Fashion of the disco era
Film and fashion will never let disco die. And for good reason.
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In its 1970s heyday, disco tried to block out the ugly. Keep things light, shiny, sparkly. Pump in the pink smoke, make the room spin. These are the disco imperatives.
Disco is an optimistic genre. Think Chic’s Good Times, well-choreographed “Hustles” bearing no relation to the kind of hustle that most people had to engage in to stay alive in 1970s America. The only thing more optimistic than the music is the fashion. Anyone who has worn a polyester suit on a summer day, or waited at a real bus-stop in disco pants can tell you that.
Of course, glamour is always a well-crafted illusion, but disco-glamour is also well-meaning, well-heeled (in shoes if not in pocket) and so, so gorgeously doomed.
You Should Be Dancing
The first thing you can tell by the way John Travolta uses his walk in the opening sequence of seminal disco flick Saturday Night Fever, is that shoes are important to him.
Walking past a neighbourhood boutique he cocks his leg and compares his own buffed brown platform mule with the one in the window. He’s pleased. He’s up to date. Everything else can go to hell — his pushy parents, his shitty job. Posing in his childhood bedroom, Tony is just another kid going nowhere, trying to look like Al Pacino before Al Pacino gave us his own version of doomed disco in Scarface five years later.
On the dance floor, though, Monero is transformed into something entirely more beautiful. He struts, drops, hustles, Cossacks across the floor, he abandons his partner to soak up the lights. Who needs a woman when you have those shoes, and THAT WHITE SUIT? Women fall into two categories, Tony tells us: nice girl or…well…something a little more provocative.
“Which are you?” he asks a neighbourhood groupie.
“I dunno,” she says, gorgeous in a pale blue dress. “Both.”
It’s 1978. Everyone is beautiful and doomed. Under the mirror ball, we can all be everything.
Love To Love You, Baby
1980’s Xanadu took this to the next level. Could this be the first film in the narcissistic sexual-Frankenstein genre that would become the commercial sure-thing of the ‘80s?
An LA beachside mural hatches a bunch of hot disco-muses that run down the side of the quiet freeways, streaming neon, lighting up the dismal Hollywood sign with their electric glow. Female lead Olivia Newton John’s style is Sound of Music with thigh-high skates and lamé accents. Her perm-fried hair shines pastel pink at the edges. She’s glorious and if, jaded by the years that have passed since 1980, you find you are no longer convinced, just close your eyes and listen to the music. ELO! Seminal musical optimism. Ever feel down? Just put on Mr Blue Sky and reality will drop away, everything will become pale and glorious. Electric. Light. Orchestra.
Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough
Sequins, sky-high heels, plunging necklines and shattered dreams; we never really renounced these tools of glamour but in 1998 we became quite obsessed with the whole narrative, the rise and fall of this soul train.
The films 54 and The Last Days of Disco gave us two glimpses of the end of an era. Both lashed their plots with captivating outfits. Selma Hayak’s neckline and braids; Chloe Sevigny’s boob-tube and ability to look like she is dancing when the only thing moving are her eyes. Both films construct these as miracles we let slip into oblivion. Why did disco have to end?
The death of disco was violent and edgy. Worse than cold chips at an over-lit Denny’s in a conservative neighbourhood, still wearing last night’s polyester and eyelashes.
In 1979 a disgruntled Chicago shock jock incited anti-disco rage in his young male fans. The kind of men who do not do flares or gender ambiguity. The disco-hate climaxed in a record burning at a local baseball game. 50,000 haters took the field, throwing Donna Summer records like frisbees, lighting Saturday Night Fever promotional materials on fire. The shock jock did his part by blowing up a stack of disco records. Crowds of rock and roll radio fans danced through the smouldering shards of vinyl, gyrating in the melting wax of optimism.
By 1985, the Studio 54 nightclub had changed hands and was looking at other musical avenues to stay viable. Metal bands Slayer, Exodus and Venom played their Ultimate Revenge for Disco show at the club.
“I wonder how many of you people go out on the streets, looking to kick someone’s ass?” asked the lead singer of Exdodus. “Maybe a couple of posers? Head on down to the local discothèque and waste a couple of people?”
The crowd goes wild. These guys are done with flares and optimism. They are done with glamour. Ugly has beaten down the doors. Of course, there’s a place for ugly, for violent and insistent. There’s a place to thrash against the pretty — but I bet no-one thought it would be Studio 54.
When times are woeful, is optimism misguided, radical or something in-between? Were disco attendees strutting through hard-times, or plugging their eyes, ears and snouts with glitter? Does it matter when you look that good?
We still want to escape into uncomplicated, glamorous worlds even if we no longer call it disco. Can we dance ourselves out of our present reality? What if we Hully Gully, Dishrag and Hustle the dance floor to ash?
Hand me my perm-rods. Turn up the neon. It’s cold and cruel outside.
Join the movement at #werunthis.
Briohny Doyle has been writing about pop culture since The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button drove her into a murderous rage in 2009.