The Spirit of '76: 1970s Dress, Part I

We’ve just celebrated Independence Day and the Spirit of ’76 has put me in a mind to re-visit a presentation I gave this spring on Seventies dress, the 1970s, that is.

Black Power
Black Power afro pick

When it comes to dress, we tend to think of twentieth century decades as being distinct from one another but fashions rarely change overnight.  The countercultural movements of the late 1960s informed the look and feel of the early 1970s—the long-haired San Francisco hippie look resonated beyond the 1967 Summer of Love; black pride continued to influence hair and dress styles; feminists established the National Organization for Women and some cast aside physically constraining girdles and bras calling them tools of patriarchy; increasingly women wore trousers and rejected fashion industry mandates; even women who may not have considered themselves feminists initially deplored the unflattering calf-length midi skirts and the fashion press declared it an age of “anything goes”; identity politics and activism took center stage not only for blacks and women.  Members of Chicano and American Indian movements wore distinctive dress styles to signal cultural group affiliation.

American Indian Movement
Members of the American Indian Movement

College campus streakers
College campus streakers

In the early 1970s, as an outgrowth of the hippie era, people increasingly embraced conceptions of “natural” and its associations with good health: vegetarianism, macrobiotic diets, yoga, and nudism.   What we consider “natural” is a product of our times and even nudity is a form of dress—“natural” hair requires upkeep and styling, a nudist may choose to wear shoes and socks to protect the feet, glasses allow one to see.  Nonetheless, “natural” as a cultural construct gained traction in the early 1970s even as beauty suppliers manufactured and sold hair products and cosmetics to achieve the “natural” look.

While the natural look enjoyed popularity and many women favored wearing little to no makeup, within certain early 70s New York circles, glam, trash, and androgynous or cross-dressed looks were popular for men.  Wearing makeup, platform shoes, and tight clothes these men challenged popular conceptions of masculinity and took inspiration from hustlers and transvestites. 

In 1973 The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Tim Curry as the transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter, was a popular musical stage production and in 1975 was made into a film.  Though not initially a success, the movie enjoyed cult status when dressing up as the film’s characters became part of the movie going experience.  The film continues to resonate.  This Halloween, Fox TV is airing its re-make of the classic starring transgender actress Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter.

 Men's waist shaper        New York Dolls
Waist shaper from Frederick's of Hollywood catalog                                        The New York Dolls, c.1973

Although extreme looks such as the costumes for Rocky Horror were a subcultural phenomenon, they nonetheless reflected a broader cultural shift toward more formfitting, sexualizing clothes for men.  By 1972, mail-order catalog company, Frederick’s of Hollywood was selling undergarments to accommodate higher-waisted, tight fitting trousers—including waist shapers for men.

Patti Smith              Helmut Newton
Patti Smith photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1975                              Helmut Newton fashion photograph, 1975

Men were not the only ones to challenge gender norms for dress.  Queen of Punk, Patti Smith played up her androgynous physique with men’s wear in the Robert Mapplethorpe photo of her on the 1975 album cover for Horses.  Other rebellious women in music, such as Deborah Harry of Blondie, created a kind of debauched glamorous femininity that included ripped tights, tattered T-shirts, and heavy makeup though it was not until Blondie had a more disco look and sound that the group achieved mainstream success. 

The climate was right for challenging gender-specific dress in the realm of couture as well. French designer Yves Saint Laurent was influential during this period creating numerous trouser suits for women.  This iconic Helmut Newton fashion photograph captured the chic elegance of Saint Laurent’s “le smoking” jacket and helped further popularize trousers for women.

Ralph Lauren
Annie Hall-inspired fashion

Women in menswear gained broader appeal when Diane Keaton starred in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.  Costume designer Ruth Morley was inspired by Keaton’s personal style and incorporated clothing items from the actress’ wardrobe along with other pieces sourced from New York second-hand and vintage shops.  Fashion designer Ralph Lauren was among those to take inspiration from the film and was happy to let people think he’d designed the costumes when a few of his shirts and a tuxedo found their way onscreen.  The truth is fashion design and street style inspired costume design, which inspired fashion design.

The Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols

Ruth Morley and the hippies were not the only ones shopping at thrift stores.  A very un-hippie, second-hand look defined London punk style, which emerged in the mid-1970s eventually achieving an enduring global influence.  Business partners Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood operated a shop that catered primarily to young, working-class, anti-establishment Brits.  By 1975, their shop, called SEX, was a popular hangout for a burgeoning punk scene and became the 1976 birthplace of the punk band, The Sex Pistols.  Punks preferred anti-consumerist ripped clothes held together by safety pins; Doc Martens boots; hair that was dyed, spiked and shaved; wearing aggressive and offensive symbols such as the swastika; and engaging in anti-social activities meant to shock.  The punk aesthetic finally migrated from the streets to the runway in 1981 when self-taught designer Vivienne Westwood debuted her first fashion collection.


Check back soon for Part II of The Spirit of '76.

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