For Whom the Bells Toll: The Life And Politics Of Bell Bottoms
by Brittany K. King
When you wear bell bottoms you can’t help but take up space, and people can’t help but notice you.
Fashion has always been used to send messages, or to exhibit social status or wealth. In many cultures, black at a funeral shows you’re mourning, just as a bride in white at her wedding represents purity. Victorian women wore corsets to exemplify their high societal stature. During the Vietnam war, military uniforms were worn first by veterans, and then by non-veterans, as a form of protest. And recently, during Melania Trump’s notorious visit to detention camps, where she donned an Army-inspired jacket with the phrase “I Really Don’t Care Do U?” scrawled across the back, the same item spread a completely different message.
But perhaps no item of clothing has gone through as many semiotic changes as the bell bottom jean. The pants have been worn for their practicality, to make a political statement, simply for the sake of fashion, and, when they were shamefully out of style, not worn at all. These days, the humble flared pant seems to be enjoying something of a moment: Forever 21, the Mecca of all things trendy and popular, currently has a laundry list of bellbottom options on their site. The comeback of bellbottoms coincides with an intense political climate, and a particularly involved generation of youths. This year, bell bottoms were especially popular at Coachella — a festival where the main demographic is millennials, people roughly aged between 21 and 35.
For lack of a better word, bell bottom pants are loud. When you wear bell bottoms you can’t help but take up space, and people can’t help but notice you. In a time when young people feel unheard and underrepresented, it’s important for them to be seen.
Bell bottoms are so aggressively associated with the sixties and seventies, it’s nearly impossible to imagine their origins have un-hippie roots. According to Encyclopedia.com, bell bottom pants have actually been traced back to the 17th century, when wide-legged pants were intended to be practical uniforms for boat workers. The pants were then introduced to sailors in the U.S. Navy in 1817, and they still rock wide leg pants to this day. The extra loose fabric offered by bell-shaped legs serves as a safety measure — in the instance that a man fell overboard, he could easily take his pants off and allow the wide bottoms to inflate with air and used as a life preserver.
Messy jobs on board a ship, like washing the decks, also meant there was a need for a pant that could easily be rolled up and kept out of the way of water (a problem you know all too well if you’ve ever tried getting a pedicure in skinny jeans). Of course, sailors think of wide-legged pants in terms of practicality, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that bell bottoms started being rocked as socio-political symbols.
While the fifties were (and still are, for some reason) remembered fondly as being a time of good old American wholesomeness, sixties’ fashion defied those virtues completely. Youth countered the buttoned up, conservative look of the decade before and opted for clothing that made a statement.
The bell bottom pant worked as a symbol for two reasons. Politically, a lot was happening in the late sixties and early seventies that warranted the younger generation to sharply retract from the mainstream. The biggest offender was, of course, the Vietnam War — a war that left the country incredibly split in terms of opinion on whether or not the US should even be involved and, to make matters worse, this young generation was still being drafted and forced into the war they so despised. Naturally, this left people angered and upset, and if the fifties represented post-World War II, buttoned-up patriotism, then the decades that followed turned completely against it. Instead of opting for the fitted pencil skirts of the more conservative generation prior, young people chose to literally wear their distaste for the current social climate on their sleeves. Thus, bold pieces like wide-leg jeans were adopted — defying the mainstream as a statement against the very unpopular involvements of the government.
Of course, sailors think of wide-legged pants in terms of practicality, and it wasn’t until the 1960s that bell bottoms started being rocked as socio-political symbols.
Fashion historian and educator Sarah Byrd hesitates to impart too much power on singular fashion choices, such as choosing to wear a bell bottom pant. Even though clothing has a very physical effect (like I said, they take up space), Byrd explains that “many factors go into the things we wear at any given time as a consumer: what’s available, your cultural lens, how you feel that day. Like the people wearing the clothing, it’s a nuanced and complicated statement.”
But what is often forgotten about bell bottoms is their role in popularizing unisex (or simply, gender nonspecific) styles. Brands like Levi’s made flared jeans for both men and women (marketed separately, though they may as well have been the exact same pant) and they became a part of typical wardrobes for men and women alike.
Perhaps the greatest example of this gender non-conformity is Sonny and Cher. The duo didn’t have traditionally gender-specific personas on stage: Cher’s contralto vocal range often hummed below Sonny Bono’s softer singing voice (and the fact that Bono was four inches shorter than his wife played into their almost “gender-swapped” stage presence). And at the time, they both were known to wear bell bottom pants during performances. Increasing access to color TV allowed people like Sonny and Cher to wear brightly colored, eye-catching outfits, showing their fans that one style could be fit for them both.
The previously harsh contrast between male and female threads began to blur, which also coincided with a boom in other social movements. The Stonewall Riots had just happened in 1969, launching the LGBT Movement into action full-force. The adoption of bell bottoms into the contemporary style of the flamboyant sixties and seventies paralleled this movement. Not only were they marketed toward both women and men, but they were also regularly in the style lineup of pop icons. David Bowie, Elton John, Liberace, and their contemporaries were redefining how (specifically men) dressed and represented themselves.
Even Elvis Presley, whose style adhered to traditional gender roles through the 1950s, found himself in bell bottoms. Previously, he was an all-American man who was drafted to war, donned suits when he dressed up, and despite his somewhat eclectic taste, managed to maintain his rugged, womanizing demeanor. But he adapted the newfound fluid style in the sixties and seventies, often wearing his iconic wide-legged, embezzled jumpsuits. For many, seeing pop stars in gender-fluid clothing meant feeling comfortable with their own sexuality. It meant that maybe men don’t have to dress traditionally masculine if they don’t want to, and women aren’t bound to skirts and dresses. It forced the general public to come to terms (or at least, more so than before) with the fluidity of it all. Instead of adhering to strict, specifically gendered clothes (ladies in skirts and men in suits) bell bottoms jeans were made for everyone. Even the straightest, greased up American man was now sharing pants with Liberace.
Sarah Byrd agrees that the exposure of trends by means of the celebrity has always had an impact on fashion. She points out that in the early twentieth century, the fan culture around celebrities gave birth; theatrical actors and performers were followed and documented in magazines, just as celebrities and influencers are on social media today. Byrd explains: “In many cases [the celebrity] serve to ‘normalize’ more avant-garde styles to the public.”
Even the straightest, greased up American man was now sharing pants with Liberace.
In a 1969 New York Times article, writer Judy Klemesrud discusses a conversation she overheard between two teenage girls on the New York City subway, regarding what they planned to wear to an upcoming Janis Joplin concert. From their conversation, she learned about the role bell bottoms played in teenage fashion:
There are the ‘safe’ fashions that can be worn without scorn anywhere. For the girls: bell-bottom blue jeans topped with an antique fur coat (never a new fur coat!). For boys: bell-bottom blue jeans worn with a suede fringed jacket.
Klemesrud notes the irony that the “rock crowd,” which shouts about individuality, tends to“march to the same drummer” when it comes to fashion.
But one could argue quite the contrary. Young people do tend to dress like each other or, in the case of the Joplin-loving girls, dress like one of their idols. The music one enjoys and the people one idolizes are clear reflections of their own ideologies. When someone mirrors a celebrity trend, it can also be an association with what the celebrity stands for.
A lot of current trends continue to ignore gender-made style, again seen in the ever-popular boyfriend jean and even the male romper. But more importantly: bell bottoms are back, and their resurgence in the midst of an unsettled generation is similar to that of the sixties and seventies.
On one hand, one could question whether the resurgence of the bell bottom is actually a conscious link to the seventies. Perhaps the revival of styles is the natural ebb and flow of the fashion world; in a May 1980 article for the New York Times titled “How Pants Shape Up: Something for Everyone; Question of Acceptance” Bernadine Morris writes:
…Any fashion loses its punch after a bit of exposure, and women who had felt like pathfinders when they first donned a pair of pants to go to lunch or to work were to discover the same sense of adventure when they returned to a skirt or dress. To stimulate the interest, trousers changed their shape over the decade, passing from straight-legged to low-flared or bell-bottomed.
But on the other hand, the popularity of bell bottoms once again could have a connection to the seventies, whether it’s a completely conscious connection or not. Byrd points out that millennials are not old enough to have “originally” worn the style and therefore have enough distance to romanticize the references into a narrative that suits their current culture.
While not everyone who dons bell bottoms in 2018 is trying to boldly demonstrate a political opinion, it makes sense that the trend would return in such politically radical times. Though unquestionably stylish, sporting a pair of bell bottoms echoes an interest in the social climate and acceptance of an evolving revolution. After all, clothing is never just clothing.