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?