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Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: The Ugly 1970s

March 16, 2017

Maybe “ugly” isn’t the right word, but everybody knows what I mean. (image via wikimedia)

It’s tough to explain the fashion sense of the 1970s to my daughters.  Whenever they watch a movie from that decade, they cringe and say something like, “How could they wear that?” or “What made them think that looked good?”

Every decade has a reputation.  The 1950s were cool because of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and a bunch of tuff cars.  The 1960s had the counter cultural stuff with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and lots of drugs.  They were cool too.  But the 1970s?   That decade still had the drugs, but those came with ugly hair, bell bottoms, weird color combinations, and big collars.  None of that is cool.  And it was kind of ugly.

There was some good music from the 1970s, but you don’t look at music, at least you didn’t in the 1970s.  You didn’t really start looking at music until the 1980s.  There were a couple dance shows on television which played popular songs, but there weren’t many videos.  There was also some great comedy in the 1970s, but ugly fashion enhances comedy instead of detracting from it.

All that ugly 1970s fashion seemed cool at the time, and that’s a problem.  How could so many people get fooled into thinking something is cool when it is really very ugly?  It’s important to understand these things.  It may seem minor, but this kind of group think is how genocides happen.

A lot of ugly stuff was going on in the 1970s, so it makes sense that the fashions look historically ugly.  The Vietnam War divided this country, and President Nixon had to resign because of the Watergate scandal, and there were lots of protests going on, gas lines, economic problems, and it ended with President Carter’s national malaise.  Maybe the late 1960s were more intense, but the 1970s were pretty bad too.

Like most problems, ugly 1970s fashion starts with the kids.  Kids have always had bad fashion sense.  I can’t go back to ancient times and prove it, but when you give kids a choice, they’ll usually pick something stupid.  That’s why adults are supposed to make decisions for kids.  If kids didn’t have stupid fashion sense in ancient times, it’s because adults didn’t let them make fashion decisions.  Plus, survival was so hard that they didn’t have time to be fashionable.

Sometime after World War II, parents began letting their kids make more decisions, and that’s where bad fashion (and the destruction of civilization) began.  It was okay to give kids choices as long as the kids had to become adults at 18 and work.  The rule in my family was when you turned 18 you got kicked out of the house.  You could finish out high school if you turned 18 first, but only if you’d never been held back a grade.  That forced us to turn into adults.

Sometime in the 1960s, adults tried to hold onto their adolescence for as long as they could, and part of that was hanging onto ugly fashions.  1970s fashions wouldn’t have been as bad if adults weren’t wearing the crap too.  That’s why you see shows and movies from the 1970s with adults in ugly outfits and hairstyles.

The actress Mary Tyler Moore is a great example.  Compare her fashion sense from The Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960s  with that of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s .  The 1970s made Mary Tyler Moore look bad too (okay, maybe bad is too strong).

1970s fashion sense hung around for so long because culture didn’t move quite as quickly back then as it does now.  If you liked news, you had to wait for a morning/evening newspaper or the evening news on one of three networks (PBS didn’t count).  If you liked fashion, there were a bunch of magazines, most of which came out once a month.  You could go to the movies, but most theaters had only one screen, so your selection was limited.  Because everything was relatively slow, once a fashion became trendy, it took a long time to get rid of it.

Fashions don’t last as long nowadays.  Today everybody stares at their phones, and fashion is so fleeting that nothing lasts long enough for anybody to care anymore.  Whenever elements of the 1970s come back, they disappear quickly again too.  That’s a relief to those of us who have pictures of ourselves trying to look good in the 1970s.  We know it’s almost futile.

The 1970s were so ugly that even Elvis didn’t look good in it.  You know a decade is ugly if Elvis looks bad too.


For more about old things that are tough to explain, read Old Things That Are Tough To Explain: One Phone Line In Your House.

From → Pop culture

  1. Agreed, in many ways, but I do love that picture of MTM from the 70s, and her ridiculous fashion, and I love the theme song to that show. I love Karen Carpenter and her music and her ridiculous fashion, too. I also love 70s Led Zeppelin, and the Bee Gees doing Saturday Night Fever, and a lot of other artists too numerous too mention. I was born in 1970, so I grew up in the 70s and 80s. And I must say that in the 90s, both decades disgusted me, in hindsight, and I was glad to be done with them and be living in the 90s, which were pretty great. Today, I look back on the 70s and 80s with mixed emotion. I will never say, and no one of sound mind will ever, I think, say again, that 70s fashion (or most 80s fashion) was good fashion. Most will probably laugh at it, or wonder what the hell people were thinking. But the music was good, and as your post makes clear, those were much simpler times (there were some ugly things going on, but ugly things go on in every decade). Today, things move too fast and are too complicated. I’m not saying that because I’m old or because I can’t keep up, but because I’ve seen it both ways, and that’s my opinion. But younger people will disagree, at least until they’re older, too, and looking back. So what I’m saying is, I like the music of the 70s because it was good. You couldn’t see it so much, but it was unique to its time, and I didn’t like it for a while until I could step back chronologically and appreciate again. And the fashion is truly unforgivable, but it didn’t hurt anyone and makes us laugh now (millennials are looking at the pic of MTM and laughing, I’m sure). And I’m reminded of much simpler times, which I like, because I’m a nostalgic S.O.B.

  2. Crepe 05 permalink

    One thing about the ’70’s that’s in their favor is that the people didn’t buy/sell blue jeans with rips and tears already in them. Ask your daughters what that’s all about. LOL! As for music, the good music died with Frank Sinatra, National King Cole, etc. Okay. I admit to being a wee bit long in the tooth and am enjoying every minute of it!

  3. I take umbrage with your insistance that 70’s fashion was ugly. I still remember my silk phase. Shirt with oversized collars and shiny plastic buttons, silk (bell bottomed) pants, and suede shoes. All in mustard and dark purple. Who wouldn’t think this the model of sexiness 😉

    In all seriousness, loved the post and your insight.

  4. The 70s were a hangover from the 60s, tired, ragged, that last cup before sunrise. January 1981 was a sort of Easter Sunday with Ronald Reagan as the Easter Bunny and every American a child hunting eggs.

  5. I still remember seeing my hard ass, working grunt dad wearing a lime green leisure suit with broad lapels, a white belt and white shoes. I’ve never recovered.

    • Haha! Have green lime leisure suits ever made a comeback?

      A lot of ’70s fashions have made (brief) comebacks, but I don’t think the green lime leisure suits have.

  6. The 1970’s was an era where every bad idea got a chance.

    • I’m a believer in giving bad ideas a chance, but the 1970s demonstrates what happens when too many bad ideas are given too many chances in a too brief period of time.

  7. Life’s a circle. Just wait till those fashions come back. Never thought short haircuts for men, skinny ties and narrow lapels, would come back, either.

  8. I love it that decades can be defined by their hideousness. Growing up in the 70s, I have a soft spot for a mother with Crystal Gayle-length hair in a kerchief, the bellbottoms, the wedges, the peasant blouses. I can think of an uncle with huge sideburns and wide ties. But I can also see myself in a striped shirt paired with brown plaid CORDUROY pants and fall to my knees and ask, “Why, God, why?” Once the 80s hit, and all my peers wore Polo, Izod, and Esprit, we all pitied 70s fashion as a product of hippies and drugs and oh, so much yarn. Why the yarn? Why the afghans? Why on the couches? Was it a world of macrame and potholders, meant to soften the effects of Vietnam? I was just reading a Carson bio and it talked about his endorsement deal with a suitmaker and how he got a new suit each week. I guess because Johnny was so well-loved, whatever he wore was cool. Ditto for all teen TV idols: Greg Brady, Vinnie Barbarino. It’s easy to brainwash the young.

  9. I remember how we laughed, my friend and I when she showed me the ugly, chunky platform shoes her mother had worn at her wedding. A year later and platform heels were back again with a vengeance, a very weird coincidence, but true. They were still ugly, but I’d say a lot safer than those six inch needle heels girls are willing to trust their lives to these days.

  10. I remember having a pair of bellbottoms that I absolutely loved, would wear them for days (my Mum said they could stand up in a corner by themselves). I also had a purple velvet winter coat which I would wear with white go-go boots. I thought I looked fabulous!!!!!

  11. Anonymous permalink

    There have been Beautiful People and Fashion Victims in every decade. Which decade you find cringeworthy and embarrassing depends entirely on your age – at that time, and currently. For me it’s the sixties.

  12. What are the 1970s worth remembering for? Well, Star Wars!

    I dare say that the 1970s fashion looks so strange because it was the result of the Hippies’ style going mainstream. It is not only the clothes – my kids laugh aloud about the hairstyles and the ugly moustaches of actors of the time, too!

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