The 1960s and 1970s were decades of real contrast in the West. While the global political situation was actually stabilized by the tensions of the Cold War (1945–91), both the United States and European countries experienced internal political turmoil, including assassinations of major political leaders, protests, and widespread movements for social change. Economies boomed across the West during the 1960s, but the citizens of these countries were not necessarily content with their widespread prosperity. Then, in the 1970s, economic growth stalled and people focused more on personal issues than political problems. Unfazed by these political and economic shifts, the United States continued as the world's greatest producer and consumer of entertainment. Musicians, movie stars, and television stars gained unusual influence in shaping popular culture.
Relations between countries were given real stability in the 1960s and 1970s by the ongoing conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. In this conflict, nations across the globe either allied themselves and their political and economic system with the capitalist United States, where people had the opportunity to seek out economic gain for themselves, or the Communist Soviet Union, where individuals could not own property, and the profits of everyone's labor were pooled and distributed by the government, which was controlled by the Communist Party. (A third option was neutrality, though few nations chose this path.) Western Europe and the Americas sided with the United States, while Eastern Europe, China, and parts of Asia followed the lead of the Soviet Union. Though there were very tense moments between the two sides—an American U2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, the Soviets placed missiles in Cuba in 1962, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979—for the most part the Cold War was a war of words and military buildup, with both nations committing vast amounts of money to building weapons instead of using them on each other.
Bloody conflicts did break out during this period, however. A civil war in the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam pitted the Communist northern part of the nation, backed by the Soviets and China, against the capitalist southern portion, backed by the French and later the United States. The Vietnam War (1954–75) devastated the country itself and also proved very costly for the United States and the Soviet Union, which provided money and soldiers. The war was very controversial in the United States. Many people felt that the United States shouldn't be so involved in another country's war. They staged mass protests that caused President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) not to run for re-election in 1968.
The protest against the Vietnam War was one of many protest movements that characterized political life in the West during the 1960s and 1970s. Two of the biggest movements were the Civil Rights movement and the Women's Liberation movement. The Civil Rights movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), Malcolm X (1925–1965), and a range of other activists, was a sustained effort to end racial discrimination in the United States. The movement, which staged bus boycotts and marches to force change, was active throughout the 1960s, and many of its goals were achieved by the time King was assassinated in 1968. Inspired by the struggle to gain civil rights for African Americans, the Women's Liberation movement was a loosely organized effort to secure equal rights for women. This international movement, which was most visible in the 1970s, helped improve women's prospects in the workplace and ended many laws that discriminated against women.
These movements and several others, including movements for homosexual rights and environmental awareness, shared one thing: the intense involvement of people in their teens and twenties. Young people became increasingly active politically across the West in the 1960s. They demanded that their voices be heard in political matters, and they began to exert a real influence on popular culture. Nowhere was the influence of youth felt more than in the area of fashion and clothing. Beginning in the 1960s, young people began to reject the clothes offered to them by the fashion industry and to invent new clothing styles of their own. From the mods and the rockers of early 1960s London, England, to the hippie dropouts of the United States in the late 1960s, to the punks and disco dancers of the 1970s, young people defined the styles that were then taken up throughout the world. Similar kinds of youth influence were felt in the areas of music, television, and film, as rock bands, actors, and actresses were lifted to celebrity status thanks to the support of young people.
Young people were somewhat troubled by a growing phenomenon in Western cultures: the growth of consumerism, which meant that people had enough money to allow them to produce a range of goods beyond the bare necessities. Western countries in general, and the United States in particular, enjoyed immense prosperity during the 1960s. People had more disposable income (income that was not needed for food and shelter) than ever before in history, and they used that money to buy televisions, automobiles, clothes, and other consumer items. Corporations became very skilled at mass-producing items for sale around the world. Even when economies declined in the 1970s, consumerism remained a major force in the West.
Young people worried that the great wealth produced in the West could be better spent on combating issues such as poverty and crime. They didn't want to purchase just for the sake of purchasing. They wanted the things they bought and wore to reflect their values and ideals. Companies, including clothing companies, constantly sought to change their products in order to satisfy the desires of these consumers. In fashion this shifting consumer demand, rather than the creations of designers, drove what was offered. The most successful designers learned to give the people what they wanted, which during the 1960s and 1970s was variety and comfort.
Most of the major social and political changes of this period had an effect on the fashions people wore. People throughout the West were becoming more aware of the need to respect different cultural traditions and to allow for individual differences. In the 1960s this led to fads favoring the fashions of Native Americans, African Americans, and other cultures of the world. By the 1970s tastes in clothing had become even more individualized. It was said that people could wear anything they wanted—and did. Women especially were tired of having fashions dictated to them, and they chose clothes that were comfortable and liberating. This focus on individual tastes and expression helped earn the 1970s the nickname the "Me Decade."
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