The History of Bell-Bottoms

Updated April 17, 2017

Bell-bottomed trousers, so named for the "bell-like" flare at the bottom of the trousers, have gone through several stylistic renovations since their conception in the early 19th century.

Origin of Bell-Bottoms

The trousers that the world has come to know and love as a fitted yet flowing fashion staple amongst young people originally were designed for much more practical reasons. Though the actual creation of the first pair of bell-bottoms is unknown, the first mention of bell-bottomed trousers was in 1813 in reference to the uniforms of U.S. Navy sailors. Bell-bottoms were a functional choice for sailors since they were easy to remove over boots, easy to roll up to avoid becoming waterlogged, and--perhaps most interestingly--could be morphed into a flotation device by filling the pant legs with air.

Bell-Bottoms in the 1960s and 1970s

Bell-bottoms truly became regarded as "fashion" in the 1960s and 1970s when the trousers resurfaced as part of the hippie movement. These free-flowing trousers fit in with the hippie lifestyle and carefree attitude, and it wasn't long before the world of fashion caught on to the trend and began marketing bell-bottoms to the masses. The trousers were popular choices for both men and women; men would pair polyester bell-bottoms with suit jackets and women would wear a high-waisted variation with tight blouses. The ubiquitous blue polyester suit was an extremely popular look for young men, and is a widely sought after parody look in men's costumes today. The trousers became popular in more comfortable fabrics such as denim and corduroy in the 1970s.

The Evolution of Bell-Bottoms: 1990s Boot-cuts

Not to be relegated to the annals of history, bell-bottoms resurfaced in the mid-1990s and quickly adopted a slightly altered look (not flaring at the knee, but closer to the calf or ankle) and adopted the name "boot-cut," drawing on the naval idea of a pant being able to fit comfortably around a boot. Today, the term "boot-cut" or "flare-leg" refers to this type of pant. Boot-cut trousers are distinguishable from the bell-bottoms of the '60s and '70s, which would be tight up to the knee and flare more dramatically than the trousers in modern times.

People Who Popularized Bell-Bottoms

The fashion statement caught on in the '70s thanks to various celebrities who proudly sported the look in concert and television appearances. Jimi Hendrix wore his floral, embroidered bell-bottoms to the famous Hollywood Bowl concert in 1968; Sonny and Cher wore them on their hit television show; and at least one of the enormously popular "Brady Bunch" family members sported bell-bottoms in nearly every episode.

Future of the Bell-bottomed Trend

Fashion often tends to go in 20-year cycles, so perhaps the nation will see the resurgence of bell-bottomed fashion in a new way, apart from boot-cut or flare-leg fashions, which remain popular today. Some fashion experts predict that bell-bottoms will crop up again, perhaps in a more elegant, evening style or in a style closer to the original fads of the 1970s. Others agree that the 1970s version should remain "locked up" in fashion history.

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About the Author

Jordynn McMahon specializes in travel, technology and health articles. She currently works as a marketing specialist in the software industry. McMahon has a B.A. in English from UC Santa Barbara, as well as an M.A. in English literature and composition from San Jose State University.