SPIN CYCLE: The 20 Year Itch?


70s3

What’s not to love about 70s-wear?

I absolutely can’t wait for my genuine 90s 70s-style flared jeans to come back into fashion! It’s not wishful thinking either, it’s inevitable.

The 70s has always been my favourite decade. At one time or another, everyone’s proclaimed – mostly with tongue firmly planted in cheek – the superior nature of their own decade of birth, solely because they were born in it. That aside, the little I actually recall of the 70s I recall with great fondness, if only vaguely. It’s what I subsequently learnt about that fabulous decade that’s always left me wishing I’d been born ten or fifteen years earlier, just so I could’ve been old enough to truly embrace a world of impossibly flared trouser legs, platform shoes, wing-like collars, jumpsuits and strange new fabrics that probably didn’t breathe particularly well.

Sadly I was only five years old by the time New Year’s Eve revellers were ushering in the bold new world of the 1980s. I’d tried more than once to create my own home disco – a stylish mustard-coloured barrel vacuum cleaner was my stage, its nozzle was my microphone and flicking the light switches on and off was about as hi-tech as it was ever gonna get! But I can only lament that I was never old enough to fully immerse myself in the musical and fashion debauchery of that time. Anyone who had the good fortune of escaping the 80s was able to look back on it as an entire decade of fashion delinquency that should’ve never been allowed to happen! So it’s mildly ironic that some commentators of the day – the same ones who were probably looking at their electric typewriters through glasses half the size of their face, with enormous hair, wearing grey acid-wash high-waisted jeans and weighed down by the world’s biggest shoulder pads – should’ve so often delighted in describing the 70s as “the decade that fashion forgot”! Even as a kid I never got it, I always loved everything about the 70s – the music, the funky houses, the shag-pile carpet, Chiko Rolls, the peculiarly Australian fascination with Fondue, the giant Australian-made cars constructed entirely of reinforced steel with their scalding vinyl seats and molten-metal seatbelt buckles. But above all else, I adored the unique clothing! So when it all came back into vogue in the early 90s, well… you probably can’t even begin to imagine how very often I creamed myself with delight!

I was watching the wonderful Myf Warhurst’s Nice on ABC1 the other night and she was looking at fashion fads from down the years. One of her guests commented that the fashion cycle typically means it’s 20 years between fads and styles going out of fashion and coming back ’round again. Even with fashions being recycled on an every-other-decade basis, some become such a hybrid of the original as to be almost unrelated to it. But with the speed of the digital world and our youngest generations apparently possessing the attention span of fleas, has the ‘chronic hysteresis’ of the fashion cycle actually contracted?

In the last hundred-or-so years we’ve seen it happen time and again. While the 1920s was arguably the decade where fashion truly became more twentieth century than nineteenth, the late 1930s, the 40s and at least half of the 50s were all about flare, width and excess for both men’s and women’s fashions – wide collars and lapels, wide-legged pants, wide ties.

By the end of the 1950s everything had narrowed right down. Today, ask anyone what they’d wear as 60s-themed fancy dress and they’d almost always go as some weird crossbreed of styles from the late 60s through to the late 70s – the 1969 hippie / Woodstock look, the Jimmy Hendrix-style striped flares, the stringy suede vests, the over-sized pink or orange-tinted round sunglasses, probably a perm, lots of flowing floral or paisley material; in fact, 60s mainstream fashion was dominated by relatively conservative designs with tiny collars, narrow-lapelled suits, stove-pipe trouser legs and pencil-thin ties, a look which carried on into the early 70s.

70s2

Big enough to house the population of a small European nation

Seams and cuffs soon started moving outward again and by 1974 the world was awash with any kind of design that was higher, wider, floppier and generally larger than it needed to be: culottes and bellbottom trousers were so wide as to give the allusion of perpetual motion, with small children walking along the street sucked into a vacuum of excess material, never to be seen again! Suit lapels were equally wide, presumably for no other reason than to counterbalance the absurd width of the trouser legs; if you’ve ever looked at a modern suit breast pocket and thought how pointless it was, imagine how pointless they were in the 70s when they were completely hidden behind the lapel! Open-necked shirts sported collars so wide that sufficient rapid movement of both could quite easily propel the average man on the street skyward, such were their wing-like proportions. Dangerously high platform shoes were worn by women and men alike and big hair abounded – ridiculously over-sized perms, unisex shoulder-length dos, inconceivably large Afros big enough to house the entire population of a small European nation; it really was all about having as much hair as possible for most of the 1970s.

In the early 70s there’d been a 1940s influence on women’s fashion; towards the end of the decade came the first 50s revival, perhaps inspired by Grease, though who can really say which was the chicken and which was the egg. After years of disco and flared everything, by 1979 disco was dead and everything that’d been wider than wide for most of the decade was once again narrow. By 1984, what had already shrunken down to a 60s-inspired narrow had been reduced even further to impossibly tiny proportions. Collars were so small that they almost weren’t there – eventually the fad of ‘grandpa shirts’ would ensure that they were, indeed, no longer there at all! Ties reduced to such an extent that they became no more than a small belt buckle supporting two shoe-laces. Skinny jeans made their first appearance, which was no doubt a wonderful thing for anyone with an eating disorder or no body shape whatsoever, but for the rest of us – to paraphrase Gran from Absolutely Fabulous – it was rather like squeezing toothpaste back into the tube.

By 1986, musically the 60s revival was in full swing, but fashion-wise it was a slightly different story. As if to offset the reduced proportions of almost everything, select items were getting much, much bigger. While the thin mainstays of collars, lapels, ties and pants remained, almost everything else went completely the other way, not least of which were hair, shoulder pads, jackets, jumpers, belt buckles and shoes; all of these spent the latter part of the 80s and the first years of the 90s as big as they could possibly get. In fact, if the late 80s in Australian fashion is remembered for anything at all – aside from how very hideous most of it actually was – it would be three defining unisex atrocities: Ken Done and Jenny Kee over-sized over-coloured jumpers, hugely oversized hair (including massive mullets) and enormously oversized shoulder pads large enough to form the foundations of a twenty-storey building.

Then, just when it looked like ladies’ eyebrows and spectacles couldn’t get any larger or geekier-looking, everything that had been big started to downsize, while everything that had remained narrow started to flare out again. By the end of 1992, the 70s influence was clear almost everywhere and within twelve months the full-on 70s revival had arrived. ABBA, Priscilla, Muriel’s Wedding, anything disco – if it wasn’t genuinely 70s, it was made to look or sound like it. Much of it was 100% copycat – flares, platforms, florals, paisley, brogue – though, thankfully, some of the more questionable designs and styles of the 70s – gabardine, crimplene, rayon – have remained the exclusive domain of costume hirers and senior citizens’ wardrobes.

The prominence of flares and platform shoes somehow managed to wane and revitalise three or four times throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s. But by 2003, as was inevitable, the 20 year itch kicked in again and the 80s were back – in a big way. Flares were gone, everything wide was narrow again. Skinny jeans made a reappearance and, as if they hadn’t looked bad enough the first time, by 2005 the young folk were well into the swing of wearing them with the waistline somehow supported below their butt cheeks. This was a carry-over from a fad that had started years earlier and involving much more capacious jean-wear; it had seemed obvious then that when the size and style of those jeans changed, so too would this slightly oddball style of wearing them half way down their butts with the underwear exposed and the crotch somewhere around their knees – but no, it wasn’t to be. In fact, a handful of styles have remained for longer than they were fashionable the first time… it’s been a decade-long 80s revival. Not as 80s was though, but more as 80s is, or as 80s might’ve been; hip-hop with a bit more hip, new romantic with a touch less romance and even less new.

Almost ten years on and it seems there’s a developing preference for greater width emerging from European fashion houses – it’s the 20 year itch happening all over again! But this time around, when we all jump back into our flares, pop the giant collars over the lapels of our velvet jackets and teeter about on our six-inch platforms, trying desperately not to fall off and break our ankles all Baby Spice-style, what’s it actually going to be? What exactly do you call it when you’re copying the style of a decade that very obviously copied the style of two decades earlier which, in turn, also copied two other earlier decades over the course of its own ten years?

70s1

And what’s wrong with men in heels?

Call it a 90s revival. Call it nouveau pastiche. Call it what you want! It’s all a bit confusing but, in the end, it doesn’t really matter – I’m always just on the look-out for the next 70s revival, so I know exactly what I’m gonna call it.

Now, back to those genuine 90s 70s-style flares… all I need to do is work out how to make my waist three sizes smaller and we’re sorted!

2 thoughts on “SPIN CYCLE: The 20 Year Itch?

  1. I find these revivals interesting, simply because it does feel like society has run out of new ideas. The original fashions from the 1920s onwards weren’t based on things 20 years their junior and we also have, what I like to label, ‘the remake movie years’. It feels like we’re stuck on scratched record.

    • Couldn’t agree more! I mentioned the ‘chronic hysteresis’ of the fashion cycle, but it’s really a cultural chronic hysteresis – everything old is new again. And again and again, over and over and over. There’s endless blog material there – fashion, music, movies, TV shows. While some aspects of modern life genuinely appear to be a natural progression of their past, still others appear to get less and less original. It’s endlessly fascinating to observe for a geek like me!

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