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Seminal Styles of the 20th Century, Part Six

Seminal Styles of the 20th Century, Part Six LIFE magazine
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The ’70s: The most odious decade ever. No kidding. It was beyond bad. I mean, Roger Moore as James Bond? Puh-lease! Well, at least everyone was fucking.

  The Awful Truth

I’m just going to say this up front: As a decade, the ’70s pretty much sucked for fashion—at least mainstream fashion. Everyone—both men and women—was having a bad hair day. Disco music was ubiquitous, with a capital “U.” Styles were, for the most part, a mélange of the mediocre. Manmade fiber was au courant. Natural fabrics were passé. Deodorant sales went through the roof, and suddenly, young women and their moms found themselves happily chatting away about the wonders of feminine hygiene products on national TV (because, c’mon, face it, no one wants to feel “not so fresh,” down there).

Looking back on it now, the ’70s truly was the “What were we thinking?” decade. Disco. Midi skirts. Platform shoes. Polyester pantsuits. Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees, or worse, a plethora of Brillo-pad headed, hairy-chested Gabe Kaplan-esque troubadours (except for Jim Croce, who was actually very cool) with open shirts warbling simpering pop-rock ballads. If you think I’m overstating the case, I could show you my senior picture from the 1976 Mamaroneck High School yearbook (along with a groovy poem I wrote inspired by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock), but then, I’d have to kill you—or myself.

  Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll Redux

In the ’70s, lots and lots of people were having sex, and they started early. (Although in retrospect, looking through the prism of current reality TV on which 14-year-olds defiantly crow that they’ve been with so many lovers they don’t know who fathered their child/children, we were rank amateurs). Girls went to Planned Parenthood and got fitted for diaphragms. No big. A rite of passage. When we went off to college, many of us went on the pill—even virgins. Better safe than sorry, we figured. In the pre-AIDS era, pregnancy was the big concern, or worst case, a dose of crabs. Herpes? What’s that? We experimented. We boffed. If we didn’t like it, we found someone else and boffed some more until we got it right, or we just kept on trying. We didn’t feel guilty. We felt free. Or at least, that’s what we told ourselves at the time.

In the seventh decade of the 20th Century, a lot of kids—and parents—smoked pot. For many, the counter culture of ’60s simply became the culture of the ’70s. Apart from the occasional paranoia, marijuana consumption was viewed by many as a fairly innocuous pastime—and compared to the new variation on cocaine that was about to be the next new thing—free basing—it was.

According to Wikipedia: “Cocaine (benzoylmethyl ecgonine) is a crystalline tropane alkaloid that is obtained from the leaves of the coca plant. The name comes from ‘coca’; in addition to the alkaloid suffix -ine, forming cocaine. It is both a stimulant of the central nervous system and an appetite suppressant. Specifically, it is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor and a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which mediates functionality of such as an exogenous DAT ligand. Because of the way it affects the mesolimbic reward pathway, cocaine is addictive.”

Whew. Them’s a lot of words. Let’s just say that in 1976, some entrepreneurs figured out a way to manufacture a form of cocaine that was smoked rather than snorted or injected, that gave users a more happening kind of high. Cocaine may have been hot shit before, but now it was the hot shit.

In New York City, the place to see and be seen was the Disco of the Gods, Studio 54. On any given night, everyone who was anyone passed the velvet rope. Designers Halston and Diane Von Furstenburg mingled with Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol and, yes, even Liza Minnelli. Music blared. Drugs and liquor flowed. Sex acts—real and simulated—were common fare. Was a good time had by all? Who knows? Who remembers? And besides Liza, who really cares?

So, that was the ’70s. Were there any seminal images that didn’t suck? Sure. Did the decade have any redeeming qualities? Yes. So, let’s go there, shall we? Now, what if you take the compelling cocktail of sex and drugs, but instead of tossing a jigger of disco into the mix, you blend in the eccentric influences of Glam and Punk rock. What do you get? Well, if not the antidote for Disco, at least, an alternative.

  Seventy RPM

In the early part of the decade, designers Vivienne Westwood and partner Malcolm McLaren (who went on to manage the Sex Pistols) opened a London clothing boutique on Kings Road called SEX. Their BDSM-inspired fashions were crucial in creating the gender-bending, class-smashing punk ethos of the era. In addition to the Sex Pistols, other punk bands, such as The Clash and the Ramones sported the new uniform of nonconformity: Ripped T-shirts, baggy pants, and enough safety pins to set off the metal detectors at JFK International Airport.

Glam Rockers, such as David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust incarnation, Marc Bolen, the Kinks and Gary Glitter further undermined gender stereotypes. By “un-sexing” their adherents, while simultaneously sexualizing and elevating alternative choices of expression, these pioneers redefined what it meant to be sexy. Suddenly being “out” was “in.” As gender lines continued to blur, sexual identities became increasingly fluid; one no longer had to be well defined, well dressed—or even well groomed—to have major sex appeal.

Campy at its onset, Glam rock was eagerly embraced by the gay community. In 1973, a glam icon emerged, not in a rock band, but onstage in a London theatre. Dr. Frank N. Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transexual Translyvania” made his debut. Two years later, a film version was released. While not a commercial success at the time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has gone on to achieve the status of “the longest continuous running theatrical film release” in history. A wild, sci-fi sex farce set to music, featuring lesbian lust, homosexual yearning, and budding nymphomania (plus a smidgeon of cannibalism: “What’s for dinner? Not Meatloaf again!”), the film became, and remains, a cult classic. With his shredded fishnet stockings and garters slightly askew, bleeding mascara and lace-up corset, Tim Curry’s bug-eyed, big-lipped turn as Frank N. Furter is easily one of the most recognizable film characters of the last century.

But this generation of gender bending artists differed from their predecessors. While Marlene Dietrich performed her drag with a wink and a nod, allowing audiences to distance themselves by saying, “It’s only a performance,” these blokes were all about being in your face. More than simply art, these fashion statements were meant as flaming Molotov cocktails to be lobbed at the status quo.

  That ’70s Show

Back in the mainstream, no straight male who came of age in the mid-’70s can ever forget Charlie’s most impressive angel, Farrah Fawcett, in her fire-engine red (or burnt orange, according to Fawcett’s official site), one-piece bathing suit—or the poster that launched a thousand whack fests. Farrah clones sprang up everywhere, featuring her feathery ’do and crimson beach garb. On most of us, it just looked cheesy. On Farrah, it was unforgettable.

For better or worse, actress Diane Keaton’s 1977 appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall inspired copycats everywhere to dress as doppelgangers of Charlie Chaplin in The Little Tramp. Flattering? Um, no. Sexy? Um, no. Gender bending? Meh. Why? Well, frankly, we’re still trying to figure that one out.

Another fashion craze born in ’77 was inspired by, of all things, a man in tights. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s lust-provoking performance in The Turning Point unleashed a feverish legion of ballerina wannabes (whether they danced or not) garbed in Capezio/Danskin uniforms, who dreamed of getting their hands on the 20th Century’s most amazing piece of male ass (my opinion, although Gene Kelly in the 1940s-50s runs a close second).

As the decade drew to a close, stunning Bo Derek knocked the wind out of not only Dudley Moore, but the collective libido of nearly every female-loving human on the planet, with her mesmerizing boobies a’bouncin’ beach run in 10 (d. Blake Edwards, 1979). In that same year, small-screen siren Catherine Bach made history when she cut the legs off a pair of jeans for her Daisy Duke TV character, sparking a down-home, short-shorts’ fashion bonanza. Can you say, “Hot pants!?” White-trash chic? Well, not exactly, but soon after, women and gay men across the nation embraced the trend, tossing inhibitions to the wind, and leaving little, if anything, to the imagination.

The horror. The Horror.

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