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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

The Ugliest Era of Menswear Is Back: Why You’ll Want to Relive It

For men’s fashion, the 1970s were a decade of distorted shapes and questionable prints. But in among the ugliness were some timelessly cool clothes—the focus of this fall’s me-decade redux.


Jacob Gallagher

Jacket, $540, amiparis.com; Dries Van Noten Sweater, $580, and Shirt, $325, barneys.comPhoto: Andy Ryan for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Rebecca Malinsky, Grooming by Alicia Marie Campbell, Model: Francisco Perez/dna Model Management

An otherwise pleasant stroll up Madison Avenue one recent Sunday turned into a 1970s flashback for Ralph Auriemma, the creative director of classic-suit purveyor Paul Stuart. Gazing into the windows at Prada’s New York store, Mr. Auriemma saw male mannequins clad in bell-bottom corduroys, fur belts and fuzzy angora sweaters, all hallmarks of that stylistically divisive decade. “The ’70s were probably the most horrific, ugliest era of menswear ever assembled,” said Mr. Auriemma, who was a teenager when Journey ruled the airwaves. “I remember polyester flared pants, platform cork shoes and bold, obnoxious patterns on shirts. And,” he added, proudly, “I didn’t wear any of it.” Nor is he about to start. Yet, at a time when much of men’s fashion is embracing, shall we say, challenging aesthetics (see “Off-Putting Is In” below), many of his peers disagree.

The ’70s renaissance on the fall runways was not limited to Prada. For his debut at Calvin Klein, Belgian designer Raf Simons went with an all-American aesthetic that suggested he’d been binge-watching old episodes of “Starsky & Hutch”: Denim-on-denim ensembles, two-pocket western shirts and stacked-heel boots. Three years into the job, Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele has transformed the Milanese label into a “Partridge Family” fantasy with embroidered jean jackets and kicked-out silk trousers. Eat your heart out, Danny Bonaduce.

If you long ago burned every Polaroid of yourself in a Visa polyester leisure suit, you may share Mr. Auriemma’s dismay. Bruce Pask, the men’s fashion director at New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, knows that the more-extreme designer versions of these neo-’70s looks—the descendants of glam-rock glitter garb and Sears-catalog surrealism—will be plucked off Bergdorf’s racks by what he calls “the early adopters.” But those weren’t the clothes we loved at the menswear shows.

Jacket, $1,235, amiparis.com; Dries Van Noten Sweater, $500, barneys.com; Pants, $485, Stella McCartney, 212-255-1556; Converse Sneakers, $85, nike.com; Sunglasses, $300, moscot.com Photo: Andy Ryan for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Rebecca Malinsky, Grooming by Alicia Marie Campbell, Model: Francisco Perez/dna Model Management

What caught our eye were looks that echo and recast the best trends of that time: corduroy suits; roomy, yet refined plaid overcoats; and shearling-collared denim jackets. Kaleidoscopic prints, that might have been tacky then in Qiana nylon, take on a different character reworked in eye-pleasing hues on today’s silkier rayon shirts. The 2017 versions of these pieces resemble the kind of working-guy clothes worn by the twins James Franco plays in “The Deuce,” the HBO series set in early-’70s New York City that premieres Sept. 10.

A little boho, a little preppy: When recalibrated correctly, these particular ’70s trends aren’t ugly. Instead, they’re an opportunity to add a little depth to your look through texture, interesting proportions and muted, earthy colors.

For the risk-averse, texture is the safest starting point. Stella McCartney’s smooth velveteen pants (see above photo) are something any guy can wear. But don’t stop at the trousers, said Mr. Pask. There’s nothing easier than a cord trucker jacket or blazer, he advised: “Corduroy, especially, is a great sport jacket option for fall, as it has an interesting, professorial look.”

RECUT THE CORD Officine Générale Jacket, $540, Shirt, $235, Corduroy Pants, $265, mrporter.com, and Scarf, $155, Skas Fifth Avenue, 212-753-4000; Anderson’s Belt, $200, bloomingdales.com.Photo: Andy Ryan for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Rebecca Malinsky, Set Design by Jared Lawton Production Design, Grooming by Alicia Marie Campbell, Model: Francisco Perez/dna Model Management

Remember Donald Sutherland’s pot-smoking professor in “Animal House” (1978) with his velveteen three-piece suit and curly mop of hair? Tailored, comfortable outfits like his (or the Officine Générale corduroy suit above) earn high marks for their rather sexy textures. On the feel-good front, a cherry-red ribbed ski sweater or Prada’s plush wool Harrington jacket (see photo below) are slightly more advanced.

“There’s something warm and fuzzy” about such textures,” said Mr. Pask. Lately, he’s been reminiscing over the wardrobe of Ryan O’Neal’s character in 1970s relentlessly tear-jerking “Love Story”: wide-wale corduroy pants, shearling-collared jackets and tweed sport coats—sumptuous combos he calls “evocative” and “romantic,” ’70s style worth emulating.

Jacket, $3,020, Sweater, $640, and Pants, $1,200 Prada, 212-334-8888; Shirt, $345, Stella McCartney, 212-255-1556; Boots, $135, clarksusa.com Photo: Andy Ryan for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Rebecca Malinsky, Grooming by Alicia Marie Campbell, Model: Francisco Perez/dna Model Management

What’s missing from this season’s fabric roster: clingy synthetics, Dacron double-knits and don’t-light-a-match-near-it poly. “The era produced man-made fabrics that were revolutionary in their day but ugly,” said Steven Stipelman, who did his share to disseminate the garish ’70s aesthetic as a fashion illustrator at Women’s Wear Daily. Forty years later, we are more discerning, he said: Designers “extract from the style, making it more polished. When we look at the suits now, the silhouette is softer—they don’t look like cardboard.”

Jacket, $540, amiparis.com; Dries Van Noten Sweater, $580, and Shirt, $325, barneys.com; Pants, $483, MP Massimo Piombo, 39-027-862-5718; Socks, $25, falke.com; Boots, $685, crockettandjones.com Photo: Andy Ryan for The Wall Street Journal, Styling by Rebecca Malinsky, Grooming by Alicia Marie Campbell, Model: Francisco Perez/dna Model Management

That sense of refinement applies to a reconsidered color palette, too. Those off-putting mustard yellows, algae greens and Cheeto oranges that bubbled up long ago, making leisure suits and turtlenecks uneasy on the eyes, are as dead as disco; what endures are the decade’s autumnal tones, rich not kitsch.

Alexandre Mattiussi, the designer of Parisian label Ami, uses color here and there—a bit of violet on a crewneck, or a cherry panel on a zip up sweater—adding bright touches to earth-toned pieces in low-risk, high-reward pairings. Navy-on-navy-on-navy, or any tone-on-tone combination, would be easier, but it would also be boring and predictable. Instead, mixing elements that are subtle shades apart, like “a blue shirt and light wash jeans with a dark-brown checked jacket,” reflect the “nonchalant sophistication of the ’70s,” he said.

That Seventies Show: What Looked Cool Back Then

From Ryan O’Neal’s sport coat in Love Story (the good) to John Ritter’s tri-tone track jacket (the bad), to Lee Major’s leisure suit (the ugly) in “The Six Million Dollar Man,” here are a few 70s fashion flashbacks to refresh your memory

“Love Story,” 1970Everett Collection

“Shaft,” 1971Everett Collection

“The Six Million Dollar Man,” 1973Everett Collection

“Starsky and Hutch,” 1975-1979Everett Collection

“Welcome Back Kotter,” 1975-1979Everett Collection

“Three’s Company,” 1977-1984Everett Collection

For all of its fashion flaws, the ’70s was a time that encouraged men to take chances with what they wore, and didn’t censure them for doing so. “In the ’50s and ’60s, everyone was a cookie cutter of one another,” said Mark-Evan Blackman, a professor of menswear at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. That was particularly true for businessmen, he added. “History has shown us that to get ahead, you had to look like someone from the cast of ‘Mad Men.’” The early seasons, that is.

When the counterculture trickled up to the mainstream, out went those stodgy gray flannel suits. “What the ’70s did was open the door and allow men to express themselves,” said Mr. Blackman. Like any good educator, however, he’s enthusiastic about learning from mistakes. And when it comes to the era in question, no mistake was bigger, literally, than bell bottoms.

We won’t attempt to gaslight you into believing that full-on bell bottoms have a place in your closet. That said, their outlandish lines have influenced the proportions of fall’s fuller pants, a change from the narrow trouser cut that has reigned for years. “We’re moving out of a trimmed, cropped, skinny look into a more voluminous and accommodating shape,” said Mr. Pask.

What’s more, the slight flare allows your pant legs to hang neatly over dressy Chelsea boots (check out the versions from Crockett & Jones), as popular now as they were then. Also worth mentioning are brown suede chukkas, so beloved by 1970s Ivy Leaguers. The shoes’ napped texture plays well off corduroy, and both styles of footwear offer more versatility than the sort of shock-white boots Alice Cooper wore when accessorizing his arena-rock costumes with snakes.

The welcome change in silhouette doesn’t stop at the trousers. Look at the Ami topcoat (see photo near top): Its longer, fluid shape is decidedly comfortable, ideal over an oxford-cloth shirt or rib-knit turtleneck. Thanks to its unstructured shoulders and high-cut armholes, the coat appears mod and modern.

It also exemplifies the benefits of selectively mining ’70s design. “What was ugly once is beautiful now,” said Mr. Stipelman. Except for leisure suits: Some things are best left to rot in a YouTube clip from “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

Off-Putting Is In

Many of fall’s non-’70s looks flirt with extremes, too

We’re in a polarizing fashion period, very much as we were 40 years ago. Radical runway trends that some applaud and others abhor include (clockwise from left) Prada’s scuba sneakers, a Balenciaga jumpsuit, Palm Angel’s shiny purple jersey-style top, Gucci’s Technicolor crewneck and Amiri’s distressed denim. Is this where menswear is headed? Let’s revisit the topic in 2057.

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