Boomers Wore Bell Bottoms AND Flares

As we continue to debate the great questions of the Universe (Is a hot dog really a sandwich? comes to mind), the decades-old debate of bell bottoms vs. flares continues. Through his research on the subject, Mister Boomer has discovered that even in the boomer years, the two terms could be used interchangeably. However, as in the barbecue vs. grilled semantic battle, there are key differences. What those differences are depends on your source.

For the purposes of this pop culture reminiscence, bell bottoms differ from flares in the fit and cut. Both featured separate styles for men and women. Both featured a hip-hugging fit, but flares generally displayed a physical flare of the pant beginning at the knee or mid-calf. Bell bottoms could also begin their bell-shaped flare at the knee (hence the confusion). The difference from flares is, again generally speaking, over time as the sixties became the seventies, bell bottom styles expanded to tremendous lower pant widths that encompassed the shoes entirely.

Most people know the origin of bell bottoms began as the naval uniform of American and British sailors in the early 19th century. The shape was said to be easier for rolling up to the knee if work required, and if wet, could stay further away from the sailor’s body. Exactly how they were introduced and embraced by a growing boomer generation remains in dispute. Some sources point to the habit of boomers shopping at Army-Navy surplus stores in the early 1960s, where the pants were available. Other sources point to London, where a young man had his mother alter his ill-fitting jeans to give him more room in the hip. The story says she inserted an extra panel of material that caused the flare of the pants down the leg. When fashion designers on Kings Road got wind of a growing trend among the younger set to alter their pants in this manner, they jumped at the chance to co-opt it for their own. Either way, most sources credit the music scene as instrumental in the wholesale adoption of bell bottoms and flares.

Certainly by 1968, photos showing the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix sporting flared trousers were common. By the time Woodstock happened in August of 1969, it was practically the uniform of musicians. The audience at the festival also sported the style, but it was not universal. The height of the popularity of bell bottoms and flares would not occur until the 1970s. Many credit Sonny and Cher’s TV show, which began in 1971, as the tipping point for public acceptability of the style. By the mid-70s, it was the only style available for men in retail stores, even in dress pants. The size of the flare is what differentiated businesswear from more casual.

Mister Boomer has told the story of his first pair of bell bottom pants in an earlier post (Looking for Fun and Feelin’ Groovy). For the purpose of his historical decorum, at this particular juncture he prefers to remember his pants as flares and not bells. He continued wearing them throughout the 1970s, along with his peers. However, Mister B never wanted to venture into the realm of pant legs so wide they would completely cover his shoes. It wasn’t until the early 1980s when the last of his flared pants found their way into donation bags for charitable organizations.

How about you, boomers? Did you wear bell bottoms or were they flares?

Looking for Fun and Feelin’ Groovy

A recent shopping trip had Mister Boomer feeling his age when he was surrounded by skinny jeans and shrunken suits. Yet what the experience really reminded him of was how the tables had turned from when he was a young teen, about to embark on his first foray into consciously choosing fashionable duds for himself.

It was 1967, and Mister Boomer was an early teen in high school. His friends heard about an all-day concert coming up, and suggested they all go together. However, the boys had also decided that it was time for Mister B to get with the program in terms of his mode of dress. Up until that point, he had not put much thought into what he wore. In fact, the vast majority of what he wore was purchased by his mother, with little or no input. Now his peers were pressuring him to buy some fashionable clothes so they could collectively present themselves as “with it” to members of the opposite sex.

After much badgering, Mister B gave in and bought his first pair of bell bottom pants. It could very well have been the first article of clothing he purchased without any assistance from his parents. The memory of the location of the purchase and the circumstances surrounding it are lost to Mister B, but the remembrance of those pants past are still as vivid as the day he slipped them on to attend his first rock concert.

By late 1960s standards, there was nothing particularly special about the pair. The fabric was a little dressier than a corduroy or jean might have presented, reflecting Mister B’s practical nature so as to be able to get more wear out of the pants in multiple situations. By that point in sartorial history, the mode of dress for men was very much defined by the activity involved: there was church and event wear, school wear, work wear and everyday wear for hanging out in the neighborhood. It took until the 1970s before the unwritten lines of dress codes were rewritten when jeans became the primary mode of dress for teens, regardless of where they were going or what they were doing. Now, however, a rock concert was the event target.

The pants were cut in the lines of the day, hugging the hips and following the leg to the knee, where they then flared outward to the tips of the shoes. They were a dark, burnt orange color, flecked with black specks that further visually darkened the appearance, but gave them an irresistible texture that sealed the deal for Mister B. Putting them on was far from comfortable. To Mister B, it felt … silly, and more like donning a costume. Once he got to the concert, however, he blended right in with the throngs of other teens who were also looking to be seen as “with it.”

This recollection triggered an instance that occurred around a year after the bell bottom acquisition. As part of a required daily journal in school, Mister Boomer wrote a couple of paragraphs about an old man he happened to see. The man was dressed head to toe in up-to-the-minute fashions, including bell bottoms, Beatles boots, a puffy shirt and a neckerchief. Mister B posed the question of whether this man — probably in his seventies — was embracing the times by his fashion choices, or was instead denying his own age by taking on the trappings of a younger generation.

And so we flash forward to the present, where aging boomers like Mister B are faced with that very question: Is it better to grasp the fashions of the times, or accept societal norms for people of a certain age? In the case of the aforementioned shopping trip, Mister B avoided the question somewhat by purchasing some acceptable corduroys, but found a rather groovy paisley shirt to pair with them. As far as shrunken suits, in our day we might have suggested that pants above the ankle and suit sleeves that showed three inches of the shirt cuffs were just too small, and we’d suggest a size larger was in order. Skinny jeans, on the other hand, won’t be an issue at all. There is no way those suckers are going to fit this boomer’s body.

How about it, boomers? Do you believe in “dressing your age” or “dressing the age you feel?”