Flared pants, AKA 'Bell Bottoms', were the essential piece of 1970’s fashion. They were actually invented more than 200 years ago.
The United States Navy was founded in 1775, during the American Revolutionary War.
With the English sending warships from Canada down the Richelieu River, towards New York, the American Government hastily assembled a fleet of twelve small ships to block their path. Under the command of Benedict Arnold, later the most famous traitor in military history, the warships met in battle at Lake Champlain.
It turned out to be a rout.
The British naval force was vastly superior; their ships were more advanced and their troops much more experienced. All of the American ships were sunk.
For the remainder of the war, the American rebels would rely on their allies, the French, for naval support.
But after the war, with independence secured, the need for a professional Navy was quickly recognised.
In the 18th century, naval power was the key to global influence.
Great Britain, a small island nation, had built a massive international empire on the back of their mastery of the seas.
In 1794, the US Congress allocated funding, and a formal US Navy was built. With six modern frigates, and 3 000 sailors, its origins were modest.
The US Navy expanded significantly in the early 19th century.
A second, brief, war with England flared in 1812, and American merchant shipping was harassed relentlessly by pirates, operating out of the Caribbean.
In response to these threats, the navy recruited thousands of new troops, and built larger, more powerful ships. Sailors were better trained, and held to higher standards of conduct.
They also got a new uniform.
In 1817, as the US Navy modernised, they introduced several new items of kit.
Perhaps the most distinctive of these were a new type of trouser. Tight around the waist and thighs, as was standard at the time, these new pants spread outward below the knee, flaring to a wide opening at the feet.
The reason for the change was practical; sailors were able to quickly roll up these wide legged pants when they were working on deck, which prevented their trousers from getting wet.
The new pants were popular, and were quickly adopted by other navies worldwide. Due to their shape, they were known as ‘Bell-bottoms.’
Fast forward 150 years.
Army and Navy surplus stores first appeared after World War I.
The sheer volume of troops involved in the conflict - an astonishing 60 million soldiers fought on all sides – required a massive amount of military equipment.
To try to recover some of the costs of fighting the war, in peace time governments sold off a lot of this surplus gear to retailers, who then on-sold it in dedicated shops. This included everything from uniforms and other clothing, to boots, tents, ropes, tarpaulins, canteens, and a million other items.
This same process repeated itself after other major conflicts, through the 20th century. Army and navy surplus stores became a standard option to buy cheap stuff of reasonable quality.
Trying to trace when something goes from the marginal fringe, to the mainstream, to ubiquity, is very difficult.
In his famous book on trend culture, ‘The Tipping Point’, Malcolm Gladwell gives this example:
‘The best way to understand the rise of fashion trends is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products spread just like viruses do.
In 1994, the shoe company Wolverine sold 430 000 pairs of ‘Hush Puppies’. The year after, they sold four times that, and the year after more again.
How did that happen? It all started with a handful of cool kids in the East Village and SoHo. They started wearing Hush Puppies because they were cheap, and no one else was wearing them.
Those kids wore the shoes when they went to clubs or cafes, and in doing so exposed other people to their fashion sense. They infected them with the Hush Puppy ‘virus’.
- Malcolm Gladwell, ‘The Tipping Point’, Introduction
And so it went with Bell-bottom trousers.
During the 1960s, as the counter-culture became prominent and it became fashionable to flaunt authority, young people looked for means to express their defiance.
Army and navy surplus clothing became popular; an ironic expression of a distaste for the military, for government, for the Vietnam War. If a pacifist wears military clothing, they re-purpose it, rob it of its power, turn it into something else.
The clothes were also cheap, durable, and kinda cool looking.
And so young people wore army fatigues, and combat jackets, and bell-bottom trousers.
It did not take long for the mainstream to latch on.
There is no way to know who was the first famous person to start wearing Bell-bottoms. But we do know who some of the early adopters were.
The singer and actress Cher wore them on the popular TV show she hosted with her husband, ‘The Sunny and Cher Comedy Half Hour’, in 1971. Originally slated as a summer fill in, during the non-ratings period, the show was a huge success, and turned both hosts in super stars.
Cher, then as now known for her distinctive, mildly outrageous fashion sense, was one of the first public figures to wear Bell-bottoms, soon to be re-dubbed ‘Flares’.
James Brown was another hip celeb who latched onto the new trend.
The soul singer, known for his flamboyant outfits and incendiary live performances, was at the peak of his fame in the early 70s. In 1970 he recorded ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’, his signature track and a number one hit.
Around this time, he also added flares to his wardrobe ensemble of capes, satin jumpsuits, three-piece suits, and leather vests.
The new trousers were distinctive, and unusual, and much commented on.
Flared pants now had cache, and a number of high-profile supporters. And now they moved rapidly, from a fringe counter-culture item, to an item championed by a few switched on celebrities, to something that everyone, at every level of society, had in their wardrobe.
They appeared in discount shops and department stores, and in high couture fashion shows. They were worn by celebrities and regular folks, young people and adults. They were made out of every conceivable fabric, most popularly denim, cotton, satin and polyester.
The openings at the flared end of the pants became wider and more dramatic, a style known as ‘Elephant Bells’. Look at photos of what was happening in the mid 70s; chances are, everyone is wearing flares.
They were simply everywhere.
But popular culture is restless.
In 1976, The Ramones released their self titled debut album in New York, followed a year later by ‘Never Mind the Bollocks,’ released by The Sex Pistols in London. This new music, dubbed ‘Punk’, was raw, wild and angry, a sharp turn from the largesse of the early 70s.
Punk did not catch on immediately, but when it did, it ushered in not only a new style of music, but new ideas in fashion.
The punk look included ripped t-shirts, leather jackets, safety pins and dyed hair. Flared pants would be replaced by skinny, tight legged jeans, often black.
Bell-bottoms suddenly seemed dorky, and disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived.
But, they would be back.