Disco is both a genre of music and a subculture that emerged in New York and Philadelphia in the 1970s amongst African-Americans, Hispanic American, Italian-Americans and the gay community as a reaction to the dominance of rock music. Well known disco artists emerged in America and Europe such as the Bee Gees, ABBA, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor. By the late 70s, most US cities had thriving disco scenes with Studio 54 in Manhattan becoming a hotspot for celebrities and the scene itself heavily associated with drug taking and sexual promiscuity.
Extravagant and glamorous disco fashion went along with the scene and it is typified by either loose flowing pants and dresses for ease of movement or sexy tight pants (disco pants), hot pants, spandex catsuits and skimpy halter tops. Halston and Diane von Furstenburg dresses were a feature of disco club nights for those that could afford it. Men wore shiny ‘Qiana’ nylon shirts with extra wide collars open at the chest, three piece suits and bell bottom leisure suits that hugged the behind. Glitter, sequins and lamé were all popular in order to catch the lights at the club. Platform shoes and boots were also staples.
Films such as Saturday Night Fever and Thank God It’s Friday contributed to disco’s mainstream popularity.
By 1980, its relevance was decreasing as anti-disco sentiment had taken hold. The infamous Disco Demolition Night at a baseball game in Chicago the Summer of 1979 played a role in stamping out disco in mainstream culture. Disco records were blown up on the field by shock jock Steve Dahl and riots ensued causing damage to the field.
However, it remained popular in some European countries such as Italy and gained popularity in the Middle East and India where it was mixed with elements of folk music.
The world famous Studio 54 was a disco club (now a Broadway theatre) on West 54th Street in midtown Manhattan that opened in 1977. It was noted for its celebrity guest lists with its popularity growing rapidly after a picture of Bianca Jagger riding a white horse at the club was circulated.
However, it was extremely exclusive and hard to get into. One desperate guest tried to gain access through the ventilation system and tragically died after getting stuck. The band Chic wrote the song “Le Freak" in 1978 after being refused entry to the club on New Year's Eve 1977, despite having been invited by Grace Jones.
The Washington Post wrote in November 1977 that the club attracted "a mix of punks, hairdressers, socialites, and suburbanites”. Andy Warhol, a regular guest of Studio 54, said the club was "a dictatorship on the door but a democracy on the dance floor". Studio 54 enforced a photography ban to protect guests' privacy, but some images were still published, including a widely circulated image of Canadian first lady Margaret Trudeau without her underwear. Rampant drug use and open sexual activity was common place at the club.
Other notable patrons included David Bowie, Truman Capote, Cher, Debbie Harry, Margaux Hemingway, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Jackie Kennedy, John Travolta and Diana Vreeland. Fashion designers also became heavily associated with club. Among the most prominent were Norma Kamali, Halston, Diane von Furstenberg, Stephen Burrows, Calvin Klein, Giorgio di Sant‘ Angelo, Elsa Peretti and Stephen Sprouse, who worked, at the time, for Halston.
Studio 54 “elevated designers to that celebrity status,” said Kamali. “It created a platform for them to be celebrities.”
Kamali was living with club owner Ian Schrager at the time. She didn’t frequent the club but she created the iconic gold lamé costume for Grace Jones’ performance there at the behest of Schrager.
For Kamali and the favoured designers of the moment, Studio 54 was a runway for their creations to reach the public’s eyes. “I was doing Lycra, shine, body suits – clothes that people could dance in,” said Kamali. “A lot of people were wearing my clothes.”
Her sleeping bag coats had their first go-round with fame, when the doormen who had to stand outside by the velvet ropes for hours in the cold started wearing them to keep warm.
“I used to use Jerry Hall,” explained Stephen Burrows, “and she suggested to Mick (Jagger) that he come to me. I got to do some tie-dye tops for him.”
Models loved donning Burrows’ clothes in body-revealing jersey, plunging necklines, and bright colours, in the hopes of getting past the dreaded ropes.
It closed after only 3 years due to license issues and tax evasion by the owners. Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross sang at the final party held at the club.
The next season of American Crime Story will focus on Studio 54.
Several venues have been likened to Studio 54 including the Fiorucci shop formerly located on East 59th Street which became known in the late 1970s as the "daytime Studio 54”.
In the 1970s, a new jean entered the market - Designer Jeans. What was once a working class garment, adopted by hippies and the anti-establishment crowd, was now a fashion craze for the upper class. Jeans were no longer baggy, patchworked and worn out, they were “painted on” and infused with sex appeal.
The trend was born out of Europe, where designers like Fiorucci and Girbaud began innovating the look of jeans in the mid 60s. In “The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night" by Anthony Haden-Guest, it’s written that Calvin Klein said a man came up to him at 4 am in Studio 54 and said "Have you ever considered designing jeans, blue jeans?” Calvin Klein was the first American designer to launch his own pair of designer jeans, which were sold for $50 a pair at Bloomingdale’s in 1976. They didn’t do well, however the following year he was tapped by the CEO of Puritan Fashions to create another pair of jeans. They were more successful and sold for $35 a pair, selling 200,000 units in the first week.
Gloria Vanderbilt made her first jean line in 1976, holding her fashion show at Studio 54. Her line did tremendously well so others began following suit.
Norma Kamali designed a line of denim, licensed by Studio 54 to 70s brand Landlubber. The back pockets featured stitching of the Studio 54 logo and they were, of course, tight! They were made for both men and women, and there were two different ads that ran in different publications, although New York Magazine would not publish the woman’s version. The ads were created by Peter Rogers, who came up with the tagline “Now everybody can get into Studio 54” and the jeans took off until Studio 54 was shut down.
Pat Cleveland dancing in her 54 jeans:
Jordache was launched earlier than the rest, in 1969, by four brothers, who opened a denim store in NYC. The storefront was successful, however a fire destroyed their inventory in 1977 and they used their insurance money to manufacture their own jeans while also creating a massive ad campaign for the “Jordache look”. Their jeans had a signature fit that was very tight. In 1978, they produced form-fitting denim for both men and women, with their iconic horse-head logo and back-pocket stitching. The commercials featured a woman dancing at the disco.
Jeans became disco friendly attire. Cher dancing at Studio 54 wearing a rolled up pair:
Some 1970s jeans from our rentals collection:
Two pairs of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and a pair of Jordache jeans from the 70s aisle of our rentals collection. Those swan and stallion logos are everything!
Saturday Night Fever was released in 1977 starring John Travolta as a young Italian-American man who spends his weekends dancing and drinking at discotheques. It was a huge commercial success and had a big impact on the popular culture of the late 70s around the world. It made Travolta a household name and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Prior to the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, SNF was the best selling album in music history with hit songs by the Bee Gees and other artists.
The film is one one of the most stylish films of the 70s! Travolta’s 3 piece flared trouser suit is particularly iconic. He ironically spends most of the movie wearing black leather and bold colour shirts, seemingly to fit in with his friends and look tough. However when he goes out at night, he switches to much softer styles letting his dancing do all the talking.
Film critic Gene Sickle bought the suit at auction for $2,000 a year after the movie’s release. He went on to sell it at auction himself in 1995 for $145,000 and it didn’t show up again until the V&A Hollywood Costume exhibit in 2012. It went up for auction again this past April and fetched $260,000.
The costume designer on the movie was Patrizia Von Brandenstein and she purchased all of the movie’s costumes off the rack. The white polyester suit was bought at a men’s clothing store called ‘The Leading Male’ in Brooklyn where the film is set. The shirt (made by Pascal of Spain) was actually buttoned to the waistband of the trousers in order for Travolta to strike his legendary poses without becoming unkept!
One of the most iconic costumes in the history of cinema!
Thank God It’s Friday is another disco craze movie, released a year later in 1978, starring the queen of disco Donna Summer. The film was critically panned but produced a killer song- Summers’ ‘Last Dance’ which won the Academy Award for best original song. Summer was the embodiment of 70s disco glamour.