From Sailors to Hippies and Beyond, the History of the Bell-Bottom

When we think of bell-bottoms, more than likely images of love beads, peace signs, leather jackets with fringe and love-ins come to mind. But did you know that bell-bottoms date back to the early 1800s when sailors in the Navy were given them as “standard issue” uniforms. There are conflicting reasons why sailor initially wore bell-bottoms. One theory is that they could double as a life preserver. Absent any reliable documentation, this seems like a reasonable explanation.

According to Wikipedia, Commodore Stephen Decatur wrote of the uniforms his sailors wore, “glazed canvas hats with stiff brims, decked with streamers of ribbon, blue jackets buttoned loosely over waistcoats and blue trousers with bell bottoms.” This statement dates back to 1813 and so we must assume that Navy personnel have been wearing them for something approaching 200 years.

Fast forward to the 1960s. Bell-bottoms were all-the-fashion craze for women in the United States and Europe. Expensive and chic, they seemed available only for the wealthiest of women.

This all changed when a rock group, led by lead singer and guitarist Eric Clapton, sported a pair of bell-bottoms on stage at a rock concert. Clothing designers realized the huge potential in manufacturing affordable bell-bottoms and so the bell-bottom as we know it was born. Suddenly, rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones, et al and fans alike began wearing the flared pant leg with everything from hippie tunics, to button-down shirts and complimenting the leather fringe vests that are still associated with the hippie counter culture.

Bell-bottoms continued to go in and out of style from the 1960s. As with anything fashionable, clothes make “come backs” and bell-bottoms are no different.

In the 1980s during the designer jean craze, bell-bottoms were re-introduced to consumers but this time with different names. Flared and boot-cut jeans boast an equally wide pant leg, and aren’t just for ranchers needing a pant to fit over his cowboy boots, as their name implies.

As with anything, bell-bottoms, boot-cut or whatever you wish to call them, will continue to fall in and out of favor with fashion-conscious jean wearers. One thing is for certain, they’re no longer exclusive or for the Sailors on the high seas.

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