I’m working on a follow-up/round-up post after that last one, but in the meantime …
I made me some hot pants!
photo (c) Caro Sheridan
pattern: Cheeky Hot Pants, by Marnie MacLean, from Knitting It Old School
yarn: worsted wool scraps
In the winter of 1971, hot pants (in the words of the B-52s) exploded. They covered the catwalks in Paris and Rome, and were snatched off the racks by shoppers throughout Europe and North America. The term “hot pants” was added to several English language dictionaries, James Brown wrote a musical homage to the garment, and bartenders around the U.S. mixed Hot Pants cocktails (recipe below). The hot pants explosion was so huge, so widespread, that it was, for a brief few months in early 1971, socially acceptable for middle-class women to wear them to the office, to weddings, and basically every other damn place you can think of. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore them yachting.
Hot pants have become an iconic Seventies garment in American popular memory and, in many ways, they do represent a particular convergence of social, cultural, and technological developments specific to the early 1970s U.S. Here are a few of the stars that aligned to make the hot pants explosion possible:
First, polyester changed the world. New fabric and textile technologies produced more flexible materials that could be made into form-fitting clothing that didn’t restrict mobility the way woven cotton or wool did. You could DANCE in hot pants. (Although, as many of us can attest from personal experience, polyester doesn’t necessarily provide a great climate of, er, “breathability” down there.) Polyester also provided new options for fiber crafters in the form of acrylic yarns, and countless yards of acrylic yarn were knitted and crocheted into beloved hot pants (the inspiration for Marnie’s Cheeky pattern).
Second, hot pants catered to and promoted new standards for what women’s bodies should look like. White aspirational figures like models and actresses and Miss America (who was a way more significant part of American culture then than she is now) became increasingly thin throughout the 1960s and 70s, even as the average American woman got larger. In the late 60s and early 70s, women in the U.S. started “dieting” in new ways (in fact, widespread use of the verb “to diet” and the phrase “on a diet” can be traced back to this era). Amphetamine diet pills wouldn’t be outlawed until 1979, and as they increased in popularity they were joined on the shelves by a wave of sugar-free sodas, as beverage companies developed low and no-calorie sweeteners that were less bitter than saccharine. Diet Rite (1958) was joined by Fresca (1967), sugar-free 7-Up (1970), and Tab (1963). Between 1970 and 1978, the number of articles about “dieting” in women’s magazines doubled those published in the 60s.
While the U.S. has a long history of affluent and middle-class women “watching their figures,” the dieting of the 1970s was something new — a new culture of starvation that led to a shocking number of diet-pill deaths, and that has continued to harm American girls and women in the years since. There’s no way to pin down this matrix of fashion/diet/culture in causal terms — it’s more like a confluence of mutually-reinforcing factors: celebrity women became thinner; the rest of us got bigger; body-revealing clothing like mini-skirts and hot pants came into fashion; and technological changes and new marketing strategies produced new diet cultures, in conjunction with an upsurge of diet-talk in advertisements, magazines, and “self-help” books. When hot pants fell out of favor in the summer of 71, only months after they first took the world by storm, some fashion writers speculated that their disappearance was due to the fact that their revealing shape “didn’t work” with “real” women’s bodies.
Third, and perhaps most importantly for the meanings that have continued to dog the hot pant, the so-called “sexual revolution” shifted certain norms for what kinds of sexual behavior were socially acceptable for white, middle-class women. For instance, young white women could display more of their bodies without (necessarily) being seen as sexually pathological, neurotic, “loose,” or in need of institutionalization or discipline. Women of color and many poor white women were always already seen as one or more of those things, so the “sexual revolution” affected women differently depending on their position within a system of sexualized racism — more on what this has to do with hot pants to follow.
Hot pants in 1971 were often a replacement for the mini skirt, which had been hugely popular in the mid-late 1960s. Compared to the mini, hot pants offered somewhat more coverage, and certainly more mobility — girls described how, for instance, hot pants allowed them to go up and down stairs at school without anyone seeing their undies. (Designer Mary Quant is often credited with inventing and/or popularizing both the mini skirt and hot pants, and she viewed both garments as offering increased mobility compared to earlier feminine fashions; women could, she explained, safely run for a bus in a mini skirt.)
As plenty of feminists pointed out at the time, however, the cultural and social changes that allowed a greater degree of heterosexual expression for some women were also a prescription that regulated and judged what kinds of heterosexual practices, behaviors, and desires were seen as healthy, sexy, and fashionable — so the same changes that said girls and women COULD expose more skin were accompanied by a demand that youthful feminine fashions MUST expose more skin, ushering in new norms for young women’s dress. So feminists, as you might imagine, had a complicated relationship to hot pants. On one hand, the suggestion that women should eschew body-revealing clothing, to avoid being accused of “sluttiness,” or to “protect” against rape, has long been a strategy for (1) regulating women’s sexual expression, and (2) blaming women for their own experiences of rape and sexual assault. On the other hand, feminists had — and continue to have — an investment in critiquing the ways in which women’s bodies have often been objectified and controlled through clothing and fashion.
Hot pants were a transnational phenomenon. They were first shown at fashion shows in Paris and Rome, then celebrated in the U.S. as a more revealing alternative to the new mid-calf-length “midi” skirt that had briefly come into fashion after the mini. LIFE and Newsweek magazines, for instance, saw the Midi skirt as an attack on American freedoms by French haute couture. They mourned the covering up of women’s bodies under the Midi skirt, and celebrated the hot pant as American women’s liberated response to its dowdiness (never mind that hot pants were also French). Beyond the U.S., hot pants were seen all over what fashion editors called “civilized urban centers” — large cities in wealthy countries in the global north.
Hot pants were also exported outside of the U.S. and Europe, through migration, global markets, and military occupation. U.S. soldiers in Southeast Asia during the American war in Vietnam wanted to see the new hot pants on strippers, cocktail waitresses, and other service and sex workers who provided services to American military. In Kenya and Malawi, hot pants were embraced by many urban young women, but seen by male political leaders as a sign of Western cultural imperialism that was causing moral decay; Kenya’s vice president Moi sounded a bit like American fashion writers when he described hot pants as an “undesirable and unbecoming kind of grotesque dress.”
By the summer of 71, hot pants had fallen out of couture favor, but they continued to have a life “on the street,” particularly within emerging cultures of Disco. Disco was terrifying for the burgeoning white Christian conservative movement in the U.S., which saw disco culture as a sinful site of queer sexual transgression, race-mixing, recreational drug use, and general anarchy (which, yep! it totally was, especially before it became a mainstream genre in the music industry). So the tight, skimpy hot pant was a good fit for the growing Disco scene, which kept it going until hot pants became a disco icon as well as a symbol of the 70s. Craft industries also continued to hang on to hot pants for a few years after they’d disappeared from couture runways: dozens of patterns for sewing, knitting, and crocheting hotpants were published well into the 70s.
After the early 1970s, hot pants continued to be associated with disco, but also with other non-normative sexual cultures and practices, especially prostitution. Hot pants’ association with disco and hookers meant that they became a racialized sign of deviant feminine sexuality, no longer considered proper within the terms of respectable white middle class heterofemininity. In 1975, a New York Times article about teen prostitution described runaway girls on street corners wearing hot pants. The following year gave us Jodie Foster’s Iris in Taxi Driver — a child prostitute who famously wears hot pants as a sign of her loss of girlish innocence. Some fashion historians have speculated that it’s this association with sex work — and not deference to the sartorial desires of “real” women and their bodies — that accounts for the short life span of the hot pant. Meanwhile, longer skirts and pantsuits took over runways and department stores.
Today, I have a surprising number of friends who regularly wear hot pants. Some are strippers, one is a Hooters waitress, and several are roller derby athletes. These are women who work and play in arenas where their bodies are certainly objectified, but who also see their bodies and their hot pants as sites of empowerment and pleasure. And who am I to disagree?
I think of my hot pants as an homage to those friends, but also to that brief moment in late 1971 when hot pants fashion, no longer popular on the runways, continued to thrive among women who lived on the margins of mainstream fashion culture — a cross-cultural phenomenon that, for that moment, connected knitters, disco dancers, strippers, and streetwalkers.
hot pants at Rhinebeck - photo (c) Mary-Heather Cogar
HOT PANTS COCKTAIL:
2 oz tequila
3/4 oz peppermint schnapps
1 tsp grenadine
1 tsp simple syrup
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
Fill a cocktail shaker 1/2 full with ice. Pour in tequila, peppermint schnapps, grenadine, simple syrup, and grapefruit juice. Give it a good shake, and strain into an old-fashioned glass 3/4 full of ice.
- “Hot Pants: A Short But Happy Career.” LIFE Magazine, Dec 31, 1971
- Samantha Bleikorn, The Mini Mod Sixties Book
- Susannah Handley, Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution
- Thomas Hine, The Great Funk
- Frank W. Hoffmann and William G. Bailey, Fashion & Merchandising Fads
- Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh, Girl Culture
- I. Willis Russell, ”Among the New Words.” American Speech Vol. 46, No. 1/2 (Spring - Summer, 1971), pp. 142-147
- Valerie Steele, “Anti-Fashion: The 1970s” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, Volume 1, Number 3, August 1997 , pp. 279-296.
- Valerie Steele, Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now
- Audrey Wipper, “African Women, Fashion, and Scapegoating.” Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 329-349
- Amy Zavatto, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending