If the iconic television show “The Brady Bunch” provided your first peek into 1970s fashion, then you’ll understand just how big a trend bell-bottom jeans and trousers were during the ’70s. Even before the story of a man named Brady with a commingled family of bell-bottom wearing sons and daughters became one of the most popular sitcoms in history, bell-bottoms already had a 150-year start in becoming part of fashion legacy. It wasn’t the cool kids of the late ’60s and ’70s that were first to wear bell-bottoms — American sailors during the War of 1812 were the original hipsters.


The Original Bell-Bottoms: Function Over Fashion

Although no account exists of who invented bell-bottom pants, history first records them being worn by sailors during the War of 1812. The flared bottoms offered more function than fashion as the wide legs made it easy for sailors to roll up their trousers in the presence of high water. According to an article in the archives of the U.S. Navy Department library, “a water-soaked sailor who happened to find himself no longer aboard could easily remove the 20 to 30 pounds of saturated wool without removing his now-standard shoes, which he would desperately need to protect his feet if he avoided becoming shark bait and made landfall.” Bell-bottoms were part of the U.S. Navy uniform until 1998.

From the American Navy to French Women’s Fashions

Bell-bottoms entered the fashion world in the 1920s through the innovative stylings of French designer Coco Chanel. Chanel revolutionized the fashion industry of that era by taking women out of constricting corsets and dresses and putting them in trousers. Never shy about expressing the need for comfort in women’s clothes, Chanel was drawn to the loose fit of sailor pants. They later served as inspiration for her wide-legged trousers, known as “yachting pants” and “beach pajamas” — precursors for the modern day bell-bottoms.

Bell-Bottoms Find Their Groove in the 1970s

Following Chanel’s 1920s lead, European women happily embraced bell-bottoms when they re-emerged in fashion in the mid-1960s. While the American hippie subculture immediately adopted them as their chosen attire, it wasn’t until Sonny and Cher regularly wore them on their eponymous television show from 1971 to 1974 that bell-bottoms finally arrived. By the late ’70s, everyone was making bell-bottoms part of their wardrobe. Now available in denim, bright cotton, corduroy and satin polyester, no bell-bottom look was complete without a pair of platform shoes.

Bell-Bottom Evolves Into Boot Cut

Bell-bottoms gave way to parachute pants, leggings and stirrup pants in the early ’80s as the disco era of KC and the Sunshine band was replaced by hip-hop, pop and heavy metal music, whose artists preferred tight and skinny to flared. After a decade hiatus, bell-bottoms were reinvented as boot cut pants in the 1990s. Boot cuts mirrored the flared style of their predecessor, but with a smaller flare and a tighter fit from the knees up. Flare legs — which offer a more relaxed fit than boot cuts but with the same flare — have also succeeded the original bell-bottom style. Although skinny jeans became the trend for the late 2000s, boot cuts and flare legs remain fashion staples.