Before the 1990s, the era when the power centers of fashion began to be much more numerous and dispersed, decades could be easily identified by the most prominent looks and cuts of their pervasive styles. The closet of the sixties in no way resembled the closet of the seventies; the clothing of the seventies was considered so outré it would practically get you beaten up in the eighties. Style was a singular and perishable flowering every ten years, and movies offered a fabulous glimpse at the aesthetic gardens of their time.
The seventies were a thrillingly specific period for new fashion due to the immense amount of social change that spilled over from the late sixties, which brought about widespread generational mistrust of authority, the antiwar movement, and the advent of psychedelia. Counterculture clothing was migrating—it became present not only at anti-establishment hippie rock concerts and on goat-farm communes but also among regular people, assimilated into the mainstream workforce.
The sexual revolution was still test-driving; there was considerably more nudity on-screen in the 1970s than there is today. Newly liberated women cast off their fifties-throwback, movement-restricting stiletto heels and pencil skirts, and were suddenly allowed to stride around in chunky-heeled boots and wide palazzo pants (before they ended up on the shag carpet). Nearly everyone looked somewhat bohemian, or at least boho-adjacent.
Fashionable men’s hair, even in corporate settings, seemed to settle somewhere between the neck and the ears (unless you were in law enforcement). Women abandoned the hard, high sculptural hairstyles of the sixties—a look of tight social control—in favor of long, natural hair flips of liberation that seemed to mimic the vestigial fins that shrank from the tails of Detroit sedans.
Styles were so articulate then that it is possible for anyone with a sharp eye for fashion history to pinpoint the exact year that a film was made, based solely on the trends featured in them. Each of the movies in the Criterion Channel’s ’70s Style Icons series interprets its moment, with particular attention paid to the influence of locations (East Coast and West Coast styles, for example, were markedly different) and the socioeconomic standing of characters. Together these glorious artifacts chart the subtle but unmistakable changes that unfolded over this flashy, florid decade.
Directed by Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg
Costume consultant: Deborah Dixon
Wardrobe by Billy Jay and Emma Porteous
The oldest film in the series happens to be one of the most sartorially radical. Nicolas Roeg’s London-set Performance is cast with the faces of the era’s rock-and-roll demimonde. It’s a priceless time capsule of the absolute cutting edge of the fashion avant-garde in 1970.
Arguably the most beautiful woman in the world at that moment—seventies it-girl and Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg—drapes around Mick Jagger’s hiply Marrakech-opium-den-style apartment, mostly naked under fox furs and satiny frocks. James Fox is a Dapper Dan gangster on the lam in Saville Row tailoring, and Mick Jagger has a proto-goth appearance like he’s auditioning to be the lead singer of Jane’s Addiction.
A fabulous fashion transformation takes place in which Fox’s gangster persona is deconstructed and Mick Jagger and La Pallenberg disguise him as a Jimi Hendrix type, replete with fright-wig, pirate blouse, and tapestry jacket. Changing clothes, at least in the seventies for Nicolas Roeg, was changing your persona.
Directed by Gordon Parks
Costumes by Joe Aulisi
While you might think a blaxploitation film would feature some of the more outrageous offerings of 1970s apparel, the impeccable gentlemen of Shaft don’t dress in groovy costume so much as employ the chic and aristocratic looks you’d associate with Dick Cavett and young BBC executives. Richard Roundtree is lustrously turned out in cashmere turtlenecks and leather trench coats. His enemies wear gorgeously cut 1940s-style gangster attire and the finest Italian suiting, with French cuffs and gold cufflinks. Virtually every outfit in Shaft, if worn today (even with the longer seventies hair length), could command attention in any room. Leave it to Gordon Parks to masterfully pair of-the-moment hipness with such timeless elegance, even in a potentially hazardous fashion year like 1971, when collars and pant-legs were allowed to grow to enormous sizes. Parks understood the enduring power of Italian leathers and superior wools.
Keaton at the Crossroads: Buster’s Last Silent Comedy, Spite Marriage
Despite the studio system’s stifling conditions, Buster Keaton’s follow-up to The Cameraman remains a testament to the funnyman’s singular style.
The Same Old Song: A Guide to Neonoir
Since its classic-Hollywood heyday, noir has remained a vibrant mode in both studio and independent filmmaking, taking on nostalgic resonances in the highly referential work of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Brian De Palma, and the Coen brothers.
Carole Lombard’s Divine Lunacy
A raucous, fast-talking diva, the actor had a remarkable ability to convey both glamour and silliness, a gift that made her the queen of screwball comedy before her untimely death in 1942.
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