How Leisure Suits Worked


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.
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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?

Origins of the Leisure Suit

Leisure suits call for confidence -- even when you're off the dance floor.
Leisure suits call for confidence -- even when you're off the dance floor.
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Merriam-Webster tells us the leisure suit fully arrived in 1975, and that may be [source: Merriam-Webster]. But that's the "leisure suit" of the 1970s. The introduction of a lightweight, comfortable pants-and-jacket set intended for casual occasions, or no occasion at all, came well before the disco era.

The origins of any particular fashion can be tough to pinpoint, elements often evolving over years, even decades. A "lounge suit" pops up as early as the mid-1800s in Britain, basically a less-structured daytime suit with the jacket and pants made in non-matching fabrics.

The more modern idea of the leisure suit dates back at least to the 1920s, when a sort of post-World War I relaxation was taking hold in the United States [source: Goldstein]. The roaring '20s brought the usual youth rebellion seen in any era, showing up, as it often does, in the clothes -- women in boyish "flapper" attire and men in loose-fitting suits that looked sort of like tailored sacks. In fact, they're sometimes called "sack suits." These leisure suits were a significant departure from the older generation's long coats, vests and snazzy, striped trousers.

None of these early leisure suits incorporated polyester, of course, since it wasn't invented yet. That happened in the 1940s in the U.K. By the following decade, polyester had gained some popularity in the United States, and in 1970, the leisure suit -- or more accurately, the Lee-sure suit, manufactured by Lee Jeans -- made it's very first appearance [source: Fashion Encyclopedia]. Taking its cue from such styles as Yves Saint Laurent's "safari suit," the Lee-sure suit aimed for a laidback look with style.

Whether the suit achieved that goal is up for debate (or not). But no one denies the leisure suit's impact. It has come to signify the disco side of the '70s…

Leisure Suits in the 1970s

The Bee Gees, "Saturday Night Fever," Evel Knievel, "Three's Company" -- hardly a single '70s pop-culture standby left the leisure suit from its repertoire. And oh, was that leisure suit something to see.

Bell-bottoms? Check. Massive lapels? Check. Jacket cut to allow for a wide-lapelled, loud-print poly shirt, preferably open to mid-chest? Huge chest pockets? Contrast stitching? Check, check, check!

The '70s-style leisure suit was originally created by designer Jerry Rosengarten in 1970 [source: Fashion Encyclopedia]. He used it to showcase a newly developed type of polyester, and Lee Jeans produced it. Lee put it on the market as, of all things, business attire [source: Fashion Encyclopedia].

The look never did make the cut in the office. It was, however, perfect for the casual, anything-goes atmosphere of key parties, lighted dance floors and just sitting around a fondue pot. For a few years, leisure suits were IT, often paired with gold medallions, sideburns and a complete lack of manscaping. By the end of the decade, though, the suit had somehow gone from fad to joke, finally replaced by the "power suits" of the money-hungry '80s. Hippie culture no more, the leisure suit faded into the annals of bad-fashion history, a non-biodegradable reminder of a swingin' decade.

Not that the leisure suit is entirely gone. Designers still make them today, only they're typically made of natural fibers instead of poly, and they feature narrower lapels, matched stitching and a slim leg suited for a shoe with no hint of platform.

But don't worry -- if you're dying for the poly version, you can always hit the costume shop in the lead-up to Halloween. They usually sell the dancin' boots and chest hair, too.

For more information on leisure suits and other retro fashion, look over the links on the next page.

Related Articles

Sources

  • The Evolution of Men's Style. Esquire. Aug. 14, 2008. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.esquire.com/style/style-evolution-0908
  • Goldstein, Lauren. "What We Wore." Fortune Magazine (via CNN Money). Nov. 22, 1999. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/1999/11/22/269130/index.htm
  • Leisure Seizure. People. April 20, 1992. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20112466,00.html
  • Leisure Suit. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leisure%20suit
  • Leisure Suits. Fashion Encyclopedia. (Aug. 22, 2011) http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/Modern-World-Part-II-1961-1979/Leisure-Suits.html