Farrah Fawcett flips, flared jeans, and faux leather jackets, oh my! Catherine Mullner is here to analyse the rise of seventies fashion in the political and social climate of the 2020s.
Walking down the streets of St. Andrews seems at times like one is time travelling.
With cobblestone laid romantically on Market Street, a thirteenth-century castle just off of North Street, and a modern library designed in a late twentieth-century brutalist style, it seems you are physically walking through the history of the town itself anytime you step out of your flat.
But truly, the history I am most interested in is the one surrounding what the students and residents of the town are wearing.
Some will argue that to focus on “aesthetics” in a time of intense political and social division is to ignore the large issues at hand. Yet, I would argue that is focusing on the micro rather than the macro that one is able to see the bigger picture. That to me rings tried and true in the resurgence of seventies fashion in the last year. Sure, the nineties have had their comeback, and I’m certain that our 21st-century obsession with minimalism will keep the simple yet chic silhouettes of the nineties extremely popular.
However, it is the fast and furious rise of seventies silhouettes, hair, and makeup that I see the political ideals of our young generations reflected. So, let us part these curtain bangs, and see what this is all about!
The Start of Everything (Again)
Marsha P. Johnson throwing the first brick at Stonewall on 28th June 1969 marked the end of the swinging sixties. With the definitive crash of that brick into the side of the Stonewall Inn, the mentality of the seventies was devised. No longer would pop-art, colourful baby doll dresses, and smooth pop of the sixties reign. Instead, the seventies centered around utility: activism is the name of the game, and people are on the move to secure social rights and expand equality for marginalised groups. Fashion, therefore, imitates life.
One way we can see the influence of social justice in the fashion of the day is in the versatility and utility of women’s clothing in the 1970s. One prominent example is Diane Von Furstenberg’s iconic wrap dress that premiered in 1974; by 1976, Furstenberg had sold over five million dresses! This dress was made to suit every woman’s body and gave them more freedom in going from day to night.
This theme continues throughout other classic staple pieces of womenswear in the seventies. Bell-bottom power suits created by Barbara Hulanicki, long simple silhouetted dresses by Laura Ashley, and Roy Falston Harwick’s infamous jersey halter dress all dominated the scene. Ultimately, what I see, looking at photos of Cher and Biana Jagger in a white satin tuxedo, is that women were rejecting being dolls to be dressed up. First and foremost, they wanted to be comfortable and mobile.
Mobility and flexibility are themes that are reflected in fashion because it is consciously at the forefront of the seventies. Now in the 2020s, we see comfortable flare jeans, satin sets, and long skirts come back full force -- for both men, and women. Traditional boundaries in gender roles and class divisions are being challenged more than ever, and the way we utilise clothing reflects that. It is not about performing gender in a rigid cultural hierarchy -- it is about finding clothes that are comfortable and flattering while protesting down High Street.
Especially in the materials that we remember clothing from the seventies to be made from (polyester, satin, and leather to name the most popular), we see that those allowed for form-fitting yet professional silhouettes. There is something in the conscious revealing of one’s figure and of taking back the narrative of one’s own body. It did not matter and does not matter what people choose to identify us as, but rather what we get to portray and control through the help of our clothing.
In that spirit, we also can reflect on the influence of environmentalism in both seventies fashion and fashion today. With the foundation of Earth Day on the 22nd April 1970, we see a conscious consideration towards the environment and the individual impact a person has on it. Organisations like Greenpeace and the Environmental Protection Agency were also founded in the seventies, and with that came the movement of millions of 18-30-year-old North American and Western European people around the world.
Image(s): tate.org/ Neil Kenlock
I think, however, the most important place we can see seventies fashion resurge in the political framework of the 2020s in the rise of Black Power and Black activist groups who sought to affirm Black determination. A figure who comes to mind is Darcus Howe of the British Black Panthers, wearing a beanie and turtleneck sweater in his iconic 1970 portrait around the same time he organised the protest of the closure of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, West London. Flash forward to 2020, and we see this combination popular among many people, particularly in “indie” looks of young men on social media.
And if you’re not convinced that the seventies have come back for a reason, I would check your Tik Tok feed again. Nowhere else do you see the intense concentration of seventies fashion and aesthetics than in the platform Tik Tok provides to mainly 16 to 25-year-olds. Farrah Fawcett heatless curler tutorials are abundant, roller skating compilations, and how to hippie lifestyles are pieces of content that are on everyone’s phone at the current moment. Disco music is in, and people are ready to boogie again in platform boots and take on the next day with the fervor and passion the seventies evokes.
So, what do all these examples mean for our political climate right now?
We can now look back, fifty years later, on these grassroots movements that are now an ordinary part of our lives. And yet, I think I am not alone in asking myself: have we done enough? We look back and see the seventies as a time where people consciously sought to take back power, and we want to do that too.
Image(s): Rob Carr/ Getty Images
Fifty years later, our society is conscious of this need for social mobility still! And, we see this rise up in our media every day. Mrs. America premiered in the summer of 2020 on Hulu, which focuses intensely on the fight for the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s. Harry Styles premiered as the first solo man on the cover of Vogue wearing high waisted trousers reminiscent of David Bowie and Prince to celebrate the rise of the LGBTQIA+ community. Michelle Obama wearing wide-leg trousers and a turtleneck in a mock power suit designed by Sergio Hudson. Songs like “Rasputin” by the seventies disco group Boney M, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” by Olivia Newton-John, and “Babushka” by Kate Bush are dominating Tik Tok at an all-time high.
Fashion is innately cyclical. Empires rise and fall, and with it so does the empire waist. Perhaps some see fashion as something that is purely aesthetic, yet I would argue that fashion is a medium of communication, where one wears what they mean, or how they feel. It can be used to communicate the beliefs of an organisation, or more than anything, project what someone wants to be. You don’t have to be the person you are in one outfit forever; rather, you can assume an identity you connect with, at will.
Today, I see that we collectively are seeking to take back power. To be active, to be vigilant in the way we act and treat others respectfully. We owe especially Black LGBTQIA+ activists in this mindset; we are all following Marsha P. Johnson and deciding to pick up that brick in front of the Stonewall Inn, wanting to make a change.
The only thing left to decide is if we are going to throw it.
And if we are, I do hope it will be in platform boots.