The year 1971 was the year of "anything goes" and nostalgia. The first half of the year was marked by street fashion, or nostalgie de la boue—literally, love of the mud: the phrase referred to a form of social climbing in Edwardian England, in which the upper classes aped the manners and dress of the lower classes. Nostalgic, de la boue took over the haute couture and most of the bas couture in America. A wave of blue denim hit all forms of American design: tie dyes were the rage in the United States, whereas the French haute couture hovered over blue denim, the blazer, and the tiny, figurative prints of ready-to-wear designer Karl Lagerfeld. It was permissible to be rich, but to look rich was definitely out.
Spring showed Seventh Avenue and its customers that the midi was finis and that most skirts could be expected to stop right below the knee for day or just above the ankles at night. In some of the most contemporary clothes of the season. Robert David Morton did a maillot topped slink of bias-cut scarlet jersey that stopped just short of a pair of scarlet satin, ankle-strap evening shoes. A few other smashing contemporary clothes for spring included Chester Now's open-bodiced, red-cotton day dress, which laced up the front and featured a lovely bias swing to the short skirt.
By now only the haute couture in America had managed to avoid having a boutique, or lower-priced, line. Even so, American women, caught in the crunch of a declining economy and rising prices, had returned to their sewing machines, often with impressive results. One never knew whether a friend was wearing a Chester Now or a Chez Moi.
Some of the handsomest contemporary clothes were done by Oscar de la Renta and Victor Joris. The Oscar de la Renta Boutique did a scoop-necked, black, Qiana nylon evening dress, full-sleeved and with a skirt slit higher than any mini had dared go, and the whole thing was wash and wear. Victor Joris for V & J Design did his own version of the unbuttoned little black dress that traveled all the way down to the ground; of black matte jersey, it was belted in patent leather and buttoned down from a normal neck to a swinging skirt.
Daytime clothes seemed to be causing both designers and consumers trouble. Either one wore the same old micro-mini (if it was Jasco silk jersey, sashed, and long-sleeved, it was by Halston) or any one of several variations on the shirtdress theme, also too micro-mini to be good, like Anne Klein's linen-blend micro of beige ribbing with a corselet belt so tall it needed a maxi to be in good proportion. Or there was Bonnie Cashin's perennial leather-trimmed uniform. Or, for late day, one did up one of the fake '40's dresses by Yves St. Laurent in nice fabrics and familiar shapes of the past: slightly broadened shoulders, wide belts, flowing Carole Lombard sleeves caught in tightly at the wrists, and mini skirts that were just all wrong for these clothes.
Or there was the pants-suit route, and hadn't women had enough of that? Admittedly, there was an occasional appealing jumpsuit, like Jacques Tiffeau's in brown Trevira, covered with an utterly inappropriate, dazzlingly beautiful, ecru-embroidered, full-length transparency—all for only $525!
Such price tags sent many chic dressers back to their sewing machines and their thrift shops. It was at this point, early in the spring, that several fashion houses of great repute, such as Iris, just quietly died. As Newsweek put it in a long article on fashion in its March 29 issue, "Most of the Fashion Establishment dislikes the new fad (hot pants, which were a `street creation') and in fine irony has been dragged into selling it against its will. `We prefer not to make hotpants, but we don't have any choice,' says Abe Schrader, a Seventh Avenue garmentmaker. `We don't control the ladies. They control us now.' "
Back the pendulum swung to more sensible clothes, such as Originala's zip-closed jacket over a dress of the same beige wool for $495. And for the not-so-silent majority who could not afford suits for $495, back sprang American technology and brio with the lifesaver of the year, the body stocking, which covered one's body from shoulders to toes, or the body suit, which covered just what it said it did but fitted superbly and clung like one's own skin. Most of these wonders came in solid colors, but a few, notably Giorgio DiSantangelo's, were printed. The basic body stocking usually cost about $I5 and combined sweater, tights, and underwear. A body suit cost $9, plus another $3 for matching panty hose. Made of polyester or its sisters, they turned suits or pants suits into many-splendored things because they came in different characters as well as colors: sportif, seductive, or lacy, according to one's fancy. They also washed with ease, dried overnight, and weighed nothing.
With midsummer, real nostalgia set in, partly as a carryover from the real Victorian antiques worn by the young in London, partly as the result of the indescribably beautiful costumes, sets, and ambience of the motion picture Death in Venice, which inspired Bill Blass to create some ravishing, updated clothes in his collection of the same name. One of its most beautiful dresses, and one of the most beautiful dresses of the year, was a black, double-silk organza ball dress with enormous puff sleeves. An all-season ball dress, its was perhaps the best dress Blass had ever done.
Fresh on the heels of this dress came more nostalgia: several long, white dresses by Jax, composed of muslin, tucks, eyelet, lace, and ruffles, looking like nothing so much as an Edwardian garden-party costume.
Following the white summer costumes came what the fashion business desperately dubbed the "return to the classics". Here were the clothes of the 1930's and '40's—the "Late Late Show" clothes—updated, but not enough. Admittedly, pleated skirts and blazers have always been a form of uniform, but not menswear plaid suits with neckties and men's bowlers. Nor were Spanish stiff-brimmed riding hats, plus fours, or giant plaid blankets that were great on beds but terrible on people. Nevertheless, many of these fashions were taken up by the fashion press and touted as classics, when in truth there were some beautiful, simple, quietly designed clothes that probably would become classics, such as Adele Simpson's double-faced gray-wool coat over a matching skirt, the coat lined in beige and the beige echoed in a beige sweatery top. And there were superb capes from all over. Capes had al-ways been good fashion and good to wear, but in 1971 one was glad to find anything that had always been good that one could both wear and afford. There was also some great contemporary tailoring from John Anthony, a young designer with enormous promise.
In Paris, St. Laurent came up with Long Johns ("a special costume look for special figures, for dancers") that were splendid on long, lean bodies; these were matched in the United States by Rudi Gernreich's long stretches of ribbing, a long tunic over lean pants. St. Laurent's fall collection was his most outrageous to date, and much of it had great panache. Some of the clothes reverted to the 1940's, particularly the daytime clothes; these included wide-shouldered coats and jackets, inset waistbands with gathers beneath them; and platformed, ankle-strapped shoes. For evening, his Proustian taffeta dresses (knee- or floor-length), larded with ruffles and bustles, were romantic and often ridiculous. But his velvet artist's smock, worn with gray flannel pants for day and black wool ones for evening seemed prophetic, as did his Chinese black quilted-satin jackets with broadened shoulders.
Marc Bohan, on the other hand, had given up the '40's and was clinging to the '50's. Daytime coats were small-shouldered, Empire-bosomed, and then flared, underlined by seams in the right places. Princess dresses with the same artful seams lay under them. These daytime clothes, very Establishment after two years of street fashion in Paris, were only a prelude to Bohan's enchanting evening dresses. These were conventional, noncontemporary, and utterly beautiful, like a pencil-slim georgette with a ruffle that started above the knees and went to the floor, with flurries of smaller ruffles wafting up around the neck and down the back like a feather boa. These gowns were all black, as were most of the best clothes of the French haute couture.
Back in America, clothes were more contemporary. What seemed unusual and exciting now was the body dress, in polyester wool or—most popular for evening—matte jersey. Jax did the best jersey evening dress, so simple it looked and fitted like a sweater—but such a sweater! Zipped down the back from a rounded plain neck, it was elegant and understated at the same time. Although it fitted like skin, two layers of jersey in the body of the dress kept it ladylike. The popularity of this dress, together with the body suit, soft bras, and no girdles, pointed to greater emphasis on greater bodies. This was further confirmed by the continuation of bralessness and by transparent clothes such as St. Laurent's polka-dotted chiffon tops and blowy deep-blue evening dresses, and Oscar de la Renta's gray-chiffon evening dress. The Bill Blass black-organza ball dress described earlier was translucent, if not transparent.
Body-consciousness had always been with us, but now it was showing up in several different ways; in elegant transparencies; in soft little knits thinner than anything ever knitted before except a stocking, from the French pret-a-porter or the tuned-in American designers like John Kloss and Betsey Johnson.
French pret-a-porter had been calling many of the shots for about three years—it was, after all, the basis of street fashion. In 1971 Francesca for Damon did the prettiest daytime-into-evening knit of purple wool, but wool so fine that it might have come from silkworms, in a dress that could be cupped in one small hand. There were several of these small, inexpensive knits from the U.S., France, and Italy, and they went right on into evening under more romantic coats than had been seen lately—throwbacks such as Inverness capes (an unlined beige tweed one by Vic-tor Joris for V & J Design) or wrap coats as easy as bathrobes but prettier, especially when befurred—like Oscar de la Renta's thickly ribbed gray jersey deep in a collar of silver fox, or Adele Simpson's camel-colored wrap coat with deep cuffs and a deeper collar of red fox.
American evening clothes were either covered, snaky, and sinuous, or bare, snaky, and sinuous. There were also sleek dinner suits like Bill Blass's python-printed panne velvet with a fairly transparent python-printed, shimmery chiffon top; and Trigere's floor-length evening suit, with the simplest sort of sleeveless, square-necked, gray-worsted flannel dress under an Empire-waisted, narrow-sleeved jacket that flared below the bosom. These were contemporary, yet unusual by reason of fabric.
Finally, there was leather, like the suede shirt. or a natural chamois tunic over matching chamois pants (by Anne Klein), or a late-day maxi-coat of dark-green suede, hooded, cuffed, and hemmed in sable-dyed fox over matching green suede shorts. Shorts? Yes, shorts.
Most fur coats were definitely out of fashion. not only for ecological reasons but because of that same old nostalgie de la boue: it made people look too rich to have a whole fur coat. so they compromised, using a fox boa, or just a little ring of fox at the neck, or a fox muff, and bought fake furs for economical as well as ecological reasons. Superb fakes were available for $245, for which one got a fake black seal late-day coat, ruffled, cuffed, and hemmed in real Spanish lamb. There was a fake black broadtail blazer and wrap skirt designed by Calvin Klein for $130. Or there was the fluffy gray fake that could have been anything from fox to chinchilla but was actually a blend of synthetics and was designed by La Flaque of Paris for $145.
The year also saw a return to the black velvet dress, one of the great beauty treatments of all time. Some, like Larry Aldrich's dress, were short. full-sleeved, and slit from collarbone down to just above the waist; some, like Donald Brooks' medieval triumph, were long and slim with a deep U neck and enormous leg-o-mutton sleeves. Or there was an evening dress, also scoop-necked and full-sleeved, with a vaguely Empire shape and wide black-satin ribbons lacing it together at the top, by Don Breitigger for Harold Levine. Mostly, there was the return of black—black for day, black for night, bare black, or covered black like Sarmi's crepe cover-up, which revealed almost all of you when you moved. All these blacks looked their best with black tights and black satin ankle-strap shoes.
Shoes were where nostalgie de la boue hit and missed. Out came the freak shoes, the ugliest shoes ever seen, the circus shoes, such as wedgies 12 inches tall, sneaker wedgies 14 inches high. de Sade boots with neither reason nor rhyme.
Make-up was more colorful than in a number of years. Under no eyebrows or very thin ones was the face of the painted doll, the face of Mary Poppins. Hair was pulled back very smooth and tight into tiny chignons; under it, those nonexistent eyebrows were boldly outlined; below them, there were flushes of unreal color and red, red lipstick. Suddenly, the pale, no-mouth look seemed colorless and passť.
And that's how things stood in 1971. A new, spare look was coming about: the pure and cool look, it could have been called, and it came on very strong, very sexy, very stripped-down, and ready to go.
Choose your vintage fashion year below
How hemlines changed and the maxi vs the mini