Sonny and Cher...Donny and Marie...the entire Jackson 5 family... Where would they be without their snazzy, bellbottomed threads?
Denim veered off the straight and narrow when it belled out below the knee after the swinging 60’s. Bellbottoms had been a functional design feature in Navy sailor uniforms: the wide cut, ‘bell’ shaped leg of the naval uniform guaranteed a quick removal over clunky boots if you happened to fall overboard and the uniform weighed you down.
Hippies adopted the functional fare and turned it into anti-fashion. The wide-legged look was rebellious in the face of the straight-legged form of the conservatives, and a mass counterculture was made. Not since the 1940's, when teenagers adopted the workman's jeans as part of their uniform, had denim been so shocking.
Hippies turned the denim pant into an artist’s canvas and a platform for protest: trimmed in ethnic ribbons, patched with peace signs and smiley faces, and painted with flowers and protest slogans, the bellbottom jean shouted out loud. Being hip meant more than flowers in your hair and love beads; without the free-flowing bellbottoms grazing your Waterbuffalo sandals, you wouldn’t dare protest war and injustice.
And the worst injustice was that kids in middle America weren’t getting the radical bellbottom jeans in their shops. Considered a rebellious garment associated with anti-war sympathizers, bellbottoms were shut out of many stores in their early years. Desperate for the style, teens took to creating their own bellbottom jeans. By slicing open the outer side seam to about knee height, you could insert a triangular addition, a gusset, into the side seam and create your own belled denim jean. This alteration created another craze, and bellbottoms ballooned out with fabric gussets of velvet or Indian batik, or even more denim. These outrageous widths were known as elephant bells.
The ‘bell’ evolved into the late 70’s flares, and experienced a revival in the 90’s both as a retro fashion and as a modern update with the big bells of the rave culture. But sorry, Navy men, your splashy uniform no longer includes these functional, stylish pants.
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