Think polyester leisure suit

If you want to sell clothes, why evoke an era that defined capital-U ugly?

Marketing Magazine, May 14, 2001   

The decade that style forgot won’t go away. Both big department stores — eatons and The Bay — reach back to the 1970s for their spring fashion advertising.


You’d think that was where they were reaching, provided you knew or remembered nothing about the actual ’70s.


The Bay, in fact, is reaching back to 1994, specifically to the Spike Jonze video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” which it replicates without the deliberate cheese or humor. That’s not a bad place to steal from. Jonze directed last year’s Being John Malkovich and has been creating state-of-the-art music videos for about a decade. He’s also the heir to the Spiegel catalogue business (say it with me now, “Spiegel, Chicago, Illinois, six-oh-six-oh-nine”) and, seen that way, the choice makes even more sense — catalogue, retail, po-mo hipster cachet. The main difference between The Bay and the Beasties is that Jonze, Diamond, Horovitz and Yauch were being funny. The Bay and the Wolf Group probably aren’t.


If the Bay wants to get down with its bad self, as it were, why not go one step further and actually replicate the wretched clothes from the decade instead of just some of the marginal pop culture filigree? Bring back the polyester leisure suit, that horrible belted thing with the too-wide lapels and the “all wrong” cut that looked good on no known terrestrial human body type. Bring back immense pants — not the “county lock-up” capacious pants-and-a-half so popular with the kids today, but Seafarer Fats: high-waisted, with the ridiculously tight pelvic area and the immediate vast flaring that made the wearer appear footless — not a bad outcome when you’re wearing shoes Ian Dury described as resembling “dead things’ noses.” Or how about the Angels Flight polyester incipient disco trouser mutation? Again, the top of the pants offers a too-small fit that permanently bent people out of shape, widening from mid-thigh to spinnaker-size flappage at shoe level. If you care for neither denim nor petroleum-based drapery, there’s always wide-wale corduroy. Or rayon. Or some kind of space-age two-way stretch crimpelene.


If you’re female, you might consider gaucho pants, the bold below-the-waist option that combines the butch authority of a skirt with the femininity of partial pants while offering the practicality and esthetic appeal of neither.


Yes, there was widespread casual drug use at that time. Denis Leary posited Quaaludes as the only possible explanation for the prevailing esthetic and what constituted acceptable attire in the 1970s: “The only way you could be a cooler guy was to get bigger bell-bottoms.”


For your top, you’ll want rayon or polyester, perhaps in a print: soft-focus greeting-card stock photography, motor sports, soft-core pornography or nausea-inducing optical illusion abstract. Consider a sweater: body two midriff-baring sizes too small, arms cut for some kind of lower primate. And of course it’s knit from tomorrow’s wool substitute, acrylic fiber. Please appreciate how alarmingly the shirt’s eight-inch collar flops out of the sweater’s low-cut neck-hole.


Of course, everything here comes in the approved ’70s palette: pea-soup-vomit greenish, burnt orangy, bilious kinda-yellow, the wrong shade of brown, hospital-corridor blue or mud.


The 1970s was the first time capitalism embraced its built-in obsolescence and stopped even pretending that anything should last more than about eight-and-a-half months. That went for clothes, music, movies, cars, buildings and culture. It’s a glorious irony that 25 years later, all that hideous stuff, conceived as so disposable, won’t go away.


If you want to sell clothes, why would you deliberately invoke an era that defined capital-U ugly for subsequent generations? Neil Fedun, The Bay’s senior marketing VP, told Marketing it’s a fiscal/emotional thing: “If you look at the economy, you see it’s flattened out. And we wanted spots that make you feel good, that inspire and are fresh.” The economy is in the tank again, just like it was for much of the 1970s, so we’re being reminded that the last time we were all poor, we dressed badly, too? Thanks.


Who’s this meant to appeal to? Youngsters won’t get the references. Their elders have spent 20 years trying to forget they ever wore anything that ugly, and destroying any photographic evidence they ever did. “Our target is baby boomers,” Fedun said. “And it’s a style of retro today.” Or yesterday’s tomorrow, if you prefer, or perhaps a Phillip K. Dick-like alternative history where the 1970s wasn’t a sinkhole of craptacular ephemera.


Trying to differentiate The Bay’s spots from eatons’, Fedun pointed out, “Ours have a whole different feel. Ours are more friendly and approachable.”


Provided you can get past the initial impulse to laugh, scream and run away.