Protests, Unrest & Flares: An Analysis of ’70s Fashion Then and Now

It’s safe to say that the 70s are having a moment. You can barely turn your head without catching sight of wide legged trousers, metallic, jumpsuits or platform shoes – and any Pinterest fiend will be able to tell you that even in the world of interior trends, old-school crafts like macramé and crochet are having a revival too.

The 70s can’t be easily summed up with one definitive look like many other eras in fashion – think 60s miniskirts, 90s minimalism or the regrettable Paris Hilton Juicy Couture look of the early 2000s. The 70s may conjure up images of bohemian, hippy style or the anarchic punk looks of late 70s England that gave Dame Vivienne Westwood her start in the industry, the futuristic dandyism of glam rock or the sparkle of disco. Trend makers and retailers have honed in on the boho look and glamorous disco for the current season, and, more than likely, the next few to come too.

It’s easy to think of modern fashion as constantly looking backwards, in our “post-everything” age it can feel that there is a severe dearth of fresh and original ideas. Of course, designers take inspiration from the past, the history of fashion is a rich reference book and so subjective that it allows for new meaning and interpretation to surface at every glance. However, it’s important to remember that fashion is also reactionary – it can be a window into what is happening in our world, a mirror directed at society or an escape into fantasy. The empress herself, Diana Vreeland, once said that you can see revolution in fashion, and whether we subconsciously acknowledge it, the way we dress is often informed by collective societal mood.

Part of the reason that the 70s can’t be pinned down to one definitive look is that it was a chaotic time for most of the world. Lots of things influenced the general mood and these influences also reflected in the clothes. In America, crime rates soared and it was dangerous to walk the streets during the day, let alone at night. The Vietnam war was also raging on, dragging with it hippies and counterculture, with massive protests across the world – including over 200,000 Australians marching in opposition in 1970 and 1971. The UK was in the grips of economic crisis after economic crisis, with strikes and protests up and down the country, leading to austerity measures not all that dissimilar to today’s.

The 70s was a time of social upheaval, with the fledgling gay rights movement finding its feet, spurred on by the police raids and surveillance that sparked the Stonewall Riots in 1969. As a result of this activism, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973, and gay men and women enjoyed greater freedom of self than in previous decades. Today, LGBTQ activists continue to push for equal rights and opportunities for the community, and with the US Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states back in June, the movement is still winning big battles. 

However, like the 70s, there is still heaps of progress to be made. Only recently a Kentucky county clerk was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences for same-sex couples, and it’s still illegal to be gay in more than 75 countries. The continued fight for equality that really found it’s feet in the 70s has lead to more recognition and understanding of transgender issues, too. With high profile celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and OINTB’s Laverne Cox acting as trans spokespeople and role models, trans visibility is arguably at it’s highest ever, lessening the taboo and encouraging conversation. This might feel like a victory in itself to some, but that’s not to say that there aren’t still issues to face – trans men and women are subject to a disproportionate level of violence, harassment and discrimination. So, like the 70s, times may be a-changin’ but there is a long, long way to go, yet.

Counter culture blossomed during the late 60s and early 70s, with those fed up of the status quo fighting for liberation of women, people of colour, and other minorities and victims of institutionalised discrimination. Of course, the 70s were known for overwhelming anti-war sentiment, with massive protests and marches against military involvement in Vietnam. Though counter culture may have been largely anti-fashion, there was a certain uniform that remains highly recognisable today. Army jackets and camo were reappropriated by protesters, becoming a sartorial form of silent protest. It’s possible, too, that flared trousers, or bell-bottoms, were a reappropriation of naval uniforms with the same underlying sentiment.

There would really be no 70s revival without flares, would there? There have been a bunch of articles in the last 6 months urging us to give up our skinnys in favour of the flare, and the fact that Kate Moss wore them was supposedly a sign of changing times. Army jackets, military details, khaki and camo have been championed too. Maybe this throwback is the subconscious reaction of a war-weary general public.

American cities like New York  were subject to damaging urban decline in the 70s, as a result of factors like high unemployment, urban unrest and “white flight”. New York City was almost forced to file for bankruptcy in 1975 and issues like de-industrialisation, population decline and poor city planning that took told in the 60s, 70s and 80s led to Detroit declaring bankruptcy in 2013, with the case being resolved in 2014.

The UK also suffered urban blight on a massive scale, with the loss of industrial jobs in places like Birmingham and Manchester leading to population decline, huge levels of unemployment, and union strikes and blackouts becoming commonplace. This isn’t all that dissimilar to the UK now, although the causes and circumstances may differ – a 1979 study by Professor Peter Townsend suggested that 15 million people either lived in, or close to, poverty, and a 2011  document by the Institute of Fiscal Studies projected that 2.6 million will be in relative poverty by 2020. These aren’t direct comparisons as I have neither the skills or desire to compare inflation and other factors, but 2.6 million people is cited as 20% of the population in the IFS study, which is distressing, at best.

Glam rock exploded in 70s England, with musicians like David Bowie, Queen and Elton John providing fans with a much-needed technicolour fantasy world against the grim, grey backdrop of urban misery. The glitz of disco, evolving out of the underground gay and black club scene, had much the same effect in America. Glam rock influenced designers like Tom Ford and Saint Laurent’s spring/summer ’15 collections, and the disco influence is hard to miss, cropping up in the form of slinky dresses and playsuits on the high street and in campaigns for huge names like Jason Wu – could it be that 2015 is just as drab and in need of escape?

So, yes, if you weren’t around in the 70s, it could be easy to dismiss the 70s trend as just another fad, part of the ever-churning fashion machine with no real significance beside what we put into our wardrobes this season. And, yes, sometimes fashion feels frustratingly backwards-looking, but it’s relevance in a societal context is undeniable, if not always obvious. Fashion is moving with the times as much as it ever has – maybe the times just aren’t moving fast enough.