Tales of San Francisco: a guide to the hippy heartland of Haight-Ashbury, as told by dressmaker Cicely Hansen

Cicely Hansen — dressmaker, fashion historian and owner of high-end vintage shop Decades of Fashion — remembers moving to ‘the Haight’ in 1966, the year before hippies converged in the neighbourhood and made history with the Summer of Love.

Photographs By Andria Lo
Published 5 Nov 2020, 08:20 GMT, Updated 9 Nov 2020, 10:01 GMT
The larger-than-life owner of Decades of Fashion, Cicely Hansen, may have worked with Dolce & Gabbana, Dior ...

The larger-than-life owner of Decades of Fashion, Cicely Hansen, may have worked with Dolce & Gabbana, Dior and Lanvin, but she’s usually to be found behind the till, surrounded by thousands of items of clothing.

Photograph by Andria Lo

On Haight Street, where tens of thousands of hippies famously gathered during the Summer of Love, one building stands out amid the colourful clapboard houses: the grandiose vaulted-windowed structure at number 1653.

Today, the former bank is Decades of Fashion, a vast emporium of vintage clothes from the 1880s onwards. Larger-than-life owner Cicely Hansen may have worked with Dolce & Gabbana, Dior and Lanvin, but she’s usually to be found behind the till, surrounded by thousands of items of clothing. Although she lives outside the city these days, she’ll never truly leave the Haight — because, as she puts it, the Haight changed her life. 

“I came to do a job,” she says of her first visit to the area in 1966. As a teen model from Los Altos, an hour south of San Francisco, she had been hired to work at a music contest. 

“I was 17 and a freak — I used to dress in vintage, which nobody else did back then,” she says. As she was leaving the event, dressed in 1940s clothes, the DJ — Tony Big — asked if she was going back to the Haight.

His words altered the course of Cicely’s life. She made her first trip to Haight-Ashbury and was struck by the sight of “people wearing things they’d made themselves”. 

Colourful Victorian-era houses in Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood.

Photograph by Andria Lo

Cicely had found her tribe — and within three months, she’d moved to be with them. Behind the till is a picture of her from those early days: long blonde hair, diaphanous minidress and a broad grin. “That’s me, taken on my way to tell my brother and sister to skip school because there was a guy coming to play who my neighbours said was good. His name was Jimi Hendrix.”

The neighbours, meanwhile, were the rock band the Grateful Dead.

Cicely had been in Haight-Ashbury for a year when, in 1967, the Summer of Love occured — a countercultural phenomenon that saw young people flock to San Francisco from across the country to share music, art and ideas. Tony Big, by now her boyfriend, swept her into the scene. 

“The Grateful Dead would be playing in the Panhandle in Golden Gate Park,” Cicely reminisces. “I went to the Fillmore [District] when a friend had to show a guitar to someone called Eric Clapton. There were these guys around, too — Otis Redding and Chuck Berry. Tony took me to see Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Twenty thousand people would show up.”

Although Cicely lives outside the city these days, she’ll never truly leave the Haight — because, as she puts it, the Haight changed her life. 

Photograph by Andria Lo

The neighbourhood changed with time, of course — the days of walking around barefoot at midnight soured in the late 1960s, when hard drugs arrived on the scene. After getting married at 19, Cicely moved out of the area and started making clothes for the Velvet Underground, a clothing store in downtown San Francisco beloved by Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin. Next came lampshade-making for the likes of Barbra Streisand, then the cowgirl life on a ranch in Santa Cruz. But the Haight was always at the back of her mind, and in 2005 she returned to open her store amid the vintage shops that now characterise these streets. “I blended right in again,” she says.

Today, the Haight continues to change. The vintage stores are less ubiquitous, but Cicely still rates the shopping, including Love Street Vintage (“Graciela’s been in the business a long time”) and Held Over (“owner Werner Werwie is one of the reasons I moved back”). Amoeba Music, further up the street, is another Haight stalwart. 

It may not be 1967 anymore — “you don’t see the camaraderie in the park these days,” Cicely laments — but the neighbourhood will always feel special. “The Haight gave me life,” she says, twirling about the shop in a floaty dress she made during the Summer of Love. “And a whole culture.”

Discover more Tales of San Francisco

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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