Bell-bottoms, pants with legs that become wider below the knee, were an extremely popular fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. The belled or flared legs on bell-bottom pants were originally a functional design, worn by those who worked on boats since the seventeenth century. The large legs allowed the pants to be easily rolled up out of the way for such messy jobs as washing the decks. In addition, if a sailor fell overboard, bell-bottom pants could be pulled off over boots or shoes and the wide legs inflated with air for use as a life preserver.
During the 1960s those who did not wish to conform to the strict, conservative clothing rules of the 1950s developed a new fashion. The clothing of this new fashion was inexpensive and extremely casual. Young people at the time rejected items from expensive clothing stores and shopped at secondhand stores and military surplus stores. Surplus navy bell-bottoms became one of the most popular items of dress. Wearing bits of old military uniforms had an added appeal for the largely antiwar counterculture youth of the late 1960s and early 1970s (those who were not in favor of the United States's involvement in the Vietnam War [1954–75]). Flowers embroidered on an old army jacket and colorful peace symbols applied to worn and faded navy bell-bottoms made a very personal antiwar statement. Bell-bottoms also fit in with the new unisex style, as both men and women wore them.
At first, viewing the new fashion as the dress of dangerous radicals, clothing manufacturers did not sell bell-bottoms. Those who could not find them at a local surplus store often made their straight leg jeans into fashionable bells by cutting the outside leg seam and sewing in a triangle of fabric to widen the leg. By the 1970s, however, designers had begun to market trendy bell-bottoms made out of a wide variety of materials. Entertainers from husband and wife team Sonny (1935–1998) and Cher (1946–) to singers James Brown (c. 1928–) and Pat Boone (1934–) wore "bells," which were often worn skin tight to the knee, then flared out in a wide, soft drape. Some pants were so wide that they were nicknamed "elephant bells."
Bell-bottoms, both wide and just slightly flared, made from denim, bright cotton, and satin polyester, were so popular that they became a symbol of the outlandish and colorful style of the 1970s, and when the decade ended many hoped that bell-bottoms were gone for good. Like many of the items of clothing strongly identified with the 1970s, bell-bottoms became a symbol of old-fashioned bad taste. However, the flared pants returned to style in the 1990s as part of a trend toward baggy clothing.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dustan, Keith. Just Jeans: The Story 1970–1995. Kew, Victoria: Australian Scholarly Press, 1995.
Bell-bottoms—pants that flare out at the cuffs—have had many different associations during the last half of the twentieth
century. First part of a military uniform, later the symbol of those who opposed war, bell-bottoms have tended to arouse strong emotions. Some have condemned them as a fashion mistake, whereas others have worn them as a bold fashion statement.
Bell-bottomed pants were designed as part of a sailor's traditional clothing. They have long been part of various naval uniforms. Wide legs made it easy to pull wet pants off over heavy boots, helping those who fell overboard to discard heavy clothing. The flared legs could then be filled with air to provide a flotation device. Onboard ship, sailors sometimes washed decks in bare feet, and bell-bottoms could be rolled up easily to keep dry.
During the 1960s, as American youth became involved in various radical political and artistic movements, a nonconformist (outside of what society expects) culture began to develop. Called "bohemians" and "hippies" (see entry under 1960s—The Way We Lived in volume 4), these young people rejected commercial fashions and often shopped for cheap, practical clothes at Army-Navy Surplus stores—where they found the Navy's denim bell-bottoms. Embellished with embroidery and patches, these bell-bottoms became a symbol of the flamboyant hippie counterculture. Some made bell-bottoms out of straight leg jeans by inserting a triangle of fabric into the side seam of the pants. Eventually, fashion caught up with the counterculture. Clothing manufacturers began to design stylish bell-bottoms, some with legs so wide they were nicknamed "elephant bells."
By the mid-1970s, bell-bottoms were no longer a political statement. They were universally popular and available in a variety of fabrics. Along with other showy fashions of the 1970s, they soon went out of style, however. Bell-bottoms soon became a synonym for being hopelessly out of date. Bell-bottoms returned to fashion with the name "flares" in the 1990s, as part of a 1970s retro style and as a version of the baggy fashions associated with rave (see entry under 1990s— Music in volume 5) culture. (Raves are night-long parties at which large numbers of people dance, listen to a disc jockey play "techno" music that uses the beat of the music as a hypnotic tool to alter the listeners' consciousnesses, and sometimes use drugs.)
For More Information
"Bellbottoms." Bad Fads Museum.http://www.badfads.com/pages/fashion/bellbottom.html (accessed March 14, 2002).
"Bellbottoms." Yesterdayland.http://www.yesterdayland.com/popopedia/shows/fashion/fa1073.php (accessed March 14, 2002).
"Break Out Your Bell-Bottoms: From Madonna to Main Street, Groovy '60s Fashions Are Back—with a Twist." People Weekly (January 28, 1991).