Zipping up my waxed cotton jacket at the end of class a week or two ago, I looked up and noticed a student at the front of the lecture hall in a sweater of the most autumnal shade of red. Similarly, as I was heading down Market Street, I saw a group of three students all wearing similar fall shades. Granted, the first day of fall was drawing near, so their display of these warm tones was not so out of place. But, over the course of the last year, while both at home in the USA and here in St Andrews, I have noticed fall colours being displayed in quantities that would put many an October forest to shame, even in the early days of spring or while still knee deep in June. So the question arose, had there been some mistake at the textile mills where the exciting reds and yellows of spring and summer had been replaced by the calming colours of wine, honey, and ochre? Or was something more significant (or realistic) at play?
James May, famous for his role in the television series Top Gear, briefly ran a show called The Reassembler on BBC Four. In this show May quite literally re-assembles objects, ranging from the everyday food processor to an electric guitar and a record player. As he turns screws and solders wires to circuit boards he frequently dips into ramblings about his personal philosophies and theories. Though his debate on whether the Imperial system of measurement is better than the Metric system might not appeal to the average reader, he did provide one potential answer to a question I had long pondered: why are the 70s so autumnal?
That the 70s are dominated by browns and ochres and other fall colours is, in my opinion, fairly established. Though a Google search of “70s fashion” will reveal all sorts of flower patterns and bell bottom pants, I do not believe these to be an entirely accurate representation of the 70s. More so, that style is merely a dramatisation of the reality of the 70s. These, in my opinion, are more accurate:
Yes, bell bottoms – in all their glory — can be seen in a quite a few pictures from the period, but in this article it is the colour of the bell bottoms that is important, not the cut of the trouser itself. Thus do we come to May’s explanation. May theorizes that the prevalence of fall colours in the 1970s was a result of the turbulent political and social situation at the time. Indeed, the 1970s saw turmoil across the UK and the world, with major union strikes (such as those against British Leyland Motors), the first official gay pride march in London and other minority rights movements cropping up across the globe, continued conflicts in Ireland and Vietnam, and – of course – the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation that was the Cold War.
As the average office worker or family witnessed the world continually falling further and further into chaos, likewise did their fashion drift further and further into the calming and muted tones of fall. Afterall, driving into the office in a cherry red convertible would have been a bit uncomfortable while listening to a report of Bloody Sunday on the news – much more appropriate would be to take the calming, and safe, beige Volvo. Likewise did the men and women of the 1970s decorate their homes, workplaces, and even themselves. This is not to say that the radical styles so iconic of the 1970s did not exist, they certainly did. Nor is it to say that cars were not produced in cherry red during the 1970s, they certainly were. But it is to say that the regular John and Jane, the office worker or the labourer on the Leyland production line, probably would have shied away from the funky and “far out” styles of the rebellious youths and gravitated towards the now once again popular tones.
This is the main point of the article: just as people found refuge in the 1970s by retreating into a world of beige and other autumnal colours, so are we now, once again, retreating into those more comforting shades as we are again confronted with a world in turmoil. Looking around, it is obvious that not everyone has fallen into this trend, but I would still assert that the 70s – and vintage styles in general – are making a comeback. Not only do the muted colours of the 70s work towards settling our increasingly excited world, but, even the clothing of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s (though certainly not as conservative as that of the 70s) remind us millennials of the relative safety of our childhoods. Maybe one of the reasons why we no longer all seek to dress like mountain climbers and globetrotters — as we did a few years ago, when everyone basically just wore gore-tex and neon colours – is because we no longer feel like risk-taking explorers on the cutting edge, the world has become risky enough.
Personally, I love the 1970s colour palette. I am glad I can now claim “I want a kitchen in burnt umber and orange peel” with pride or even state “actually, I think I’ll have it in beige” and be considered at least slightly hip. It will not last forever, and one day my waxed cotton jacket will return to making me look like I raided the closet of an old folks’ home – some of you may even think that now – but for now I think that our vintage clothes and muted tones reflect accurately a desire for everything to become just a bit more peaceful.