1970s Dress, Part II: Happy Bastille Day

1971 Yves Saint Laurent Liberation collection.

Yves Saint Laurent in his signature safari look
The designer in his signature safari look.


Last time I wrote about seventies dress trends including androgynous attire, street style, thrift store chic, and punk.  We saw that punk styles eventually moved from the sidewalk to the catwalk while other looks adhered to the more traditional “trickle down” effect.  A decade before Vivienne Westwood introduced streetwear to the catwalk Yves Saint Laurent scandalized the fashion industry with his own couture interpretation of street style, which at the time included wearing thrift shop finds dating to the 1930s and 1940s.  His spring 1971 “Liberation” collection was widely criticized for being “vulgar” couture.  Nonetheless, his 1940s inspired brightly colored collection reflected the ease and comfort young women desired.  This generation preferred more casual looks, flexibility in attire, and freedom of choice.  Despite its poor reception among the fashion cognoscenti, Liberation helped usher in an era where high fashion was no longer the great dress dictator.

Saint Laurent influenced men’s sportswear as well with his unstructured, comfortable safari style attire.  The Oregon-based manufacturer, Jantzen, specializing in knits and swimwear, was among those to interpret Saint Laurent’s safari style as leisure suit via double-knit polyester and worn with an open neck wide collared shirt.  By the late 1970s, the no-wrinkle polyester leisure suit had become an object of ridicule and was associated with retirees.

Jantzen leisure suits   
Jantzen leisure suits.

Saturday Night Fever (Badham, 1977)      
Saturday Night Fever (Badham, 1977)        


       Donna Summer
         Donna Summer, 1975

Perhaps one of the most enduring images evocative of the seventies is the white three-piece disco suit.  Interestingly, the film’s actual suit conceived of by costume designer, Patrizia von Brandenstein, is a cream color made of fine Italian wool.  Having been involved in its installation for the exhibition Hollywood Costume (2014-2015), I know that it looks quite different in person than it does on screen as costumes so often do.

 Saturday Night Fever, released in 1977, helped to popularize disco music and style.  Before the film’s huge success in mainstream America, disco enjoyed popularity among blacks, Latinos, and gays.  In 1975, Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” became one of the first disco songs to be released in extended form—perfect for cocaine fueled dancing at the club.   Disco dancing required freedom of movement and the clothes reflected that—form-fitting knits, skin-tight satin pants, Lycra leotards, and wrap skirts worn with strappy high heel sandals were part of the overall look.  Gold jewelry, hair that moved, and glossy, shimmery makeup were essential. 

Disco Dancing    
Disco Dancing (1979)      

  Halston, c.1973    
    Halston, c.1973 (Philadelphia Art Museum)  

  Missoni, 1970s
   Missoni, 1970s (Philadelphia Art Museum)

Knits for women prevailed outside the discotheque as well.  American designer Halston gained popularity with his elegant, wearable, and simple jersey confections.  The Halston example shown here wraps around itself and demonstrates the designer’s penchant for vibrant colors. Other American and European designers specializing in knits, such as Missoni, also enjoyed success during this time with their emphasis on body conscious clothing and freedom of movement.

The seventies were characterized by nostalgia for 1920s and 1930s styles, which helped inspire heavier makeup.  The nostalgia arose thanks in part to what was available in thrift stores at the time and to the popularity of Hollywood films set in those decades such as Cabaret (Fosse, 1972), The Sting (Hill, 1973), The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974), and Chinatown (Polanski, 1974).

Nearly 40 years before Kim Kardashian helped popularize face contouring, Seventies makeup artist, Way Bandy, illustrated makeup contouring techniques for the masses with his 1977 book, Designing Your Face.  Shimmery skin, defined facial planes, enhanced eyes, and a wet lip were the order of the day.  Lip gloss had its debut in 1971 and while a clear gloss allowed one to cultivate the natural look, it could also be worn over dark lip color for a disco mouth.

Designing Your Face           
Designing Your Face (1977)

   Makeup c.1970
                           Makeup advertisement, c.1970

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust         
David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, 1972-73      


   The Village People
  The Village People, 1977

Another disco-associated look for men emerged at this time, which departed from the flashy peacock style popularized by John Travolta and stars of the era’s blaxpoitation films.  Even as heterosexual and sexually ambiguous pop stars such as David Bowie played with gender bending attire in the early Seventies, more conventional masculine styles grew in popularity on the streets.  This trend emerged from the gay liberation movement that took shape after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York.  Post Stonewall, a segment of the gay male population sought to challenge longstanding stereotypes of effeminacy.  They adopted hypermasculine looks, which made their way into mainstream culture in 1977.  That year a group called The Village People made its debut.  These macho characters were inspired by ways a gay subset of the community dressed in New York’s Greenwich Village.  The lead singer was backed by five dancers; each representing a distinct macho look that was both a parody and exaggeration of heterosexual masculine types.  Their style included straight leg jeans, which prompted one dress historian to observe that the group’s popularity helped crush flared jeans once and for all and to usher in more traditional masculine looks.  

By 1980, the macho look was more broadly understood to be associated with gay culture when William Friedkin directed the controversial film Cruising starring Al Pacino as an undercover cop who becomes enmeshed in the gay leather scene in order to catch a homosexual killer.  Gay activists protested the film out of concern that it would prompt an anti-gay backlash.  Interestingly, Cruising was adapted from a 1970 novel by Gerald Walker, a New York Times journalist whose 2004 obituary indicated he left a widow behind implying he was heterosexual.

Among the Seventies’ defining moments were an enduring economic recession, high unemployment, and the resignation of scandal-plagued President Richard Nixon.  These events paired with late 1960s assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., contributed to a less idealistic cultural climate with people increasingly wary of institutions.  In 1979, the writer Tom Wolfe reflected back on the decade in a Life magazine article and described its youth as the “me generation;” people who were after cheap thrills found in casual sex and drugs.

John T. Molloy
The Woman's Dress for Success Book (1977)

In many ways pop culture reflected a cynical dystopian perspective.  Yet the 1970s were not all about punk rock nihilism and disco hedonism.  Others continued to pursue the American Dream of economic advancement through their professions.  As women sought greater positions of power in the workplace, how to “dress for success” became a concern.  Ralph Lauren was at the forefront of the movement throughout the Seventies with his combination preppy/English countryside tweeds and tailoring.  Yet it was best-selling author and dress consultant, John T. Molloy, who gave men and women clearly defined rules for appropriate workplace attire. Polyester leisure suits had no place in a career-oriented person’s wardrobe.  Molloy tossed a tailored life preserver to those flailing in the sea of so-called anti-fashion and “anything goes” manners of dress.  Further, he advocated for natural fibers, advised erring on the side of conservative attire, and recommended clothes befitting the occasion.  His best-selling 1975 Dress for Success book presaged the conservative Gordon Gecko looks that would dominate the Reagan 1980s. In 1977, Molloy followed up his book for men with The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, in which the author advised women to wear work clothes that were neither too feminine nor too masculine.  A skirt suit with a not-too-frilly blouse, light makeup, and a moderate hairstyle would pass the test.  And where late 1960s feminists and hippies advocated for bralessness, Molloy insisted on only one lingerie rule for the businesswoman: “Wear bras that hold your breasts in place and hide your nipples” (Molloy, 99). 

When the professional dress consultant wrote those words in 1977, popular culture was experiencing a backlash to the women’s liberation movement.  At the time, television consisted of essentially three networks, which meant millions of people shared the same pop culture points of reference.  Among that year’s popular TV programs were those featuring ostensibly empowered career women: Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels.  All four shows featured conventionally attractive Caucasian, often scantily clad female leads.  Critics called Charlie’s Angels “jiggle TV,” because as one of its stars, Farrah Fawcett, noted, none of them wore bras.  Ever.

Farrah Fawcett—particularly her hair—transformed her into a style icon whose wholesome good looks were emulated by women across the country.  Yet Fawcett was a sex symbol and while Molloy wanted women to look attractive, sexiness had no place in the boardroom.  Said the dress consultant: “. . . when sexuality is a factor in choosing business wear, it harms a woman’s career” (Molloy, 21).

Charlies Angels   
The original cast of Charlie's Angels       

    Farrah Fawcett
      The 1976 poster that launched Farrah Fawcett's career

For Molloy, jeans were strictly for doing housework.  Since the late 1960s, however, they had become a unisex staple.   In the early part of the decade, waistlines were low.  Gradually the waistline rose and eventually the bell bottoms that just covered one’s platform shoes narrowed to a straighter fit. 

Not everyone shared Molloy’s perspective that jeans were strictly for doing chores.  In 1973 the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award was presented to Levi Strauss & Company for “the single most important American contribution to worldwide fashion.”  In 1976, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt earned her own fortune when she licensed her name for a popular line of designer jeans. The American designer and minimalist advocate, Calvin Klein, followed suit developing his own line of designer jeans in 1978.  Taking their cue from earlier more proletarian jeans manufacturers such as Levi’s and Wrangler, fashion designers used distinctive stitching and logos to make their jeans instantly recognizable.  The designer jean niche market was established and has continued into this century.

Gloria Vanderbilt and models                 
Gloria Vanderbilt among bent over models in her jeans, 1976  

   Gloria Vanderbilt jeans
  Heiress, Gloria Vanderbilt, lends her autograph to jeans


Dress, fashion, and style in the 1970s were characterized by natural and high glamour looks, anti-establishment style and a return to traditional attire, fashion as a downward trickle and street style informing couture.  In looking back on the decade it can seem as if a style feeding frenzy took place.  Yet fashion and daily dress engaged in a back and forth exchange that was influenced by events of the era and pop culture; a trend that persists.


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