Two long-running wars, a frenzied election cycle and the symbol's 50th birthday this year have combined to push the hippie relic into the public eye in a way it hasn't been for decades.
Whether it's LED tree-toppers on the shelf at Urban Outfitters or a psychedelic, water-wheel-sized installation on the sales floor at Barneys New York, the peace symbol has become the unofficial symbol of this holiday season. Two long-running wars, a frenzied election cycle and the symbol's 50th birthday this year have combined to push the hippie relic into the public eye in a way it hasn't been for decades.
So this year you can have a cool yule with peace symbol ice cube trays, baby bibs and swimsuits. You can find it stitched into $250 cashmere throw pillows, enameled into $400 cuff links and hand-painted onto $2,000 purses. And it was recently announced that Shawn Johnson, the plucky 16-year-old Olympian who back-flipped into our hearts in Beijing while sporting a dangly pair of peace sign earrings, soon is launching a line of peace-bedazzled leotards.
Winding from the corner of Haight-Ashbury to the holiday window display at Barneys New York, what a long, strange trip it's been for the emoticon of the '60s counterculture, just three straight lines inside a circle.
According to photographer Ken Kolsbun, who has been chronicling the life and times of the symbol for four decades (his book with Michael S. Sweeney, "Peace: The Biography of a Symbol," was published in April), the design was the creation of a British textile designer named Gerald Holtom, who hit on the now-indelible image by melding the semaphore signals for the letters "N" (both arms down stretched at 45 degree angles) and "D" (arms parallel, left arm down, right arm up) to represent the words "nuclear disarmament." It made its public debut at a ban-the-bomb march in London's Trafalgar Square on April 4, 1958.
"Ten days later, Life magazine ran a photo from that march, which was its first appearance in the U.S.," Kolsbun said by phone. It caught on stateside, he said, thanks to the antiwar movement, which he credits with broadening the symbol's meaning beyond nuclear protest. And the symbol has been percolating through American pop culture ever since.
Its popularity seems to be cyclical, Kolsbun notes. "After the Vietnam War there was a lull, but they seemed to crop up in the '80s with the (Nuclear Weapons) Freeze Campaign, and again around the time the second Iraq war broke out. My wife and I were at a big rally in San Francisco and the symbol was all over the place," he said.
This time around, stores ranging from Target to Saks Fifth Avenue have been looking for ways to twist the peace sign into a dollar sign, and few retailers have hopped on the peace train as enthusiastically as Barneys New York. Creative director Simon Doonan, inspired by the symbol's anniversary, has tricked out the high-end retailer's windows and sales floor with a hodgepodge of psychedelic grooviness dubbed "hippie holidays" — think quasi-water-pipe pottery, trippy paisleys and a platoon of peace signs knit into $68 socks, embroidered onto $110 diaper bags and painted onto a VW Beetle (the car is being raffled for $100 a ticket). An 8-foot-tall mock-decoupaged version of the peace symbol stands sentinel inside the front door of the Beverly Hills store.
The irony of using hippie to hawk high-end isn't lost on Doonan. "I always thought it was kind of amusing," he said. "But our core customer is a baby boomer who has inherited parental wealth — or maybe they've made their own money — but they still think of themselves as alternative, and the imagery of the counterculture still resonates with them."
Does slapping a $310 custom-painted peace sign onto a $1,695 Goyard Croisiere handbag mean the sacred symbol of the "never trust anyone over 30" generation has been sold out?
"It would make a nifty story for journalists to say (the peace sign is) being cheapened," Doonan said. "Even though it's been made into handbags and earrings and cupcakes and hair clips, the peace symbol has still very much retained its original meaning — it still means peace."
Even Kolsbun, is hard pressed to see the proliferation of peace pieces as a bad thing — especially if it can turn the discussion, even for a moment, toward peace. He cites a company, Annie's Homegrown, that made peace symbol pasta and filled the back of the package with a history of the symbol and the antinuclear movement.
The focus today may be on terrorism and suitcase bombs, but Kolsbun doesn't want anyone to lose sight of those nuclear arsenals that have yet to be dismantled. "I think that's the important thing: If Barneys is selling a $400 purse, it might be smart to put a little enclosure in there that talks about the fact there are 23,000 nukes sitting all over the world. That story needs to get out there."
To that end, Kolsbun has taken to wearing his peace sign upside down. "In his will, Holtom asked that an upside-down peace symbol be carved on his gravestone because the semaphore letter 'u' was upside down from the letter 'n,' and he wanted it to symbolize 'unilateral disarmament,' " Kolsbun said. "That's the purest, most ultimate form of peace."
So if this holiday season finds you ordering up that custom Goyard bag, why not ask for the hand-painted peace sign upside down? Sure, the bag may cost a cool $2,005, but being able to tell the world you're a stylish, well-off, no-nukes baby boomer who's one step ahead of the trends without opening your mouth?