Mention "bell bottoms" and, most likely, images of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and '70s pop into mind. From Woodstock to discos, pants with flared legs were the go-to uniform of the era. Picking just one year for their popularity is impossible, however, since their popularity spans across a century of divergent cultural usage.
In the Navy
The U.S. Navy has had an off-again on-again relationship with bell-bottomed trousers since the early 1800s. Originally adopted as a practical necessity, bell bottoms allowed sailors to roll their pant legs up to keep them out of water and could even act as a make-shift flotation device. The style, however, dropped out of favor sometime in the 1900s. By 1977, a return to bell bottom uniforms was mandated and they remained part of the Navy uniform until 1998.
From Sailors to Hippies
From Army jackets to bell bottoms, the American counter culture movement of the 1960s often featured elements from military uniforms. As a form of protest, they co-opted military clothing and decorated it with symbols of peace. Unlike other military dress, which faded away as the counter culture movement transitioned into the disco scene, the bell bottom found its way well into the '70s.
As early as the 1920s, bell bottoms made fashion news as Coco Chanel introduced them as "beach pajamas." The resurgence four decades later would make bell bottoms an iconic article of clothing thanks to musicians like Jimmy Hendrix, Elvis Presley and David Bowie. Television also played a significant role in the fashion fad as bell bottoms were commonly worn on "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," "The Brady Bunch" and "Charlie's Angels."
Bell bottoms mostly went the way of the disco ball after the 1970s. However, they enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1990s under new names, "boot-cut" and "flare cut." Then the fashion shifted once again to more form fitting jeans for the majority of the early 21st century. However, several websites, such as Girls Talkin Smack, Coolspotters and QuickDFW, have noted that bell bottoms are back in style as of 2011.