Beyond Belief

Sometimes you spend a while wondering whether to write a particular blog post. This is one of them. It’s darker than usual – skip it if you’re not in the mood.

I’m not generally a true crime person, but I recently finished reading “One of Your Own,” (2010), Carol Ann Lee’s biography of Myra Hindley. Her name may not be familiar to readers outside the UK, but in the 1960s Hindley and her lover, Ian Brady, committed a series of murders that shocked Britain and the world. The five victims, who ranged in age from 10 to 17 years old, were buried on moorland overlooking the city of Manchester, and so the two culprits became known as the Moors Murderers.

Hindley and Brady were sentenced to life in prison in 1966, and they spent the rest of their lives there. Had they been caught just a few years earlier, they almost certainly would have hung for their crimes, but as it happened, the bill abolishing capital punishment in the UK was passed shortly before their trial. I was born a few months after this and have no direct memory of the TV coverage, but, even decades later, my mother would shudder when she recalled the events of those years in the mid-sixties. For many people, the Moors Murders represented a loss of innocence that went hand-in-hand with the wider social changes of the time.

Some of these changes have already been discussed in this blog, and are covered in more detail in the book of Made for Walking, but by now you may be wondering what a pair of sadistic child murderers have to do with the generally sunny subject matter of this blog. The answer is that, in reading the book, I was struck by a comment made regarding Hindley. In 1963, as her relationship with Brady intensified, people who knew her began to notice a change in her appearance. The peroxide blonde hairdo, instantly recognizable from her arrest photographs, was the most obvious one. But she also adopted new styles of clothing; ditching pencil skirts and ballet pumps for short skirts, tight trousers, leather jackets. And knee-length boots.

What struck me was how many times this observation came up, in different books, and from different eye-witnesses. In one sense, it’s not surprising. One of the peculiarities of Brady and Hindley was that after the murders had taken place they would revisit the graves of their victims on the moors and pose for (seemingly innocent) photographs. Those photos became a key piece of evidence that enabled police to recover some of the victims’ bodies. And in one of the most infamous images, Hindley, holding her dog wrapped in her coat, kneels above what turned out to be the grave of 12 year-old John Kilbride. She is wearing slim-fitting trousers, tucked into low-heeled black leather knee boots.

The two murderers had developed a shared fascination with Nazis, and Brady had an obsession with the female concentration camp guard Irma Grese, who was tried and executed in 1945 for her sadistic abuse and murder of prisoners. Grese was notorious for wearing high jackboots during her time at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen; Hindley took to carrying a photograph of her in her handbag, and may, bizarrely, have been trying to use Grese as some sort of ghoulish style icon to please Brady.

1963 was the year when fashion boots for women first began to attract widespread attention. So you could argue that Myra Hindley was merely reflecting the cutting edge of style at that time. But popularity in the fashion press does not necessarily equate to widespread acceptability. If you were riding the bus in the mid-1960s, it’s likely that you and most of your fellow passengers would be dressed in clothes that would not have looked out of place ten years earlier. Clearly there was something about Hindley’s dress that really bothered her contemporaries, albeit that the comments originated after her crimes were exposed. As already mentioned, the references to the boots turn up in multiple books, and from multiple sources.

In the chapter on boots in the massively encyclopedic fashion volume A Century of Shoes (1997), the claim is made that the gap in the history of the fashion boot from the Russian boots of the 1920s to the early fashion boots of the late 1950s was because tall boots became too closely associated with fascism during the 1930s and 40s. I’d always been a little skeptical about this comment, but I now wonder whether there wasn’t something in it. Hindley would have been too young to remember the war first hand, but many of her older acquaintances in Manchester were old enough that the memories were still quite fresh. Perhaps blonde hair and black leather awakened some uncomfortable chilling recollections.

References:

  • Lee, Carol Ann. 2010. One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley. Edinburgh, Mainstream Press.
  • Pattison, Angela, and Cawthorne, Nigel. 1997. A Century of Shoes: Icons of Style in the 20th Century. New Jersey, Chartwell Books.
  • Williams, Emlyn. 1992. Beyond Belief: A Chronicle of Murder and Its Detection. London, Pan Macmillan.

Bridal boots

From the Bata Shoe Museum “Brides in Ratiskovice, a Moravian community located in the region of Slovacko, spent long hours embroidering the outfits that they would wear on their wedding day. One of the features of this costume was a short skirt under which were worn a pair of showy boots with deeply pleated shafts and decoratively embroidered uppers. For the wedding, a gold coin was slipped into the boot as a means of ensuring future prosperity.”

Reference:

Image Sources:

  • Bata Shoe Museum
  • Pinterest

Published!

“Made for Walking” is officially published and available for sale on Amazon! You can also get a copy directly from Schiffer Publishing. Here’s a sample of what’s in store…

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As she walked around the streets of Manhattan, Beth Levine had become used to the calls from passing drivers, invariably male. It was always along the same lines: they would lean out of their cars and shout something like –

Hey, where’s your horse?

The attention was not surprising, because the sight of a woman in the heart of the city wearing skirts or dresses with knee-length boots was an unusual one for the late nineteen fifties. But Levine didn’t mind. She saw it as a tribute to the boots she loved to design and wear. She was no stranger to skepticism, amusement, or in some cases outright ridicule. Levine had spent the last five years on a quest to redefine the utilitarian boot as a fashionable shoe. It was proving to be an uphill struggle. The years since the disappearance of the Russian boot in the early thirties had not been kind to the idea of a fashionable boot for women. After a brief flirtation with stylish designs, the shoe industry had concluded that the role of the boot was overwhelmingly one of protection. This was something that the rubber rain boot did much better than the leather Russian boot.

There were some short-lived attempts to revive the idea of a fashion boot. At the end of the 1930s, there was a brief revival of interest in fashionable ankle boots for women, associated with clothing that paid homage to the so-called Romantic era. They were not worn very widely, but a number of designers included them in their collections. One of the most notable examples was André Perugia, who came up with leather button boots in black or cream that are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. But these were a rarity. For the most part, the women’s boot styles of the forties and fifties tended to be trim, ankle-length rain boots.

That had not always been the case. If you want to get a sense of what the earlier generation of rain boots for women looked like, mail order catalogs provide a useful window. The autumn/winter Kays Catalogue of 1928 shows a couple of styles of Russian boot. But by 1933, the Russian boots were gone. Instead we have two pages of rain boots. Some of these are typical Wellington boots. But the catalogue also featured “stylish” models “for city wear… extra-high shaped leg, close fitting, 1 1/2″ Cuban heels.” The leg height is 16 1/2 inches, which takes them right to the knee. And they are specifically described as “practical high-leg fashion boots (my emphasis); a similar pair came in two-tone rubber.

So while they may be absent from the high-end fashion press, mail order gives us a different picture; there were still knee-length fashion boots on sale in 1933. But by 1937, while Kays still offered one style of heeled and shaped-leg rain boot, most of the women’s boots featured in the catalogue the were regular “wellies.” And by 1960, all the boots shown were ankle length and, critically, were advertised as a practical option for bad weather. As far as the young and the stylish were concerned, they also had a significant image problem. For the teenage Lesley Hornby and her friends, growing up in the Northwest London suburb of Neasden, it was better to go through an entire winter with your legs frozen to the bone than wear boots. “Nobody wore boots,” Hornby, who was to become famous worldwide as sixties supermodel Twiggy, recalled. “Boots meant ankle boots, brown with a zip, the sort of things old ladies wore.”

To a large extent, this view was shared by the people that made them. Shoe manufacturers and retailers saw boots as a separate category of footwear from shoes, to be worn for protection from bad weather or for work. Unlike shoes, boots did not have to be fashionable, only practical. This was the world that Beth Levine set out to change.

References

  • “Hey, Where’s Your Horse?” Hartford Courant, Jun 16, 1963: Pg.7E.
  • Bergstein, Rachelle. 2012. Women from the Ankle Down. New York, Harper Perennial.
  • Verin, Helene. 2009. Beth Levine Shoes. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang

Dr. Gale


We’re now well-and-truly on the countdown to publication of the book, which is a little over a week away. You can get a copy here. As a very brief taster, I thought I’d write a quick post on the television series that gives Chapter 4 its title, Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir, better known in the anglophone world as The Avengers. It ran from 1961 to 1969, and I think it’s fair to say that it is now firmly woven into the fabric of how we look back at the nineteen sixties, along with miniskirts, the Beatles, and Vietnam. When I was growing up in the seventies, any mention of the series would always elicit the comment “ah yes, kinky boots!” Today, people would append, “Emma Peel” to this. But although Emma Peel is the best known female sidekick of suave British agent John Steed, she wasn’t the one with the kinky boots. That was Dr. Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman.

It’s hard to overemphasize how much of a departure Gale was for television in 1962, when she first appeared in the series. She was in her early thirties, which was older than most female characters in similar detective series, had a PhD in anthropology, and had grown up in Africa. More to the point, she could fight, hand-to-hand, and shoot. She was Steed’s partner, not a decorative appendage. Her leather outfits may have had a fetishistic edge to them, but they were also eminently practical for someone who was using judo moves to throw bad guys around. And yes, she also wore boots, but they were the more masculine styles that were common in the early years of the Sixties, when fashion boots were used to challenge and contrast the hyper feminine fashions of the previous decade. The book gets into this in a lot more detail, but for now I just wanted to post this as a counterpoint to the previous post’s discussion of where movies like X-Men: First Class, get sixties fashions wrong. Yes, later in the decade there were tiny skirts and leg-hugging boots, but back in 1963 the emphasis was upturning convention. Cathy Gale led the way for the Emma Peels of later years.

All in the details

I just returned from a visit to the Motherland, where I discovered, among other things, that someone has made a musical based on ‘The Liver Birds,’ a popular BBC sitcom that ran from 1969 to 1979, although in all honesty its glory days were in the first half of the nineteen seventies. The novel aspect of the Liver Birds was that it took a popular trope of that time – young people leaving home and striking out on their own – and applied it to a pair of single women, Sandra and Beryl, sharing a flat in Liverpool. It also happens to be a goldmine for anyone interested in the fashions of the time, as the two style-conscious leads spend their time in a succession of eye-watering outfits. This is especially true in the early episodes, which feature hot-pants and boots quite heavily.

I had planned to write a whole post on the Liver Birds and what it tells us about early seventies Britain, but then I realized that it would,most likely end up sounding exactly like the post I did a few weeks back on the year 1971. So instead, I was inspired by the sheer period perfection of the above image, taken from the musical, Liver Birds Flying Home, to write an article about how TV shows and movies that are trying to capture the look of the past get the costumes, and in particular the boots, right or wrong. In doing so, I am trying my best to channel my friend Bruce, whose encyclopedic knowledge of such matters would undoubtedly result in a better post. Go take a look at his blog if you want to see what I mean.

Let’s start by going back to the year 1963, as portrayed in X-Men: First Class (2011). This one is definitely a bit of a miss. It may seem a bit picky to take issue with a movie that posits the involvement of mutants in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the costumes – whether the mini-skirt and boots combos of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Moira (Rose Byrne), Angel’s (Zoe Kravitz) go-go dancer outfit, or the stocking boots worn by Emma Frost (January Jones), the fashions are a good 5-8 years off the mark. There were boots and minis around in 1963, but the skirts were longer and the boots nowhere near as tight-fitting as seen here. The early sixties fashion boots were intended to provide a relatively masculine counterpoint to the prevailing fashions of the previous decade, and were more likely to be paired with a rugged tweed suit in what was known as the ‘sportif’ look. X-Men: First Class is showing us a shorthand view of what sixties fashion is perceived to be, rather than what it actually was.

Jumping forward a few years brings us to Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Gus Van Sant’s tale of a crew of drug addicts robbing pharmacies and hospitals in the Pacific Northwest in 1971. This is a serious piece of movie making, starring Matt Dillon and featuring a cameo by William Burroughs. The two main female characters, played by Kelly Lynch and a very young Heather Graham wear pitch-perfect outfits of miniskirts and knee-length boots that are very similar to those in X-Men First Class, but are actually correct for that time. What’s particularly striking is that those fashions were not at all popular in 1989, but would become so over the next 5 years, initially in the dance clubs of the early nineties before becoming absorbed into mainstream fashion around the middle of the decade. So the costume designer for the movie, Beatrix Aruna Pastor, deserves double kudos. Plus any movie that features Desmond Dekker’s Israelites is alright by me.

Onwards to another account of the seedy underbelly of the early seventies, in this case the early history of the porn industry in New York, as shown in HBO’s drama series, The Deuce. As I mentioned a few posts back, the hot pants and boots combo quickly went from the height of fashion at the end of the sixties to an almost irreversible association with sex workers by the seventies, and this is certainly evident from The Deuce‘s depiction of Times Square, circa 1973. If you were a drug-addled hooker of this era, then cheap vinyl boots and lacing, which would be dead as a fashion doornail within a year, were  likely to be your footwear of choice. A prime example are the white lace-up boots worn by fresh-faced Lori (Emily Meade), new in town from the Midwest and looking to upgrade from streetwalker to pornstar. But the series also gets the non sex-worker fashions right, such as the boots worn by Andrea (Zoe Kazan) the estranged wife of Vincent Martino (James Franco); A beaten-up pair that probably the height of fashion a few years earlier, but now too expensive for a working-class Brooklyn girl to replace, is again a spot-on costume choice.

Staying in New York, and in 1973, we have another HBO series, Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated Vinyl, which lasted only one season before cancellation. To be honest, there’s always a risk in trying to mix fictional characters with depictions of real bands (American Dreams anyone?), especially if the bands in question are so iconic that their fictional depictions can’t help but fall short. To add to the problems, the fictional acts included the world’s least convincing punk band, the Nasty Bits, who were not only awful, but also about 3 years before their time. But it was still sad that Vinyl got cancelled, because some of the performances, notably those of Ray Romano and Bobby Canavalle, were brilliant. And on the costume front there was Juno Temple, as A&R assistant Jamie Vine, in period-appropriate platform boots. These were probably a year or two early, and also a rarity in the USA, but perhaps you’d expect that sort of cutting edge fashion from someone working in a record company in NYC. Anyway, Vinyl gets the thumbs-up for this.

Not so Rush (2013), Ron Howard’s account of the epic rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1970s. On a previous iteration of this blog, I went off on the scene, set in 1974, where Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) meets his future wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde) for the first time. It’s 1974 and they have her in a stunning period outfit of a floppy hat and suede coat with a fur trim, befitting the fact that Miller was a bona fide seventies supermodel. The costumes were designed by Frida Giannini, who is the creative director at Gucci, and they’re based on period designs from Gucci’s archives, which is all well and good. And when Wilde’s booted legs appear over Hemsworth’s shoulders the first time they meet, all seems good. They’re kinda baggy in the leg, and ’74 is the year when these looser-fitting boots came into fashion for the first time. They’re also platforms, which is still OK – platforms were at the peak of their popularity then, and there were a few that had this looser leg. But stiletto heels? With platform soles in the first half of the 1970s? They should be stack heels. You could make a case for stilettos if this was 1978, but the boots that Wilde is wearing are pure post-millennial.

Which brings us to The Americans, the FX network’s drama about KGB deep-cover agents in America during the early 1980s. Keri Russell, who plays one of the Russian agents, gets to wear a wide variety of period outfits. A typical one from the first season (set in 1981) featured an overall silhouette, with a wide-shouldered blouse and tapered skirt, that was classically eighties. Strictly speaking, it should have been paired with pumps or ankle boots, but the costume designer, Jenny Gering, chose heeled, knee length boots. Contemporary images and mail order catalogs clearly show that the knee-length boots that are more typically associated with the late seventies remained popular through to at least 1983/84. So it would not be surprising for a woman in her early forties (the age of Russell’s character) to own at least one pair.

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Out of Town

I’ve been reading “Out of Town: A Life Relived on Television” (1987), which is an autobiographical memoir written by Jack Hargreaves (1911-1994). Hargreaves is a fascinating character, who would be worth a blog post in his own right (if I had another blog that was not fashion-oriented). Although he was a successful businessman, broadcasting pioneer, and more than at home in sophisticated London society, most people in Britain remember him as the white-bearded host of Out of Town (1963-1981), a gently-paced show that explored life in the English countryside. In my childhood memories, the post-Sunday lunch TV spot is inextricably linked with images of Hargreaves driving his horse and trap along a country lane to the strains of Recuerdos de la Alhambra.

Hargreaves saw significant changes over his lifetime, as did anyone of my parent’s generation, something that is very clear when you read his reminiscences of growing up in the years after the First World War. In the countryside, technology had seemingly triumphed over a way of life that had remained largely unchanged for the previous two hundred years or more, a process that was accelerated in the aftermath of the Second World War. The nineteen fifties and sixties, with their space rockets and brave talk of a New Elizabethan age, seemed to represent the culmination of all this, and the triumphalism of the space age and what Harold Wilson called “the White Heat of Technology,” was reflected in the fashions of the time… Courréges, YSL, and especially Pierre Cardin.

This was the time when the fashion boot came of age; the radical step of co-opting a previously masculine form of dress as a fashion item for women reflected a new (if still largely unrealized) role for women in the society of the future. New materials born in the laboratory rather than the fields allowed for sleek, colorful variants of the boot at prices that made fashion egalitarian in a way that it had not previously been.

But the end of the sixties saw the beginnings of a revolt against this technocentric paradigm. The future didn’t seem quite as bright and idyllic as we had been promised. The war in Vietnam dragged on, sparking violent political protests. Crime rates soared, and the recreational drugs that had promised to open new doors of perception became, instead, a plague that blighted urban areas and the lives of those that lived there. People began to look at the past, through rose-tinted spectacles (sometimes literally), as a lost Golden age. Forgetting the reactionary politics, wars, and imperialism of the time, they sought out fashions that recalled those days.

We’ve looked at some of these in earlier posts, and it’s a topic that gets a whole chapter to itself in the new MFW book (note the shameless plug). This began in the last years of the nineteen sixties as a fascination with the fashions of the Victorian and Edwardian eras; in footwear, this manifested itself in a new category of “granny” boots, that added retro laces or buttons to the knee length boots of the time. By the early seventies, nostalgia had become focused on the 20s and 30s, as typified by the fashions of the London store Biba, and its footwear manifestation was the platform sole. We tend to think Glam Rock when we see boots of this era, but in fact they were a (successful) attempt to fuse the leg-hugging boot of the late sixties with a heel and sole that reflected fashions popular in the Golden age of Hollywood, four decades earlier. But these were, for the most part, youthful fashions; for the older generation that had consumed the early “youthquake” fashions of the sixties first-hand, the nostalgia for past times had evolved into something rather different.

One of the most popular British sitcoms of the mid-70s was The Good Life (1975-1977), the story of Tom and Barbara Good (played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall), a suburban couple who abandon the rat race of modern life in favor of “self sufficiency,” converting their suburban home and garden into a smallholding, much to the horror of their upwardly mobile neighbors, the Leadbetters. Few people actually went this far, but there was a great enthusiasm for natural materials around the home – quarry tiled floors, rattan chairs, stripped pine furniture, earthenware plates and mugs, hand-woven rugs, etc. Terrance Conran’s “Habitat” chain did booming business.

In the world of fashion, this manifested itself in what Vogue called “the new ease” – natural fabrics like wool and cotton, worn loosely in “sloppy-joe” sweaters and full skirts that hit the leg just below the knee. It was a countrified look, heavy on tweeds, plaid, capes, and expensive raincoats by the likes of Burberry and Acquascutum that harked back to the glory days of the country house set and weekend house parties.

The new style of dress came with its own distinctive fashion boot. In contrast to the tight, vinyl styles of the late sixties, this was made of high-quality leather or suede, stack heeled, and loose fitting, with a tendency to settle in extravagant folds around the ankle. It was this feature that gave the boots their quite unflattering nickname – “baggy boots,” but the loose fit gave added balance to a silhouette that, combined with the fuller skirts, placed the weight low on the body. Because the hem of the skirts just covered the tops of the boots, they also provided much-needed leg coverage in cold or wet weather.

This neo-country style was massively popular in Europe and, to a certain extent, North America during the second half of the nineteen seventies. To my mind, it was absolutely embodied by the series of press advertisements for Burberry shot by the Queen’s cousin, Patrick Lichfield. These featured the ultra blue-blooded model Lady Annunziata Asquith, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith and great granddaughter of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, wandering round the estates of various stately homes in a Burberry trenchcoat, expensive woolens, and boots. It was a look enthusiastically embraced by the mail order catalogs of the time, which failed to see there was something slightly unrealistic about a woman donning expensive, heeled boots to plow through muddy fields with the family spaniel.

In reality, the country fashions of the nineteen seventies were rather like Jack Hargreaves himself; for all their outward aspirations of rustic simplicity, they were actually products of a thoroughly urbanized society. When The Good Life finished, in 1977, its breakout star, Penelope Keith (who played the spectacularly snobbish Margot Leadbetter) went on to play a widowed member of the country gentry, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, in To the Manor Born (1979-1981), swapping her suburban kaftans and polyester jumpsuits for tweed skirts, sweaters, and pearl necklaces. It was the absolute apotheosis of the neo-country look. But when she went outside, in the fields, she wore Wellies.

Image Sources

  • Rustic fashions: Janet Frazer catalogue, Autumn/Winter 1975
  • Fashions by Pierre Cardin, 1968: via Tumblr
  • Granny boots: via Pinterest
  • Baggy Boots: Janet Frazer catalogue, Autumn/Winter 1975
  • Lady Annunziata Asquith, shot by Patrick Litchfield for Burberry: via Ebay

Selected References

  • Anon 1974. Fashion: Fall Guidelines: The New Ease in Fashion. Vogue, Jul 1, 1974: pp. 40-65.
  • Griggs, Barbara. 1974. For the Girl Who Likes a Little Loose Living. The Daily Mail, Aug 19, 1974. Pg. 10.
  • Hargreaves, Jack. 1987.  Out of Town: A Life Relived on Television. Dovecote Press
  • Nemy, Enid. 1974. Boots have changed – especially in price: droopy look. New York Times, Sept 20, 1974: pg. 47.

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Never a Dull Moment

“Never a Dull Moment” is the title of a great book by music journalist David Hepworth. It’s his account of rock music in 1971, his thesis being that this is a pivotal year in which the era of singles-driven pop, typified by the sixties, gave way to the album-oriented rock of the seventies. You can’t argue there’s not something special about a year that saw the release of Tapestry (Carol King), Bryter Layter (Nick Drake), Sticky Fingers (the Rolling Stones), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), Imagine (John Lennon), Blue (Joni Mitchell), Who’s Next (the Who), Electric Warrior (T. Rex), Shaft (Isaac Hayes), Meddle (Pink Floyd), There’s a Riot Going On (Sly & the Family Stone), Fragile (Yes), Madman Across the Water (Elton John), Hunky Dory (David Bowie), and Led Zeppelin IV, to pick just 16 of Hepworth’s 100 albums of the year.

It was also, as Hepworth’s introduction reminds us, a completely different world. In Britain, there were only three television channels and one type of credit card (Barclaycard, if you’re interested). The average annual wage was £2000 and 2/3 of people did not have a bank account to pay it into. There were no cell phones, no dialing overseas without the help of an operator, and urgent news was delivered by telegram. There were few supermarkets; most people used small, local stores – butchers, greengrocers, and bakers – and had to shop several times a week. In America, gas was 36 cents a gallon, a Big Mac was 20 cents, and on Sunday night Ed Sullivan was still on T.V. Also, hot pants – shorts with an inseam of two inches or less – were everywhere.

Which brings us, neatly, to the quite wonderful image at the top of the page, which features contestants in a 1971 ‘Miss Hotpants’ contest in the Netherlands. I found it on this awesome blog, which – if you’re at all like me – will guarantee you many happily wasted hours. The picture is, in itself, evidence that 1971 was a whole different planet than the one we live on today. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing something quite as cheerfully awful as this competition in this day and age, although to be honest I haven’t gone clubbing on the Jersey shore recently. I’m sure that the high stacked coiffures on some of the contestants are not their own hair; this was also an era when the average mail order catalog would feature several pages of wigs, and even someone as staid as my 40 year-old mother would have at least one that could be whipped out for parties (black and curly, as I remember it).

Short shorts have a fashion pedigree that goes all the way back to the nineteen thirties (think of the classic pin-up photos of that era – Betty Grable and the like), and their enthusiastic adoption at the beginning of the seventies is part of the wider nostalgia for that period that was represented by stores like Biba. The actual term ‘hot pants’ is usually attributed to a 1970 article in Women’s Wear Daily, and this is certainly the year in which shorts began to attract mass attention. In the fall of 1970, the New York Times reported that “short pants are getting the fashion whirl for spring and summer. In Paris, young girls are reportedly wearing them right now, over tights, with boots and long coats.” If you want to get an idea of how common this style was, take a look at John Hendy’s pictures of London’s Kings Road during this period.

The association of boots with hot pants is a close one; for example, in the image above, 10 out of the 14 contestants pictured are wearing boots of some description, while the other four are wearing high-strapped sandals or thigh-length socks, which could be described as boot substitutes. This is not really surprising, because as we’ve discussed earlier, 1970-71 is really the high watermark of the sixties fashion boot. This is the time when boots hit peak popularity as measured by the number of mentions in the mainstream and fashion press.

There are a number of factors behind this; a worldwide rise in the price of leather provided an impetus for the development of a host of artificial substitutes with names like Corfam, Futuran, and Vynarich. Now, women could pick from boots that were smooth, shiny, dull, stretch, suede, snakeskin, alligator/crocodile, satin, or velvet. This, in turn, meant that it was possible to pair boots with a much wider range of outfits than had previously been the case, and you could afford a wardrobe of boots, because the artificial leather substitutes were much cheaper than the real thing (although this came at the cost of less durability and a shorter lifespan). You can see the effect of this in the picture from Holland – here we have a full range of styles, colors, and materials.

When they first appeared, hot pants had a certain radical chic about them; Yoko Ono was a big fan in the early years of the decade, and even Jackie Onassis was tempted, although supposedly she wore hers when yachting. But the titillation factor was just too easy to exploit. When Southwest Airlines put its flight attendants into hot pants and boots in 1971, it’s unlikely they were thinking in terms of their employees’ comfort. The committee that selected the first batch of staff included the person responsible for hiring Hugh Hefner’s “jet bunnies” and the the women hired were described as long-legged dancers, majorettes and cheerleaders with “unique personalities.” By the middle years of the decade, hot pants were hopelessly associated in the public mind with prostitutes, as can be seen in Taxi Driver (1976) and, latterly, HBO’s The Deuce (2017).

As day-to-day wear, hot pants have gone the way of public telephones, evening newspapers, milkmen, and a host of other things that Hepworth mentions in his book. To the extent that they survive at all, it is in the limited sphere of nightclubs, Hooters restaurants, and the sort of women who hang around in non-driving roles in the Fast and Furious franchise. However, there is one area of where hot pants and boots are still very much in the public eye, and that is pro-cheerleading. For some reason, perhaps associated with the demographics of NFL and NBA fans, on game days you can still see squads of gyrating dancers in clothing that would not have seemed out of place back in 1971. That might be the topic of a future post.

Image Sources

Selected References

  • Hepworth, David. 2016. 1971 – Never A Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year. London, Random House.
  • Nemy, Enid. 1970. “The Great Boot Boom of ’70: Expense, It Seems, Is No Object.” New York Times, Sep 29, 1970.
  • Peril, Lynn. 2008. “Hot Pants”. In Mitchell, Claudia; Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline (eds). Girl Culture: Studying girl culture : a readers’ guide. Westport, Greenwood Press. pp. 362–363
  • Taylor, Angela & Morris, Bernadine. “Knickers Hold Center Stage, but Shorts Are Waiting in the Wings.” New York Times, Dec 26, 1970.

 

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25 Words

I just finished the final review of page proofs for the MFW book. It’s looking very good. One of the things I had to do was index the volume, which is a time-consuming, but strangely satisfying process. Anyway, I thought I’d pick an A-Z selection of words from the index (minus X, which somehow didn’t make it into the index), if only to prove to you that as fashion histories go, this one is quite wide-ranging.

Wrapping Up 2017

We’re getting near to the end of 2017, so here’s a few domestic announcements to wrap up the year. First, I’m officially back on social media. There is now a new MFW Pinterest site, complete with multiple boards, that provides a bunch of image content to help illustrate some of the topics covered in the book and the blog. I’m also back on Facebook, and Tumblr.

This surge of activity is related to publication of Made for Walking: A Modest History of the Fashion Boot (Schiffer Fashion Press), which comes out in May of 2018. There’s been a lot of progress in the past few weeks, including checking of page and galley proofs, indexing, and finalization of the design. It’s looking very good. You can preorder your copy on Amazon.

As I mentioned earlier this year, while the blog and book overlap, there are plenty of good reasons to keep following MFW online. It seems like every week I find another story that I wish I’d had time and space to include in the book and I don’t see that drying up anytime soon. And I’m still living in (almost certainly vain) hope of an email from Sally James.

And, I think, that’s all for 2017. Happy New Year to you and yours and I’ll be back in 2018.

PS: initially I couldn’t think of an image to run this with, until I remembered the awesomely inappropriate talent show number from Mean Girls (2004), featuring (left to right), Lacey Chabert, Rachel McAdams, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Seyfried, all of whom have gone on to bigger and better things. With a script by Tina Fey, this movie is a gem. Go rent it

Image source:

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