A brief history of fashion in the 1970s

Factors that influenced fashion of the decade

Contrasting fashion styles

For me, Fashion in the 1970s is mindblowing! If you look at the fashion scene of the period you will be dazed as I am. For one, you will not be able to really pinpoint a genre.

Fashion went from one excess to the other. On one end was the flamboyant disco style and on the other extent was the starkness of punk. From bell bottoms to hip-hugger jeans and form-fitting leotards, tight-fitting tops to loose caftans, maxi dresses and ponchos, mini skirts to long maxi skirts, ethnic exotic clothes to designer label clothes, pantsuits and suit skirts to ragged decrepit clothes of the punks, the fashion scenario was varied and experimental in the 1970s.

Saint Laurent’s Russian collection for Fall/Winter 1976/77 with luxurious fabrics showcased a return to the expensive meticulous haute couture. This was happening at the same time as the non-conformist, anti-fashion punk fashion movement with DIY and recycled clothes.The clean minimalistic lines of some fashion styles of the period contradicted the colorful folkloric and peasant, gypsy trends which were also popular. Fitted clothes were as popular as layered non-structured ones. 

Fashion influences from other cultures and the past

Fashion designers of the 70s looked to the past for inspiration. Many of the 1960s trends like hippie, peasant, and ethnic, retro and unisex styles continued to hold their sway through the 70s.

70s fashion began with the 60s hippie style. So the emphasis was given to handwork and decoration. Patchwork, embroidery, crochet, and knitting were highly favored. In this style many elements were borrowed from non-Western cultures – clothing popular with the hippie trend like the turbans, long tunics, gypsy skirts, caftans, kimonos, were copied from other countries like Indian, western Asia. Mexican peasant blouses, Indian kaftans, embroidered djellabas, African daishikis became part of the hippie wardrobe. Batik printed and tie and dyed fabrics were made into flowy dresses. 

The prairie style bore a resemblance to Victorian styles and the 60s hippie style. Edwardian fashion came back in a big way with dresses with frilly necklines and long skirts. Drop waist shift dresses and button-down sheath dresses took inspiration from the early 20s flapper era. The most casual 70s dress was made like 40s or 50s fashion with A-line or pleated skirts with button-down tops.

Increased freedom of women

Evening wear for women became less formal and increasingly gave way to casual dressing. Only important social occasions called for glamorous designer wear. Compared to the previous generations, it was a decade when women could practically wear anything.

Trousers in varied forms became a fashionable option for women.  Simple and comfortable, they dominated the day and evening wear of women.  Pants and pantsuits were becoming prevalent among women. The pant styles included waist high with wide legs, hip huggers with flared leg, straight leg, baggy, gauchos, and even cigarette cuts. The Cotton or polyester high-waisted and wide leg pants in pastel colors worn with a tunic top, button-down blouse or a snug knit shirt was a common look for 70s women. Palazzo pants in plain colors or floral prints made a dramatic statement. Since more and more women were entering the professional workspace, they wanted to wear trousers, shirts, and jackets similar to men.

Denim started as a workwear clothing for men but women embraced it wholly in this period. 

Discovery of new materials

The 70s was the decade of denim jeans, especially designer denim jeans. Denim was given a unique look by adding contrast stitching, studs, and patches. Stone washed jeans were also popularGloria Vanderbilt launched designer jeans for women. Calvin Klein followed suit. This marked the dawn of designer jeans with high price tags. A woman was said to be in vogue if she was wearing designer jeans with a designer logo on the back pocket. Bellbottoms were made in denim fabric. Denim skirts were also made out of denim fabric.

Read more about the jeans fashion in the 1970s here

The 70s was also known as the “polyester decade” as synthetic fabrics became more pervasive. Synthetic fabrics also made fashionable dresses available at any price. Dresses made of polyester were popular as they withstood wrinkles and staining. Moreover, they were perfect for an age who went for glitter and bold colors in gold lame and form-fitting spandex. The Vinyl jumpsuit is one fashion trend many would like to forget. As part of disco chic fabrics were embellished with rhinestones and sequins.

Nylon received some flak in the 1970s, but still it was used to make bodysuits and gymnasium wear.

Influence of music

Punk fashion style which was a major movement in the 1970s is an offshoot of punk music.

The Punk movement had already begun in the 1960s in the US but it was in the middle of the 1970s that it gained real momentum. In the UK it was more of a fashion movement than a music scene and gripped attention in the late 1970s. Economies of these countries were going through post-war hardships like recession, job loss and young people there wanted to vent their anger and Punk was the result. 

A music group that shook the fashion scene with their unconventional and completely new iconic band tees was the British punk band S*x Pistols. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (Manager of the band S*x Pistols) opened their boutique with clothes that put the punk style in mainstream fashion.Her ripped and sloganeering T-shirts, biker jackets, and bondage wear spread rapidly among the punk rockers.

You can learn more about punk fashion here.

The early 70s was a period for the disco craze- a complete opposite to the disco fashion with extravagant styles. With flashing lights, spinning disco balls, and loud music, the disco floor was a space to shine under the lights and show off the body and dance moves. Synthetic materials were used mostly because they offered fluidity and a sleeker look. Anything shimmery and glittery ruled the dance floor. Women wore leotards, t-shirts, shorts, stretch jeans, tube tops, and sequinned halter necks, at discos on the disco floor. Wraparound skirts were used over form-fitting leotards. Soon disco clothes were accepted as daily wear.

Fashion designers & mass production

Designers of the decade: Roy Halston Frowick (Halston) was synonymous with the American fashion of the 1970s. Other designers of note were Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Yohji Yamamoto, Bill Gibbs, Willi Smith, Ossie Clark, Giorgio Armani, Celia Birtwell, Thea Porter, Giorgio Sant’Angelo,and Zandra Rhodes.

Monogrammed handbags and apparel introduced by Louis Vuitton and Gucci introduced a penchant for brands and logos. Giorgio Armani debuted with his line of impeccably tailored suits for men, followed by a  women’s collection in the next year

Layered dressing and unshaped silhouettes were introduced to the west by the Japanese designers.The japanese influence in the western fashion was spear headed by Yohji Yamamoto and Miyake. 

Changes in the Fashion scene

The haute couture fashion embraced ready to wear and for the first time, fashion shows included five ready-to-wear designers from New York – Halton, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Stephen Burrows. The first official ready-to-wear shows was held in Milan in the year 1975.

1970s was very good for small boutiques and mass production. Inexpensive fashion was brought to the common men during this period. 

The fashion shows featured  African American models walking the ramp for the first time.

Androgynous fashion / Unisex fashion

David Bowie, the celebrated musician who is one of the most photographed one of the period toured the country in androgynous costumes designed by Kansas Yamamoto, with theatrical makeup, and glittery platform boots. He was often photographef wwith long wavy hair and wearing a man dresses. He can be credited to creating a gended bending fashion movement which is today celebrated as Androgynous fashion. 

Diane Keaton the American actress who started her career in the 1970s had a great influence during the period. Office outfits with an androgynous influence designed by Ralph Lauren for her inspired women to blindly follow the fashion for the office look. You can read about her style and its relevance today here.

Blazers of women were styled after men’s jackets. Blazers were worn over bow-tie blouse, vest or men’s style shirt with wide trousers. They formed a part of the executive uniform. The silk blouses with bow ties often softened the pantsuit. An oversized collar blouse was often used in place of a men’s dress shirt. Pantsuits came in rich colors for summer and pastels for winter. Tailored skirts were also used instead of pants.

Women’s fashion in the 1970s

70s women had a wide variety to choose from with regard to style when it came to dressing, pants, blouse or skirts.Minimalistic gowns of Halton were popular in America. Clothes in general were sleek, soft, and fitted to the body. Wide lapels, flared legs were recurrent features.

Dresses, blouses, and Jackets

The most sought-after dress, perhaps, was the wrap dress – a knee-length dress with a cinched waist. Diane Avon Furstenberg came out with boldly printed jersey knit wraps which were ideal for the day and sexy enough for evenings. Wrap dress even found its way into streetwear and office wear. Another famous dress was the flowing and shimmering chiffon gowns with empire waists, Grecian drapes, and long leg slits. These were worn by the stars and were copied by the masses. A prevalent style, especially in the early 1970s was the prairie dress in midi length and delicate floral patterns. The mini shift dress, jumper dress, tunic dress, and wrap dress were all trendy styles of the 70s and often had wide oversized collars. Shirtwaist dresses also became very popular.

Blouses or tops in the 70s were conservative with modest necklines and oversized point collars. Blouses had cowl necklines, bow fronts. Most styles featured a pussy bow or small bow ties at the neck. At the same time, sexy blouses had deep plunging V necks. Sleeves were long in wide dolman shape or straight sleeves with a balloon wrist. Tops were either plain or had polka dots, paisley, or floral designs.

Silk or silk-like synthetic material blouses were much sought after by women. The early 70s teemed with prairie blouses, peasant blouses, or hippie blouses.  They came in white or pastel solid colors or had small floral prints. Most of these blouses had big pilgrim collars, ruffles, bow ties, pintucks or lace insets.

T-shirts, especially with slogans or funny double entendre’s were very common. They sometimes had contrast bands at the neck and arm. Band T-shirts were a must to attend the music festivals. Turtlenecks, tank tops also were found alternatives to the T-shirt. Long tunics hid the busts, hips, and tummies, unlike the tight T-shirts. They were a favorite choice with jeans, pants, and skirts. They came with a matching tie belt to accentuate the waist. In sweaters, 60s wrap top and dolman sleeves were still trendy. Along with these, cable knit cardigan sweaters, vests, and knit ponchos were also popular in the 70s.

Bottomwear -skirts, pants, and shorts

The shorts were becoming quite popular worn often with long sweaters and slim coats. The women’s shorts came in few lengths.  The shortest of them was called the hot pants. They had a high waist and an inseam length of only two or three inches. They came in bright colors of satin, cotton, nylon, denim, or velvet. When paired with tall boots and bright tights they looked very chic. They were most popular on the disco dance floor.

Midi skirts with lengths from knee to mid-calf were the popular skirt of the decade. They were usually A-line and below the knee. They had a full or partial elastic waist or had tie belts. By the mid-70s, the midi skirt was established as the prevailing length and maxi skirts were used for evening wear or special occasions.

Other hugely popular skirt styles were dark denim and chevron stripe print skirts. By the end of the decade, skirts grew longer and touched the floor. Tiers, gathers, tribal prints, and inset laces adorned the maxi skirts. 

Reference : Fashion Design Referenced by Alicia Kennedy & Emily Banis Stoehrer with Jay Calderin.

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.