How Leisure Suits Worked

By: Julia Layton

Don't look up, Karen Lynn Gorney. That finger to the sky is just one of John Travolta's definitive moves from the 1977 film "Saturday Night Fever." See more pictures of the history of fashion.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Few images say "swingin' 70s" like that of John Travolta mid-boogie, all pouty mouth and chest hair, pointing at the ceiling of a night club with such conviction you want to look up. This "Saturday Night Fever" snapshot is pretty much a poster for the era. The 6 inches of chest hair, the high-heeled dancin' boots, the helmet of thick black hair -- they're all worthy of note. But it's the white polyester leisure suit aglow in the light of a disco ball that demands the kind of head-shaking respect due to only the most significant cultural artifacts.

The leisure suit was only in style for a few years, but it had the impact of a fashion bomb -- a slim-cut, wide-lapelled, synthetic-fibered fashion bomb. It told the world "I'm here -- to relax," and people loved it for about 10 minutes. Still, while it faded pretty quickly from the fashion world, it embedded itself for good in the cultural consciousness. Perhaps it's the everlasting nature of poly fibers. Or just the unabashed cheesiness of it all.


Whatever the cause, the leisure suit is still here, if only as the butt of a joke. There's a band named for it, a Weird Al Yankovich song dedicated to it, and at least one video game character who never takes it off (more on that later). There are even modern fashionable suits that carry the moniker, if not the swagger, of the original '70s look.

So what's the big deal? In this article, we'll dig into the leisure suit to find out where it came from, where it ended up, and why we're still talking about it. After all, it was just a jacket and matching pants.

Or was it?