As one cultural theorist puts it, “It’s almost more of a feeling than it is of a look.”
Instagram has no shortage of stylistic inspiration, no lack of aesthetic aspiration. Whatever you seek, be it 17,527 pictures of sneakers or every outfit that appeared on “The Sopranos,” there exists an account for you in the wide, rich valley of your Explore page.
This is how, during a recent audit of my “Following” list, I made the unforeseen discovery that I had been following five separate accounts dedicated to the style of the 1970s. Five separate handles that collect and churn out pictures of Linda Ronstadt in roller skates and Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Some are dedicated to women, others to film and television scenes, others still to particularly fashionable magazine ads. All, however, make me want to throw on a snug pair of bell bottoms and slice my hair into an unfortunate shag.
It was also during this audit that I realized just how popular these accounts were. At press time, the three largest accounts — @70sbabes (348,000 followers), @70sdaily (336,000) and @the70z (224,000) — have roughly 4,600 posts and nearly 1 million followers among them.
So why have the aesthetics of 1970s garnered a not-so-small army of devotees, and on such a visual platform like Instagram? As a decade marked by tumult and enlivened by disco, the 1970s offer us glittering escapism as much as a pointed reminder of our present, some 40-odd years later.
As for its fashion? It was for everyone in a way that previous and subsequent decades were, well, not.
The 1970s can’t shake the reputation of being garish, swirling peacock greens with canary yellows and frothy prints with geometric patterns. Pineapple upside-down cake is, perhaps, the perfect visual. But the 1970s were a decade of choice, and the flash of Ziggy Stardust is just one piece of an era that offered something for everyone.
“What I really love about that decade is that there is no one fashion — there is no one aesthetic,” says Emmanuelle Dirix, a London-based cultural theorist who specializes in fashion studies. “There were lots of different looks that people could subscribe to and all would be considered concurrently fashionable. That was quite a new idea.”
If the 1950s was the sock hop, the circle dress, the saddle shoe, the 1960s became more casual, giving rise to higher hemlines and more wearable streetwear. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that there existed a real freedom for women to dress however they’d like, and for the first time, the fashion industry provided them with those options.
It’s why Dirix finds the 1970s to be the most stylistically interesting of recent decades. It was the beginning of personal style as we know it, she says, “where people’s individuality in their fashion choices started finding a place.”
Over on Instagram, other decades have large audiences, too. The 1990s are massively popular, with accounts that include @90sperspective (681,000 followers) to @90s_runway (34,500 followers). In this so-called “nostalgia economy,” it’s easy for millennial- and Generation Z-aged consumers — who make up 70% of Instagram’s user base — to yearn for a decade we knew firsthand as a simpler time.
Laura McLaw Helms, a fashion and cultural historian and writer, documents her work on Instagram under the verified handle @laurakitty, now nearly 50,000 followers deep. I had been following it for years before I reached out to her for comment for this story. While Helms’ online presence is not restricted to just one decade, there’s a significant emphasis on the 1970s. She’ll often post rare imagery, uncovered during her research, that I’ve never seen before; it’s not exactly the place for that ubiquitous (albeit fabulous) Farrah-Fawcett-skateboarding photo. And the 1970s are her sweet spot.
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“I think that’s a lot of why the 1970s might work on Instagram because we’re so oversaturated with imagery,” says Helms. “The 1970s was the first decade that saw the shift from being more homogenized to seeing a plethora of style options. It was kind of anything goes.”
From a sheer logistics perspective, the more styles that were prevalent at the time, the wider array of imagery there is for dedicated Instagram accounts to post — and a higher likelihood that a user like me will, inevitably, lose their mind over a picture of Angelica Houston sipping champagne at Studio 54.
“It’s almost more of a feeling than it is of a look,” says Dirix. “The idea of the girl in a great T-shirt and an excellently fitted pair of jeans have become really popular again. It’s in the 1970s that you saw jeans becoming a fashion item for the wider population for the first time. I like that we’re now picking up on the less ostentatious look.”
Indeed, the jeans-and-a-tee thing can be more of an attitude than a physical outfit. And it is very much an emblem of the 1970s at that, representing comfort, flair and a certain no-shit realness afforded by dressing in the basics.
On Instagram, we’re in search of this to such an extreme that we’re engineering it and calling it authenticity. But as Petra Slinkard, Peabody Essex Museum’s Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, points out, the 1970s didn’t need to create personal brands around easy, breezy originality. They just…were.
“There’s a level of authenticity that people within our particular culture and in this particular moment are longing for. Because we’re living in the Instagram era, right?” suggests Slinkard. “There’s a grittiness, a rawness that in our overly polished moment is lost. Whether it’s a conscious desire or an unconscious desire for that kind of authenticity, that’s what draws people into those kinds of platforms.”
Slinkard uses the term “liberation of flawlessness” to describe the decade, where its authenticity stretched beyond the je ne sais quoi of an ass-perfect pair of flared denim into something even more genuine.
“It favored not the false lashes and heavy eyeliner you had in the 1960s, and not the power looks you had going to get in the 1980s, but something quite natural, something that looked healthy, which we’re really into at the moment,” says Dirix. “The no-bra, nude-makeup look, health versus glamour — all of that makes for a nice bridge between the 1970s and now.”
Who better to represent this era of authenticity than the women themselves encapsulating it? These icons weren’t just freeing the nipple — check the rise in bralette sales since 2016 — or going more Glossier than Urban Decay.
Dirix name-checks women like Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Bianca Jagger, Diana Ross, Cher and Steve Nicks as having footprints so deep in the 1970s that their cult of personalities are still stuck in the decade. On the legion of 1970s-worshipping style accounts, their presence is ubiquitous: Cher in suede chaps, Grace Jones in track pants, Stevie Nicks in her Nicks-ian best, top hat included.
“Still to this day, they represent something young women find aspirational,” says Dirix. “In their own ways, they represented a personality that was aspirational and achievable.” That changed by the mid- to late-1980s, when icons of femininity — the larger-than-life movie stars, the otherworldly supermodel class — landed well beyond reach. “With the women of the 1970s, yes, of course they’re extraordinary, talented and beautiful, but there was something very real about them, as well. They took absolutely no shit.”
These women spent years in the spotlight, very publicly battling substance abuse and drug addiction or navigating volatile divorces. What sets them apart, even today, is that they never attempted to convince us that they were anything or anyone other than themselves.
“That’s quite attractive to a generation rejecting influence,” adds Dirix. “They’ve had enough of living up to a perfect ideal that’s completely unachievable, not that Cher would ever be achievable to us mere mortals anyway.”
Body politics, too, are back on the agenda — another bridge that unfortunately still runs between 2019 and the 46 years it’s been since Roe v. Wade was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court. More than “Rumours” or “Saturday Night Fever,” the 1970s were defined by domestic turmoil and civil unrest, by skyrocketing racial tensions, a desperate call for renewable energy, the brutality of Vietnam, the collapse of Watergate. The decade ended with President Jimmy Carter declaring a “crisis of confidence,” with a despondent public mood to match.
“We have an impeachment going on, and a lot of people are very unhappy with the government, so I think it’s the same in a lot of ways,” says Helms. “But I look back at the 1970s and sort of feel comforted.”
By and large, the people running these accounts or admiring the images weren’t alive for the 1970s. Mostly, it’s millennials, where Instagram allows for some safe voyeurism into an era that’s not too dissimilar from our own.
Some of us have yet another intimate connection to the period, and it’s about as personal as it gets.
“My mom looked like that; when my mom was a teenager, this was her style,” says Slinkard. “Who is this person I know so inside and out? Who were they then? Were they the same person, just younger and dressed a little differently, or were they truly a different person?”
I see my mom right there in those grids, too, emerging from the campus library hauling astronomy books, toting signs on the frontlines of local Take Back the Night marches. “For visually driven people, that kind of speculation is an interesting tie-in to an emotional and psychological pull.”
Homepage photo: Mick and Bianca Jagger in 1971, shortly after their wedding ceremony in St Tropez. Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty Images