Bell-bottoms, pants with legs that become wider below the knee, were an extremely popular fashion during the 1960s and 1970s. The belled or flared legs on bell-bottom pants were originally a functional design, worn by those who worked on boats since the seventeenth century. The large legs allowed the pants to be easily rolled up out of the way for such messy jobs as washing the decks. In addition, if a sailor fell overboard, bell-bottom pants could be pulled off over boots or shoes and the wide legs inflated with air for use as a life preserver.
During the 1960s those who did not wish to conform to the strict, conservative clothing rules of the 1950s developed a new fashion. The clothing of this new fashion was inexpensive and extremely casual. Young people at the time rejected items from expensive clothing stores and shopped at secondhand stores and military surplus stores. Surplus navy bell-bottoms became one of the most popular items of dress. Wearing bits of old military uniforms had an added appeal for the largely antiwar counterculture youth of the late 1960s and early 1970s (those who were not in favor of the United States's involvement in the Vietnam War [1954–75]). Flowers embroidered on an old army jacket and colorful peace symbols applied to worn and faded navy bell-bottoms made a very personal antiwar statement. Bell-bottoms also fit in with the new unisex style, as both men and women wore them.
At first, viewing the new fashion as the dress of dangerous radicals, clothing manufacturers did not sell bell-bottoms. Those who could not find them at a local surplus store often made their straight leg jeans into fashionable bells by cutting the outside leg seam and sewing in a triangle of fabric to widen the leg. By the 1970s, however, designers had begun to market trendy bell-bottoms made out of a wide variety of materials. Entertainers from husband and wife team Sonny (1935–1998) and Cher (1946–) to singers James Brown (c. 1928–) and Pat Boone (1934–) wore "bells," which were often worn skin tight to the knee, then flared out in a wide, soft drape. Some pants were so wide that they were nicknamed "elephant bells."
Bell-bottoms, both wide and just slightly flared, made from denim, bright cotton, and satin polyester, were so popular that they became a symbol of the outlandish and colorful style of the 1970s, and when the decade ended many hoped that bell-bottoms were gone for good. Like many of the items of clothing strongly identified with the 1970s, bell-bottoms became a symbol of old-fashioned bad taste. However, the flared pants returned to style in the 1990s as part of a trend toward baggy clothing.
Dustan, Keith. Just Jeans: The Story 1970–1995. Kew, Victoria: Australian Scholarly Press, 1995.