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Bottoms up

The bells may have changed, but they’re here to stay


BY Lynn Cunningham
Photograph of Maja Majduk courtesy of Nada Yousif

1800 Sailors start donning homemade bell-bottoms, because, the theory goes, they are easy to roll up when swabbing decks or engaging in other messy work. Whatever the reason, the new pants eventually supplant the garment unappealingly called “sailor’s slops.”

1910 The Royal Canadian Navy is created, with two aging ships dismissed as “tinpots” and a force made up largely of Limeys, since Canadian recruits are scarce. Manpower is not the only thing Canada borrows from the British Navy. The uniform—dark blue middy and bellbottoms— is virtually the same, except for the cap tally, which is “HMCS” (His Majesty’s Canadian Ship) rather than “HMS.”

Late 1960s Bargain-hunting hippies scouting military surplus stores buy up decommissioned bell-bottoms, perhaps overlooking the irony of peace ’n’ love proponents wearing symbols of the hated military-industrial complex. The look becomes groovy, and other counterculture denizens fashion their own bell-bottoms by modifying their blue jeans to make them flare.

1970 Perhaps inspired by the zeitgeist, Eric Clapton pens “Bell Bottom Blues” (“Bell bottom blues, you made me cry / I don’t want to lose this feeling. / And if I could choose a place to die / It would be in your arms”). Bell-bottoms also make a cameo appearance twoand- a-half decades later in the rather less lyrical “TV Star” by the completely unlyrically named Butthole Surfers (“Seen her dancing on the Sunset Strip / Bell-bottomed jeans, and a-curvy hips”).

1970s The bell-bottom look is co-opted by the fashion industry and designers seem to have ingested too many recreational pharmaceuticals: multicoloured polyester bell-bottoms, dusty-rose gauze bell-bottoms, silver lurex lamé bellbottoms, paired with chunky platform shoes. This iteration of the fad earns it a place on the San Francisco Chronicle’s “11 things we’d rather forget” list, along with disco, the Osmonds and Richard Nixon.

1992 They’re back. Women’s Wear Daily reports from Milan that Gianni Versace “has gone bell-bottom berserk. They came out in every print, were layered over white lace or were attached to jumpsuits … [S]ome of them were wide enough to sweep up the dirty streets of New York.”

2002 Brandweek blames bells for Gap’s unprofitable 2001. “What hurt them … was deciding to offer only hiphugger bell-bottoms,” observes Candace Corlett, a consultant specializing in marketing to the 50-plus crowd. As the publication notes, these pants don’t appeal to boomers “once middle-age spread settles in.” 2007 The show by young Canadian designer Nada Yousif at Toronto’s fall Fashion Week includes high-waisted … bell-bottoms.

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