The 1970s was a time of political activism, environmentalism, and a steadily growing feminist movement. Pant legs were flowing, as was sexuality. People dressed with elegance, confidence, and ease. At the hands of influential designers like Halston and Yves Saint Laurent, luxury became democratized and couture was no longer something only worn by socialites. Freedom, individuality, and personal expression was valued above all else.
Breaking Off From the Hippie Era
This process of liberation was set in motion during the 1960s. The hippie subculture had begun as a youth movement but reached critical mass by the end of the decade, culminating in 1967’s legendary Summer of Love. Experimentation with psychedelic drugs had altered people’s consciousness and pushed art, music, and design in to wild and colorful directions. The Woodstock Festival in ’69 came to encapsulate everything this decade was about, and is still considered one of the most important events in music history.
“The ’60s went so far in one specific way of non-conformity,” says Emily Hirsch, designer of fine-jewelry line Talon. “In the ’70s, everything changed. There was just so much going on in the world — and in art, fashion, and music — that gave people more inspiration to pick from when forming their individuality and style. It was more acceptable and even desired to be unique.”
Yet, the 1970s started off shrouded in uncertainty and upheaval.
The end of the ’60s had seen the end of the postwar economic boom and the assassinations of important political figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. Man had walked on the moon, yet no one seemed to know where we should go next here on Earth. The United States was still deeply embroiled in the increasingly controversial Vietnam War, and the idea of prosperity for all was fading as unemployment rates and inflation rose while the economy stagnated.
For many, the new decade was a much-needed wake-up call that brought about a more down-to-earth, liberated way of life characterized by artistic experimentation and careful optimism.
NYC’s Coalescence of Cool
The societal progress made possible by the civil rights, women’s liberation, and gay rights movements meant that people were, more than ever before, free to be whoever they wanted to be. This focus on individuality and personal expression was a big influence in fashion and popular culture, and led to the creation of several concurrent fashion movements.
In New York City, artists, musicians, and other nonconformists who pushed the limits of creative expression often congregated at Andy Warhol’s famed Factory as well as Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub and restaurant that was a favorite gathering spot for musicians, poets, artists, and politicians in the ’60s and throughout the ’70s.
Regulars included writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, as well as artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, and Willem de Kooning. Debbie Harry worked as a waitress, and fashion designer Carlos Falchi was a busboy. Andy Warhol and his entourage held court the back room. The Velvet Underground performed there regularly, and Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley & the Wailers, and Aerosmith all played shows at Max’s early in their careers.
Punk-Rock Style: Strength to Endure
In the early ’70s, Max’s was home base for the glam rock scene, where David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and the New York Dolls popularized gender-bending style. Patti Smith, also a club regular, is still the embodiment of androgynous chic.
The punk scene, an anti-establishment movement that emerged on the heels of glam rock and Warhol’s pop art, further pushed the limits of experimental fashion. Inspired by designers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, punks — particularly those in England, led by the Sex Pistols — wore jeans, black leather, and spiked hair. Everything was ripped, shredded, and held together with safety pins. It was a dangerous-looking departure that put an abrupt end to flower-power fashion and thumbed its nose at the nascent disco era. In NYC, the Ramones popularized the rocker uniform of ripped blue jeans, white T-shirts, Converse shoes, and leather jackets — an enduring style influence that feels just as current today as it ever did.
Saint Laurent Democratizes Fashion
On the other side of the fashion spectrum, Yves Saint Laurent managed to capture the essence of the 1970s like no other designer. Ever since taking over the house of Dior in 1957 at the age of 21, he had been infusing the fashion world with youth and artistry. His collections drew from a rich array of cultural influences, from Russian ballet to the modernist paintings of Piet Mondrian.
Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche boutique, located in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris, was the first ready-to-wear store opened by a couturier. Every designer flagship store today exists because of this bold move. Saint Laurent helped blaze other trails as well, including introducing elements like folkloric embroidery and African beading into couture, and using a black model, Fidelia, on the runway for the first time.
“He was a libertarian, an anarchic, and he threw bombs at the legs of society,” Pierre Bergé said of his long-time partner, in a statement to the press after the designer’s death in 2008. “That’s how he transformed society, and that’s how he has empowered women.”
Saint Laurent introduced many pieces we consider closet staples today, including the tuxedo — le smoking — and the blazer, often blurring traditional gender roles and rewriting the rules of what it meant to dress like a woman.
“I love that the ’70s blew the stuffiness out of luxury,” Hirsch says. “Suddenly designers had more liberty and could design for strong women who wanted to look sexy and powerful.
“At the same time, women were taking style into their own hands and not waiting for husbands or boyfriends to buy them pieces they wanted. I love how fashion from this era really celebrated individuality and a comfort with the body,” she adds.
Studio 54, Disco, and Halston: Le Freak, C’est Chic
As the decade aged, skin-tight bell-bottom jeans, low-cut jumpsuits, and slinky dresses in form-fitting materials became de rigeur. Both men and women were not afraid to show off their best assets.
Everyone who was anyone spent their nights at Studio 54, which opened in New York City in 1977. There, a European prince could dance next to a starving artist and somehow they were both on the same social level. The mixing of high and low, and socializing without regard to class or status, was unique to both the legendary night club and to NYC at the time.
The man who dressed the women of Studio 54, including icons like Bianca Jagger, Pat Cleveland, and Jerry Hall, was American designer Halston. His minimalist designs embodied effortless elegance. Often made from luxurious materials like ultrasuede and cashmere, they emphasized comfort as much as style. His clothing helped redefine what it meant to be a modern woman. The influence of Halston’s unique ability to convey a sense of ease, simplicity, and understated luxury can still be felt in the fashion industry.
Halston’s work continues to inspire fashion design.
“Talon is very inspired by the simplicity and comfort characteristics of 1970s jewelry,” Hirsch says. “I spend hours and hours looking at archival imagery online and in books, so my pieces have a feeling of nostalgic romanticism to them. When I’m designing, I often have women like Lauren Hutton, Stevie Nicks, Jane Birkin, Bianca Jagger, Charlotte Rampling, Diane von Furstenberg, and Barbie Benton in mind and imagine them wearing the pieces I’m making.”
Getting lost in imagery from this era, it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like to walk the streets of New York City with Halston’s entourage of spectacular women, or to ride the then-gritty subway with a group of models dressed up in the latest from hot new designer Calvin Klein. The world may have been in turmoil, but designers and the style icons they dressed were infusing fashion with a sense of confident playfulness and sensuality, and steadily marching forward to the beat of their own drum.