By RUTH LA FERLA MARCH 18, 2015
What did the ’70s feel like? As recalled by Bebe Buell, a singer and onetime habitué of that fabled hipster magnet Max’s Kansas City: “Everybody’s eyelids were very heavy. I used to chuckle to myself, thinking, ‘That’s the cannabis eye, the quaalude eye’ — the look people get when they’re feeling no pain.”
What did the ’70s look like? “Stylistically, it was a free-for-all,” the designer Betsey Johnson said of the tangy stew defining the era, a jumble of Harlowesque evening frocks, belled sleeves, flared pants, belted suede and wildly patterned caftans. Fashion in that showily dissolute decade was silky and caressing, silhouettes fluid and bras a relic of a straitjacketed past. So goes the lore.
“It was like you were walking around naked, but you had clothes on,” said Phyllis Magidson, the curator of costumes and textiles at the Museum of the City of New York.
At the peak of that period, exalted in the popular mind as all that was kicky, inventive and louche, Ms. Magidson was in charge of wardrobe for soaps like “As the World Turns.” She recalled draping an actress in a slithery dress that exposed the outlines of her nipples. “She can’t wear that,” a sponsor huffed. So Ms. Magidson cast about for a way to make the star’s breasts less, well, perky. “I’d say to her, ‘Warm ’em up, honey.’ ”
Before long, though, the languid sensuality that was part of an aesthetic flowering extending roughly from 1967 to 1973 had pretty well run its course.
“Certain elements of the period — the garish prints and weird color combinations — keep repeating,” said Rebecca Arnold, a fashion historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. So-called ’70s style, Dr. Arnold added, is actually an aesthetic mash-up, one encompassing “sophisticated pantsuits, bohemianisms and a childlike play on the ’60s baby-doll look.” And that’s to say nothing of the slippery fabrics, folksy embroideries, jumpsuits and swingy little dresses that might have been at home amid the glitter and grit of Studio 54.
Those long-ago emblems of worldliness — and waywardness — have now returned in force, with designers scrambling to loosely resurrect an era that keeps spinning like a continuous reel in their heads. Aptly enough, Tom Ford, who in the 1990s rescued the ailing house of Gucci with a ’70s rock-infused collection, was prompt in his spring 2015 show to channel Bianca Jagger and other idols of the day, issuing a bell-bottom evening suit that conjured the dandyish regalia of Ms. Jagger’s tabloid days.
Chanel paid homage to the Charlie girl, “kinda young, kinda now,” with a bell-sleeve blouse and cropped wide-legged trousers, and Marc Jacobs offered a wide-sleeve camp shirt and loose pants covered somewhat subversively in a naïve-looking Liberty print. Rebecca Taylor offered a sweeping diaphanous maxi, Givenchy a studded leather vest, Gucci a supple suede trench that Lauren Hutton might have worn at the peak of her modeling career.
Who can help but plunder fashion’s past when its imagery is everywhere? The epoch was captured on film in “American Hustle” and, more recently, in “Inherent Vice,” the hemp-saturated reimagining of the Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s vividly present in rock memoirs like “Just Kids,” Patti Smith’s recollections of coming of age in downtown Manhattan, and in trips through the decade by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and by Joni Mitchell, muse to the designer Hedi Slimane, who highlighted the singer in his Saint Laurent spring marketing campaign.
A wealth of pop ephemera is but a click away on Pinterest boards that worship at the altar of Ali MacGraw, looking womanly-provocative in the plunging silk dress or suede trench coat she wore in “The Getaway”; or Marisa Berenson vamping for Vogue in high hippie caftans, turbans and multiple rings; or Lisa Taylor, legs splayed suggestively as she poses for Helmut Newton in a Calvin Klein dress.
Clearly the period retains an emotional pull. In retrospect, the decade that spawned the DVF wrap dress, maxi-coats worn over hot pants, and Ladies of the Canyon in battered jeans seems a garden of earthly delights.
“We didn’t have the consequences that we do for our actions today,” said the costume designer Mark Bridges, whose film credits include “Boogie Nights” and “Inherent Vice.” “People smoked without pause; you made out with who you wanted to; and on all fronts we were in an experimentation mode. Why not? The stakes weren’t as high.”
That age before AIDS and drastic budget shortfalls, Dr. Arnold said, “seems like the most exciting period of decadence ever. There’s an element of the ’70s that can still seem somewhat outré, kind of glamorous, but a little bit sleazy as well. It’s got an edge to it.”
Small wonder it’s catnip to a generation that has yet to evolve a seminal style of its own. Doris Raymond, the owner of the Los Angeles vintage emporium the Way We Wore, who is featured on “L.A. Frock Stars,” a Smithsonian Channel reality series, finds in the work of designers today echoes of ’70s fashion sensations like Ossie Clark, Halston and Thea Porter.
The decade’s persistent allure may owe a debt to Mom as well. “Most designers now in the driver’s seat had mothers who were at their fashion peak in the ’70s,” said David Wolfe, the creative director of the Doneger Group, a trend-forecasting agency. “They are doing what Dior did when he did the New Look as homage to his own mother.”
True, quite a few contemporary tastemakers (the gallery includes Stella McCartney, whose mother, Linda, recorded tunes with her husband, Paul, and photographed the leading pop stars of the time, and Phoebe Philo of Céline, her mother a graphic artist) experienced the ’70s secondhand, through their mothers’ wardrobes.
But fashion’s reflexive return to the ’70s goes deeper, and is part of a generalized recycling trend that dates, some say, to the midcentury at least. “Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once,” the British music journalist Simon Reynolds wrote in “Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.” He notes that fashion, like music, now attempts to capture “a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself.”
In the book, Mr. Reynolds argues that the tendency to mine vanished eras has only accelerated since 1964, the year that marked the advent of the Biba store in London. Tricked out like an Edwardian opium den, the shop enshrined the totems of a bygone day — feathery boas, peacock feathers, piano shawls and the like — marketing them to a style-besotted public as never hipper or more “now.”
But the plumbing of the retro well, and the ’70s in particular, reached a frenzy, Mr. Reynolds goes on, “when designers like Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui ransacked the styles of previous epochs almost as soon as they ended.” As he argues, fashion now “is about changes but not Change in the sense of progress.”
Change, after all, can be at odds with commerce, a concept few designers have embraced as vigorously as Mr. Slimane. A proven master at issuing biker jackets, fringed skirts and other signifiers of old-style rebellion, he has put forth a look so reassuringly familiar both to those who experienced the decade firsthand and to their spiritual offspring, that it was, in hindsight, calculated to make registers ring.
“Slimane gives his consumers thoroughly digestible fashion, perfectly executed,” Robin Mellery-Pratt wrote this month in a Business of Fashion post, citing 2014 financial results reported by the parent company Kering, which demonstrate that while Saint Laurent leather goods and shoes are performing robustly, its ’60s- and ’70s-inflected ready-to-wear has been the fastest growing of any category, surging ahead by 23 percent last year.
It’s hard to argue with a strategy that so deftly conjures the spirit of sexual brashness and youth. “I put on a ’70s dress, and it changes the energy that I exude,” Ms. Raymond of the Way We Wore said. “Who doesn’t want that flower-emblazoned little dress that makes you feel young again?”