Monday, February 15, 2010

Bell Bottoms: fashion of the 1960’s and 1970’s

Bell bottoms are pants that are designed to be wider downwards from below the knees. Other styles for bell bottoms are flares, boot cut trousers and loon pants. Bell bottoms became the reigning trouser style in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, affecting high fashion as well as popular hippie culture.

The origin of Bellbottoms is vague, and it was in the early 19th century that members of the US Navy were first observed to wear bell bottom pants. Among the first descriptions of sailor’s uniforms, an officer Stephen Decatur observed that in 1813, men in the frigates Macedonia and United States wore blue jackets and blue trousers with ‘bell bottoms’. 

Bell Bottoms became high fashion for European women in the 1960’s. It spread to North America in the late 1960’s and by the 1970’s it was fashionable for both sexes, especially as holiday wear, like in ski holidays.

By 1967, Bell Bottoms spread from the czars of high fashion towards the counter culture hippie movement in the 1960’s along with granny glasses, tie-dye shirts and love beads. They moved into the main stream, even getting a mention in the song, Bell Bottom Blues, sung by Blues-Rock superstars Derek and the Dominos.

Bell Bottoms were given media exposure in early 1964 in the film, T.A.M.I. show world by Toni Basil, who was a young go-go dancer at that time. Later, Sonny and Cher popularized Bell Bottoms in the USA by wearing the same on their television show.

Loon pants, shortened from balloon pants, were a form of Bell Bottoms. Their flare was extra from the knee than the typical bell bottom which flared from top to bottom. In 1966, the go-go dancers of the British show, "Ready, Steady, Go!" were seen wearing these. They were basically 1970’s fashion and initially could be bought only via catalogue from a British company, advertised in New Musical Express.

They were popularly worn with sandals and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. This fashion was soon connected with Disco music. But the disco backlash started in the 1970’s and the Bell bottom started going out of fashion along with other items associated with Disco.

Elephant bells had a marked flare below the knee and often covered the wearer’s shoes. They became fashionable in the mid to late 1970’s and were akin to loon pants but were composed of denim.

Pants were gently flared in the 1960’s and reached wild bell bottoms by 1975. Popular fabrics included wool jersey knits, heavy crepes and Polyester fabric. Emerald Green, Bottle green and Apple green were favorite colors. Farah Fawcett and her colleague on Charlie’s Angles helped popularize bell bottoms.

In the fading 1980’s, Second Summer of Love began and bell bottoms became popular again in men and women’s fashion. They initially emerged as Boot Cut - flaring at the ankle to fit boots. The bell bottoms of the 60’s and 70’s can be distinguished from the boot cuts of the 1990’s by the tightness of the knee.

Today, the original men’s bell bottoms from the 1970’s are collector’s items. They are used by men to wear at retro themed disco parties and by retro revival bands.


  1. Fashion is evolving and revolving. Soon these will again be worn by celebrities who are trend setters. Thanks for your good fashion insights.

  2. I like perusing through these mélange of "hippie fashion" articles . Thanks for them. They intrigue me so, and clothes are one my passions, especially the 70's decade.
    Currently reading Jerrold Seigel's "Bohemian Paris" right now, and it kinda correlates with this fashion forward. Dr. Muller, do you have any book recommendations pertaining to your titled blog?
    Fashion has truly changed, and now blogging has even made it more versatile than ever. Everyday people are now the fashion mavericks.

  3. Maria Christina, thanks for your interesting comments. Everyday people are indeed the fashion mavericks these days. It's interesting because, although there are particular styles today, almost anything goes.

    For references, one great book is:
    "Hippies: A Guide to an American Subculture" in the "Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures" series. Written by Micah L. Issitt and published by ABC-CLIO, 2009. Brilliant and a substantial amount on fashion.

    Try also:
    "The 60s: mods & hippies", Volume 4 of 20th Century Fashion, Gareth Stevens Publishing,
    Twentieth Century Fashion Series. Written by Kitty Powe-Temperley, published by Gareth Stevens Pub., 2000.

    And a book with really great chapters on 60s and 70s fashion:
    "Fifty years of fashion: new look to now". Written by Valerie Steele, published by Yale University Press, 2000.

    If you find any more good references, please post them here.


  4. this is good! love the whimsy and fun of 60's and 70s fashion.