People think I exaggerate about the past. Maybe I do. But maybe I don’t.
Because I was there. Reader Melbourne Girl recalled an item of 1970s clothing in a comment at this post about 1970s food. That brought the whole horrible decade of bad taste flooding back.
Because I sold them! My first job was salesman in a menswear store during a period that rode the fashion wave from flower power to the platform sole. Put 'clothing' and '1970s' in a sentence and you picture skin-tight trousers with the legs flared out to eighteen inches at the bottom. Why the width? To accommodate the battleships underneath: two-tone fake leather uppers that sat on five inches of prime Portuguese cork. People think the wine cork industry was destroyed by the Stelvin closure but that’s rubbish. It was devastated by the shoe industry. Rumour has it that a famous Italian shoe designer had a love rival who was a Portuguese wine cork baron, or whatever they call barons in Portugal. He vowed revenge, deciding to derail the wine cork industry and bankrupt the baron. The next spring, his models clomped down the catwalk precariously (if you can clomp precariously) in shoes that were six inches off the ground. Every shoe contained enough cork to cap 45 wine bottles. That’s 90 bottles a pair; or nine million per 100,000 pairs of shoes. The wine cork manufacturing industry was starved of raw material overnight, with the shoe makers importing raw cork direct from the growers - and the wine industry was forced to turn to plastic closures. Of course, the designer knew his shoes were ridiculous, being to proper footwear what a double-decker bus was to a Mini Cooper. The noise they made caused bands such as Slade to dramatically increase the volume of their concerts because you couldn’t hear them over the clomping of fans in the stadium.
Getting to the point of this story, one day in 1972, the store manager brought in his first shipment of Continental 'body' shirts. What the hell? we (the salesmen) said, tape measures dangling around our necks. These are going to be huge, he said. They're huge already, we replied. Hugely ugly. Normal shirts had sensible pointed collars, muted colours, self-stitching and were made from proper cotton. The new horrors came in lurid colours such as lime green with contrast stitching, had vast rounded collars like the ears of a goat and were sewn from a bizarre kind of material that stretched, hence the body shirt tag. There was chocolate brown with tan stitching, a ghastly yellow that I can’t make a simile about (because it would be too horrible) and a red one with white stitching - the Al Grassby special, we called it. No-one will ever wear those, we said.
The manager made a space on the shirt rack by putting dozens of white GloWeave, Pelaco and Paramount shirts into the store room at the back and replacing them with the full colour range of Continental body shirts. Now the rack looked like a gelati shop window in a heatwave. The '70s were born that day.
Won't wear them? said the manager. Wait and see. He was right. Within weeks we were selling them by the truckload. Some pop star had worn one on television; nothing else could explain a population losing not only its entire fashion sense but also its ability to withstand discomfort and the embarrassment of being dressed like a demented clown. Wearing a tight lime green shirt-like garment tucked into flapping yellow trousers would have looked ridiculous on a sixteenth century pirate, let alone a twentieth century lawyer. Mid-seventies summers saw moustached hipsters with underarm stains stretching halfway down their sides, thanks to the osmotic effect of the hideous stretch fabric of which their Continental body shirts were made, a strange combination of elasticised nylon and an early form of lycra, minus the breathability.
Then there were the ties. Someone on TV again, maybe a comedian. We threw out the old tie rack, because it was designed to hold 120 two-inch wide ties, but the new ones were five inches at their widest point. No-one needed serviettes any more in restaurants. Nothing could get near the shirt, but a lot of Pieroni (upstairs, Little Bourke Street, a young Guy Grossi as waiter) diners called in at Myer for a fresh tie after a boozy spaghetti bolognese lunch.
A five-inch width of orange seersucker over a yellow Continental body shirt was a sight to see and we saw plenty of them. People criticise copywriters for having worked on cigarette accounts, but I did something far worse (as well as the former, in later years). I knowingly matched up clashing shirts and ties for hundreds, possibly thousands, of menswear customers throughout the 1970s. Those archival photos of 1970s weddings? My work. I was the one who said, Why yes sir, the lime green suit with the bottle green velvet lapel suits you perfectly!
Time went by and with it a million ghastly disco hits; and one day the manager brought in his first shipment of proto-eighties suits, which could be described in one word: shiny. To counteract the shortfall in fabric due to the passing of wide flares, designers (with kickbacks from the fabric manufacturers) surreptitiously introduced the 'power shoulder'. I say surreptitiously because at first your coat just had slight padding around the shoulder area, but by the eighties proper it had grown, and you had the shoulders of a prize bull at a Pamplona bullfight. The seventies were over. Thank goodness. If only we knew what the eighties would bring.