Dangers of Discowear

How '70s clothing can hurt you

| November-December 1995

We took a look at some of the most popular, yet most hazardous, clothing staples, accessories, and fads of the 1970s. While there are certainly dangerous articles of clothing from other decades (stiletto heels come to mind), the wide availability of synthetic materials, a willingness to bare the body to reveal the soul, and tight-fitting garments made the ‘70s a particularly hazardous time.

POLYESTER SHIRTS—Made from 100 percent synthetic materials designed to simulate satin, silk, and even cotton (albeit with a slimy and slightly spongy feel), these shirts were de rigueur for many men and women. They had wide, long lapels, and the really scary ones were cut to fit close to the body. The most memorable polyester shirts screamed with outrageous multicolored patterns—swirls and paisleys; Egyptian, Roaring ‘20s, Bicentennial, and nature motifs; photographs and neck-to-waist landscapes. People knew the wearer was Mr. Casual or Mr. Swinger or Ms. Kooky. Oh, and they were wash‘n’wear. Dangers: Highly flammable, would melt upon contact with flame; hangnails snagged easily on fabric; did not “breathe” as natural fabrics do, often reducing Mr. Swinger to Mr. Sweaty ‘n’ Stinky.

ELEPHANT BELLS AND FLARES—The ‘70s saw the ‘60s bell-bottom refashioned with a looser thigh and increasingly wider leg. Also, by the mid-‘70s, the once “outré” bell-bottomed look of the ‘60s had been toned down, and flares were worn by suburban moms in polyester knits (like Mrs. Brady) and natty pinstriped lawyers in suits. The early-‘70s bells featured a do-it-yourself trend: Swatches of groovy fabric could be sewn into trouser legs to give them even more dimension. As platforms and other high heels became standard, the bells grew wider and longer to cover the increasingly high shoes. Dangers: It was possible to trip inside your own pants leg; you could trip over the flap of your other pants leg; they got caught in bicycle chains.

TIGHT JEANS—Jeans for both men and women were to be worn tight at the waist, hips, buttocks, crotch, and thigh. Ideal tightness revealed all that nature intended to remain secret and mysterious. Dangers: It was hard to sit down, and, once seated, you were apt to be very uncomfortable, with coarse denim seams digging into your soft thighs and genitals; zipper often split under duress (without underwear, the functioning zipper presented other hazards); it was discovered (and widely reported and apparently largely ignored) that men wearing tight clothing in their reproductive area increased their body temperature in “that area” and consequently had markedly lower sperm counts. Women too were prone to increased “female trouble.”

HOT PANTS—Hot pants arrived as a fashion sensation in 1971. These super short tight shorts were worn bare-legged, with knee socks, or with tights in the winter. They were available in many fabrics including denim, silk, satin, wool, and mink ($195) and were often adorned with patches, embroidery, rhinestones, and glitter. They were considered liberating for women (and, we can assume, for the few men) who wore them. Short shorts persevered throughout the ‘70s, especially in the form of jeans cutoffs. The convergence of athletic wear as fashion and the roller-disco craze sparked a late-‘70s rebirth of satin tuxedo-style hot pants, with a stripe down the side. Dangers: See TIGHT JEANS for physical hazards and reflect quietly to yourself about the depressing social and aesthetic implications of a nation in hot pants. (Hint: both Sammy Davis Jr. and Liberace performed in hot pants.)

BIKINI-STYLE UNDERWEAR—The elastic “waistband” of these tiny underpants straddled (and usually pinched) the middle of the buttocks. This created a new fashion disaster—the VPL, or visible panty line. Though they were more popular with women than with men (we’re guessing), ‘70s men did take up this “French-styled” brief. Dangers: Enormously irritating to have one’s buttocks bisected by elastic; see also dangers associated with POLYESTER SHIRTS and TIGHT JEANS.

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