Photograph by Mark Shaw

                             Photograph by Mark Shaw

Joan “Tiger” Morse (1932-1972) has been described as “La Passionaria of the dropout subculture,” and it is true that she is mainly known today for dropping out. Before leaving the uptown New York fashion world behind she brought a counterculture flair to the women of New York high society, becoming one of the inventors of the "downtown" sensibility." 

Morse started out in the late 1950’s as a fairly conventional stylist, creating luxurious, if slightly quirky, clothes for women like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Jean Harvey Vanderbilt. Her influence as an unusual tastemaker began to appear at this time. Morse was one of the earliest proponents of the bricolage style of interior décor. Her shop, A La Carte was amongst the very first of the boutique wave that crested in the late 1960s.  By the mid 1960’s she had burst out as the creator of the vinyl mini-dress and the light-up electric dress. She invented fashion-performance art as we know it today as well as the pop-up shop and the temporary tattoo. In 1967 she was quoted almost daily in the press, fashion and otherwise. In that year she starred in Andy Warhol's film Tiger Morse (Reel 14 of ****). By 1970 she had retreated into full-on fantasy life in her psychedelic loft and, in 1972 died of a drug overdose. 

Journalists occasionally noted that Tiger Morse was a member of the “high society” that she also dressed and indeed she grew up in sophisticated and wealthy environs.  Morse’s 1951 engagement was announced in the New York Times and the biographical sketch of the impending bride draws a portrait of a member of the New York upper-middle class: daughter of a prominent architect (Henry Sugarman), habitation in a luxurious residential hotel (The Meurice), graduation from a posh boarding school (Cherry Lawn), study abroad (the Sorbonne) and engagement to a young heir of a real estate fortune (William Moses).  The advantages she experienced certainly eased her entree to the world of high style and its adherents as it was in the mid-1950’s.  Perhaps, however, as a Jew, she may have felt that she was a perpetual outsider.

Her fashion evolution and her personal devolution perfectly represent the socio-cultural revolutions that rolled out over the years that we call “The Sixties.” Her life, like the era, should not be seen simply as a decline into decadence, but rather as a series of experimental, performative and transformational episodes.  Those episodes add up to a corpus of creative works and practice unlike anything that came before or after, outstandingly unique but acutely contemporary to its time. 

©Alan Rosenberg