a strong image in Cuba that they had been recognized merely as “los barbudos” (“the bearded ones”).
“In a way, Fidel, Che and the barbudos were the first hippies,” stated Jon Lee Anderson, the writer of “Che: A Revolutionary Life” and a forthcoming biography of Castro. “They burst onto the scene at the dawn of the TV age as the ultimate sexy rebels. Their sum total of their ‘look,’ with long hair and beards and berets, was potent, and it played into the cultural zeitgeist.”
At the time, many younger Americans had been displaying the primary indicators of disenchantment with what they noticed because the leaden conformity of the Cold War period. Allen Ginsberg’s paean to freedom, “Howl,” was revealed in 1956; Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” in 1957. “The Second Sex,” by Simone de Beauvoir, was in translation, and the civil rights motion was gaining tempo.
The Cubans shaped a stylistic bridge between the Beats and the 1960s counterculture, Dr. Abrego stated.
“The history of fashion is not linear,” she stated. “There could have easily been longhaired hippies without Che. But the impression the Cubans made on the sartorial landscape is real.” Their revolution was a most photogenic one, and the Cubans’ rebellious type infiltrated America.
Designing the Look
The beards had been born of necessity. Castro and a band of some 20 fellow survivors from his amphibious touchdown in japanese Cuba in December 1956 had no razors.
But their blossoming facial topiary had rapidly was a “badge of identity,” the chief later defined to the Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet, whose interviews with Castro are collected in “Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography.” The unintended type was made everlasting “to preserve the symbolism.”
Other components of the revolutionary look got here collectively through the marketing campaign, lovingly cataloged by shiny magazines. In 1958, Fidel’s youthful brother Raúl was photographed by Life sporting shoulder-length hair and a jaunty cowboy hat.
Photos of the mysterious, good-looking Argentine-born medic Ernesto Guevara, referred to as Che, confirmed that he, too, was rising his hair lengthy and modeling a soon-to-be-famous black beret.
And it wasn’t solely males. In early 1958, a Spanish photographer traveled to the Sierra Maestra for Paris Match and got here again with photos that included a high guerrilla chief, the M.I.T.-educated Vilma Espín, with a white mariposa bloom behind her ear, wanting like a prototype flower baby.
Also featured was Celia Sánchez, the rebels’ key organizer, who had designed her personal uniform with inexperienced twill tapered slacks and V-neck overblouse (in line with Dickie Chapelle, one of many first American battle photographers, who traveled with them).
In July 1958, Espín appeared in Life toting a rifle on her hip like Cuba’s reply to Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame. In a Doris Day world on the cusp of the feminist motion, the semiotics had been subversive.
Before Castro’s 1959 go to to the United States, the Cubans had employed a Madison Avenue P.R. agent, Bernard Rellin, for a princely $6,000 a month, to advise their chief on the way to attraction to Americans.
When they met in Havana, Rellin informed Castro that the guerrillas ought to all lower their hair. Castro refused. He knew the ability of the rebellious “barbudo” look.
It was a canny choice. By April, Castro’s so-called model had turn into so famend that an American toy firm produced 100,000 forage caps with strap-on beards for teenagers, which had been placed on sale alongside Davy Crockett coonskin hats and G.I. Joe helmets.
Each was emblazoned with the black-and-red emblem of the revolutionary 26th of July Movement and the phrases “El Libertador” (“The Liberator”), evoking the independence hero Simón Bolívar.
Castro’s four-day New York go to unfurled in a whirlwind of whiskers and khaki. His picturesque picture cropped up in settings each official and touristic: He was obtained at City Hall by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, he greeted wide-eyed college students at Columbia University, he visited The New York Times places of work and he spoke to a crowd of 16,000 on the band shell in Central Park.
All of this occurred at the perfect time to influence Americans, said Nathaniel Adams, a writer who specializes in fashion subcultures. The flood of media imagery coincided with the economic boom in the West that created a new class of young consumers with disposable cash.
“This was the first time teenagers around the world started to consciously copy each other’s styles,” Mr. Adams said. “And the fashions were being created by the kids themselves, not handed down by adults.” The highly educated Castro was like James Dean with a progressive political agenda: a rebel with a cause.
A Lasting Influence
On the surface, New York’s Fidel infatuation seemed to fade relatively quickly. By the time of his next visit to the city, to address the United Nations in September 1960, Castro was derided for the same style choices that had once seemed so seductive.
The New York Daily News mocked him as “El Beardo,” or just “The Beard”; Senator Barry Goldwater lamented that the Cuban “knight in shining armor” had turned out to be “a bum without a shave.” Before long, some Americans buzz cuts were staging anti-hippie rallies, holding placards with sayings like “Long Hair Is Communism.”
But Castro’s influence on fashion would endure. For his 1960 New York visit, he and his entourage moved on from white middle-class America and decamped to a Harlem hotel, the Theresa, where they met Malcolm X and other black leaders.
This time, the style highlight was a cocktail party in the ballroom organized by the progressive group Fair Play for Cuba and attended by 250 bohemian luminaries, including the poets Allen Ginsberg and Langston Hughes, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and an array of civil rights activists.
“The proletarian staff of the hotel, the olive green uniform of the ‘guerilleros,’ the general lack of formality, all helped to emphasize the gaiety and the stimulating, if not revolutionary, character of the meeting,” wrote one guest, the European journalist K.S. Karol, of the party.
Ten years later, Tom Wolfe coined the term “radical chic” to mock New York intellectuals who were hypnotized by revolutionary fashions at a party hosted by Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panthers — who, of course, had taken the paramilitary look from the Cubans and made it their own.
Since then, fashion has only further denatured the style, and now camo pants are available everywhere from Old Navy to Balmain.
“‘Radical chic’ is a term that seems so 20th century,” Ms. Abrego said. “It was once very negative, referring to a style that developed organically, but has been appropriated as a fashionable look without any further political commentary or personal risk. I struggle to explain it to kids wearing Che T-shirts today.”