Disco Dressing, Then and Now
What is the eternal appeal of disco? With a new documentary released on Studio 54 a few months ago and disco looks continually reappearing on the catwalk, it appears that late-70s nightlife has a relevance far reaching past its original dance floors. Drawing on the “anything goes” countercultural moment of the late 1960s, disco was the brash, drug-and-fun fueled outgrowth of the stresses of the early 1970s recession mixed with changing societal mores due to civil rights, gay rights, and the women’s liberation movement. The clothes too were a performative blend of sex, music, glamour, drugs and, at first, often archly personal style. Coming up from the streets (or, more so, the dance floor) disco clothes had a direct impact on high fashion as many designers took to frequenting these clubs themselves, and the hedonistic lifestyle and movement-oriented garments began to clearly influence their collections.
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Nightclubs in the 1960s were known for either being high-end, ultra-exclusive establishments for the jet set or youthquake-cum-psychedelic places for the anti-establishment, with very little overlap between the two. Their peak seemed to be over by the early 1970s with WWD even declaring in 1972, “It’s unlikely we’ll again see another race of glittering nightcrawlers in our time.” With rock music dominating the scene and dance music heavily stigmatized, disco music began to evolve among the counterculture out of a number of different musical sub-genres; by 1974 disco made its first foray into the hit parade and nightclubs across the country opened to play these new sounds. Disco’s first diva, Gloria Gaynor, performed her hits on network TV in 1975 clad in slinky sequin-covered halter dresses and matching sheer jackets—defining disco glamour in a single look. Anything that sparkled under the disco lights, from sequins to rhinestones to sprinkles of glitter, became an integral part of the new dance mood. One only has to look at Halpern—who has built his career in the last few years on “full glitter-disco escapism” (in the words of Vogue’s Sarah Mower)—to see the continuing desire today for the full-throttle, over-the-top glamour and fun of Gaynor’s disco dressing.
When out at a disco, “the reality of everyday life and the conventional rules of dressing that go with it are left at the door. Instead, fantasy reigns.” This extreme dress—this fantasy, this magic—was so important because, as fashion designer Betsey Johnson revealed, “At a disco, you don’t talk, you can’t hear anything, so clothes become a wonderful form of communication.” As the wonderfully ridiculous book Disco Dressing put it, “Your clothes become transmitters, sending out signals intensified by the fact that they’re the only signals you’re sending.” Everyone who was anyone was out at the disco every night—whether you were a European count, a fashion model or a checkout girl. This became particularly clear when Studio 54 opened in April 1977, with its famously elitist yet egalitarian door-policy that “leveled the playing field between power, eccentricity, beauty, glamour.” You got in based on how you looked, not who your family was, and it spurred nightclub denizens to greater and greater feats of fantasy.
Though today considered the epitome of a disco designer, Halston remarked when he first visited Studio 54 in May 1977 that he had not been to a club in five years. Immediately captivated by it, Halston became a frequent guest alongside his celebrity gal-pals like Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli who he dressed for their nights out (he also held a party for Martha Graham there in 1979). Accordingly, his already sheathlike gowns got even slinkier—lower plunges, more sequins, more lamé. What had been statuesque and columnar gave way to a light sense of movement—sashaying models on his catwalk, floating petals of fabric perfect for the dance floor and his own versions of dancewear leotards and unitards.
Designers such as Norma Kamali and Betsey Johnson also popularized the bodywear look; WWD discussed the prevalence of Kamali’s “swim maillots under gypsy skirts in every fabric from Egyptian cotton to light-reflecting lamé.” Dance companies like Capezio and Danskin also capitalized on the trend. Bonnie August was a young designer hired by Danskin in 1975 to take advantage of this growing market: “Isn’t bodywear the only look for disco? It’s perfect for disco dancing, because it feels like you’re wearing almost nothing—like you have no constrictions or constraints.” Capezio likewise hired 1960s avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich for their leotards and body stockings. The iridescent, second-skin bodies and dresses marketed by all these labels wouldn’t look out of place in New York label AREA’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection.
Alessandro Michele’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection for Gucci was inspired by Paris’ answer to Studio 54—Le Palace—a nightclub of dramatic and mythic proportions, complete with uniforms designed by Thierry Muglar. Michele held the Gucci show in the actual building of Le Palace, a 17th-century theatre in Montmartre. Fabrice Emaer, the Parisian "The Prince of the night,” had Grace Jones perform at the opening in March 1978 atop a Harley Davidson, surrounded by dry ice. Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld would stay there until 4 am every night, before heading to work at 8 am inspired by the crazy cast of people who, in the words of Le Palace DJ Michel Gaubert (now the most important runway DJ in fashion), “lived the night, the glory of night, the fun of the night, the expression of the night, which was not allowed in the day… They made, borrowed or bought things from flea markets to make outfits that were really out-there, because dressing up was a very important part of going there.”
This sense that anything goes as long as it was good for dancing is clearly expressed in a list WWD published in 1977 of some key (yet very varied) disco styles they had noticed: “St. Laurent Fantasy gear, see-through Flirt dresses, dance legwarmers with high, high heels, cowboy looks, Calypso dance clothes.” For all that variety and personal creativity, by that time the mass media had already defined and codified their version of disco style. Mass-market magazines not known for their fashion-forward thinking—like Woman’s Day and Ladies’ Home Journal—were already devoting editorials to disco dressing that favored slinky little dresses for the ladies and three-piece suits for the men. African-American designers Scott Barrie and Stephen Burrows were the progenitors of this particular kind of sexy disco dress—a camisole top slinking seductively over the body to either a full skirt, an asymmetric hem or a column to the floor with a slit. Undeniably sensual, these dresses were such an immediate hit that they were copied by en-masse in poor quality polyester for very inexpensive prices.
These mainstream editorials reflected the disco fashions best represented onscreen in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever—a world away from the high-gloss Manhattan nightclubs favored by celebrities, the film centered on a disco in working-class Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. Today less the inspiration of high fashion runways and more the making of cheap “disco” costumes, this was the most popular type of disco dressing across America alongside what was described in the 1980 book, Disco Dressing, as the “basic disco look” (“a pair of jeans and a cool top”). Disco was already facing a major backlash in 1980 and tastes had shifted—the author recommended straight-leg jeans for both men and women with the flared trousers of Saturday Night Fever just a few years before now déclassé. For women, the best straight-leg jeans were Fiorucci’s notoriously skintight ones, which came in a variety of fabrics from wet look ciré to sparkling lamé, though Studio 54 came out with their own branded designer jeans. While Fiorucci Denim was relaunched in 2017, the Attico’s skintight metallic blue pair for Fall/Winter 2019 are far closer to the original in spirit and cut.
In today’s fashion, where there are no hard rules and “anything goes” has become status quo, the constant resurgence of disco fashion is a reflection of interest in the value of that era—an attempt to tap into the joy and unbridled, pre-AIDs sexuality that disco dancers found at nightclubs. As described in 1979, “Disco seems to know no class or color distinctions; it draws all comers with its pulsating nonstop tribal beat.” The only code determining admission? “Everyone’s invited, provided they were the right duds”—an idea that fashion will forever get behind.