Fashion Archives: The History Of The Flare – The Hippie Shake
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Fashion Archives: The History Of The Flare

19 Feb 2023

Words by Millen Brown-Ewens

Widely considered a wardrobe staple for sartorialists and the chronically nostalgic, we’d argue that flares won’t be falling out of favour any time soon. Revered for their statement quality and comfortable fit, since the mid-60s they’ve injected a sense of fun and frivolity into everyday wear.

The nonconformist distinction of 1960s and 70s fashion and its many states of revival since have often led us to miscredit the origin of flared trousers to the free-thinking and free-loving hippies of the 60s. Few would suspect their nautical beginnings some 150 years prior…

Not unlike some of our most beloved items today, flares emerged out of practical necessity. History records the first iteration of ‘bell-bottoms’ during the War of 1812 fought by the United Kingdom and USA. Straight, wide-leg trousers made from cotton fibres were unofficially adopted as uniform by American sailors. Naval officer Stephen Decatur noted in 1813, that mariners were wearing “glazed canvas hats with stiff brims, decked with streamers of ribbon, blue jackets buttoned loosely over waistcoats and blue trousers with bell bottoms.”

Wide legged trousers would have had several benefits to the 19th century seafarer. They could be rolled above the knee, allowing the wearer to work in bare feet on a flooded deck and the excess material was a real hand for grabbing any sailor that fell overboard. Their spaciousness also aided a survival technique whereby the men are required to remove their trousers while floating, tie the leg bottoms into a knot or round their boots and inflate the trousers with air to use as a floating device. The style was later adopted by the British Royal Navy, who integrated them into their official uniform around the mid-19th century. If you’re thinking of heading ashore yourself, we’d strongly recommend that you just take a little floatie rather than ravaging a good pair of flares.

Aside from a brief experimentation by Coco Chanel with her wide leg sporty ‘yacht pants’ or ‘beach pyjamas’ in the 1920s, for many years, this style of trouser was confined to naval ranks. However, this would all change in the 1960s when thousands of American sailors took to the streets in anti-war protest, refusing Vietnam duty and sabotaging navy vessels in movements like ‘Stop Our Ships (SOS)’. The impressionable youth of the era, disillusioned with structures of authority and horrified at what were perceived to be unnecessary casualties in the Vietnam War, warmed to the sailors flare as a symbol of rebellion. Throughout the decade, children of the ‘counterculture’, otherwise referred to as hippies, customised their denim flares by cutting open the seam and inserting contrasting fabrics to enhance the drama of the style as well as embroidering flowers and peace signs onto the back pockets.   

Music ignited the global ascendancy of flared trousers, taking them from the streets of America to the catwalks of Paris and beyond. The likes of Sonny Bono and Cher, with their TV show ‘The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour’ and soul singer and galvanic performer James Brown elevated the style to new heights, embellishing them with the glitz and glamour that would perpetually align them with funk, soul and disco. This carried through into the 70s, where they peaked in popularity, finding favour with glam rockers, rock and rollers and even some skinheads. Members of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles were often snapped with their beaus in matching ensembles that featured the trusty bell bottom in cotton, satin, leather and suede. Some wore trousers so wide they were referred to as ‘elephant bells’. Bands from Slade to Abba as well as characters such as Roger Moore’s James Bond opted for the flare, democratising their influence, and positioning them as everyday wear. 

But as the capricious nature of fashion would have it, they were soon on the decline, ousted by the supposedly anti-fashion fashion of the punks that emerged from the UK in the second half of the decade. They preferred the straight leg drainpipes jeans of the 1950s Teddy Boy, sneered at ‘lazy’ hippies in their trousers unfit for chaos and were hellbent on the demolition of disco. A new sound wave, led by the Ramones and London’s Sex Pistols simultaneously ushered in an entirely new perception of fashion in youth culture. 

While the trousers would stick around for a little while longer, particularly with very young children, by the 1980s they had been mostly erased, relegated to the occasional womans suit and replaced by paper bag waists, figure hugging leggings and straight leg denim such as Levi’s eminent 501s. 

The 1990s would see them make a comeback but in less dramatic proportions. ‘Soft dressing’ was in and maximalism was out. The look consisted of stripped back, tonal clothing borrowing from elements of bohemianism and the glam rock of 25 years earlier. The ‘boot cut’, as the iteration came to be known, was a flattering slim fit jean with a subtle flare starting below the knee that became a popular component of this look, favoured by designers like Chanel and Versace. 

From the 70s onwards, the flare often couldn’t unshackle itself from the hippies and the caricatures that had been made of them. Even when they remerged on the shelves of high street stores around 2018, a strong majority perceived them as too retro or cartoonish. For some of us, that didn’t seem to matter. 

Today, we’d speculate that a good 70% of women between the ages of 16 and 30 own at least one pair of flared trousers. A somewhat unfounded but relatively reasonable prediction. They’re now considered a sophisticated and flattering denim option taking us from day to night and can be jazzed up with a ruffle blouse or paired down with a tank top or tee. They’ve been on a rollercoaster of a ride but for us, they are here to stay.

Written by Millen Brown-Ewens 

Instagram @millenlouisa

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