Who Decides What’s Tacky Anyway?
On Bad Taste and Leopard Print in the 1970s
While Americans in the 1970s didn’t invent bad taste, they came gloriously close to perfecting it. After the disappointments and tragedies of the post-war era—Kennedy’s assassination; civil rights violence; the Vietnam War; and, early in the decade, Nixon’s resignation—they were ready to have fun, whether or not it was a good idea. Cars were huge, hair was expanding, and double-knit polyester bell-bottomed pantsuits were taking over. So many things were happening in fashion that even venerable Vogue magazine threw up its hands and declared that there were no longer any rules.
A woman could wear just about any skirt length she liked, from the persistent miniskirt to the newly hip maxi, any time of day or night, and she did. While she was constrained in professional environments like schools and offices, where pantsuits were still not allowed and she almost always wore stockings or tights over her bare legs, she had significant freedom of choice. Showing a lot of leg might be considered tacky in some places, but it wouldn’t get you arrested.
The word “tacky” was originally a noun, a Southern American colloquialism used in the early nineteenth century to refer to a small or inexpensive horse. There’s a breed called the Carolina Marsh Tacky, though only a few of these horses remain. The word evolved to mean an ill-kept or ill-bred horse, then to mean an ill-bred person, and finally, by the mid-twentieth century, to become a modifier of the quality of items owned by or associated with that ill-bred man—the quality of bad taste.
To claim someone has bad taste is to make a statement of one’s superior taste, as it requires good taste to be competent enough to observe bad taste. There’s usually some kind of class statement explicitly or subtly included; “tacky” is what is too easily accessible to people either without resources or abusive of the resources they have. Tacky, as a concept, refers to the lack of cultivation or the resistance to taste, and more often than not refers to tastes that are not suitably conservative. That which is elegant can become tacky if it becomes less exclusive and more easily acquired, what one might call the promiscuity factor in fashion. A cheap knockoff of a fancy designer shirt can be tacky, even if the original was in the best possible taste—and clearly, it’s in bad taste to rip off the designer in the first place. Tacky doesn’t respect gatekeepers, and tacky tries too hard.
Furthermore, tacky is likely to be feminine, ethnic, queer, deviant; not manly, not practical, not businesslike, not serious. Tacky, like hell, is always other people.
So what made the 1970s so tacky? Options. At no time and in no place had any population ever had the number of options, especially when it came to clothing, that Americans gained in the 1970s. Shopping malls, those centers of community and suburban culture, were headed toward their 1980s peak. While shopping areas and markets have existed since
the dawn of trade, and malls have been documented since ancient Rome, the enclosed shopping mall became a specific phenomenon in the United States during the twentieth century.
Before the shopping mall took over, brick-and-mortar shopping had generally been centralized in whatever was the downtown section of a given town or group of towns, and had an air of urban sophistication about it. The growth of the shopping mall moved shopping closer to the burgeoning suburbs.
For those interested in exclusivity and exceptionality, a shopping mall is the worst, filled with racks of identical clothing open to be pawed and tried on at will by all and sundry. A mall was a place where anyone could go and work in a tacky clothing store and buy a tacky shirt with their tacky employee discount. The pleasure these tacky people took in their purchases appeared to be irrelevant, according to arbiters of good taste, to whether they were good clothing choices, as the shoppers lacked sophistication and education about the quality of their clothing, and the ease of access to the items they bought was the main reason they were tacky. And, of course, the mall shoppers had the good sense not to care about the arbiters of good taste.
The more options poor people have, the more invested elitist wealthy people are in distinguishing themselves from the aesthetics of non-wealthy, average people, who just happen to look great in leopard print because everybody does. While they couldn’t enforce sumptuary laws in order to make sure poorer people couldn’t look like they could, they could support the creation of ever-more expensive and elite clothing, and they tried.
Everyone else just ignored them. Leopard print was at the forefront of the resistance to good taste. In fact, leopard print was employed so thoroughly and so shamelessly in the 1970s that today many costume-in-a-bag outfits that aim to re-create the seventies that don’t really have many of the key structural characteristics of 1970s clothing manage to work simply because they are executed in leopard print. Anyone who wanted to could wear leopard print, and did. It showed up on faux fur coats, print shirts, dresses and skirts, pants, underwear, bikinis, purses, shoes, hats, and more. There was no longer the comparison to the outrageously expensive genuine fur; leopard print was on its own for the first time, and it was winning.
While many people wouldn’t have wanted to think of themselves as tacky, even if they wouldn’t have changed their tastes in order to avoid it, others were proud of it. This was the era in which “camp” came into its own.
To be campy is, among other things, to be tacky on purpose. Campiness is considered, not entirely without snobbery, as a self-aware version of tackiness. Campy is smart tacky, glamour with an ironic twist. Campy is always too much, whereas tacky is somehow not enough. Campy embraces the detestable with affection, as an actual aesthetic. The word “tacky” implies that the person so designated had failed in their goal of being tasteful, whereas the word “campy” implies they have succeeded in their goal of being distasteful.
Leopard print became more closely associated with several self-indulgent identities: the seductress, the exotic, the fun-lover, and the adventurer. Having any identity at all, being willing to stand out, was part of the essence of tackiness; good taste was meant to blend in. Women were, then as now, criticized harshly when they spoke with conviction about anything but supporting family and nation. The best thing they could do was be seen and not heard, or at least appear to be serious people. Women in leopard print were having none of that.
Fashion had begun to trickle up from the streets as well as down from fashion authorities. The popularity of youth culture and the quirkiness of their style were sources of fresh ideas for fashion designers. Coolness—in the sense of confidence and ease—came from youth and from marginalized cultures, particularly black cultures, as when jazz and dance from Uptown New York City and Chicago had influenced popular culture. Youth became a cultural force to be accounted for and reckoned with. Furthermore, youth culture became a market, and if leopard print as nonconformity would be sold, plenty of young people were willing to buy it.
The fashion store Biba, created by clothing designer Barbara Hulanicki, had been popular in the swinging London of the 1960s, when London’s high streets became the center of a sensational movement toward experimental fashion that embraced designers such as Paco Rabanne, who worked in unusual fabrics such as metal and plastic; Emilio Pucci, who created complex large-scale patterns; and Mary Quant and André Courrèges, who were each in their own way responsible for the earth-shaking phenomenon of the miniskirt. Originally a small corner store selling only one dress to very young women, when Biba created its own multilevel department store in the early 1970s, it was able to retain its youth appeal in part by selling reasonably priced clothing and home items in a theatrical setting with an old-Hollywood-style art deco interior. Their food store made fun, whimsical references to pop art, like stacking soups in a display based on Warhol’s soup cans. It featured its own restaurant, the Rainbow Room, where both rock stars and regular shoppers hung out. It had a rooftop garden with flamingos. It also had an animal-print lingerie room, a big, round leopard-print bed in the center of one of the levels, and a spectacular communal dressing room covered with a cheetah-print motif, designed by Steven Thomas of Whitmore-Thomas Design Associates.
Some of Biba’s most memorable fashions included its fresh way of using animal prints, many of them in women’s suits. They used the two-piece professional suit as a basis for outfits that managed to be both outrageous and polished. While the garments were clearly intended to be chic—think Katharine Hepburn dressed in a suit in the 1940s—they also, like Hepburn’s suit, referenced the male Western suit that was becoming the global standard for businessmen, which Western colonizers implied all serious businesspeople must either wear or make a statement by not wearing. In the 1960s, Rudi Gernreich, who had designed the first topless bathing suit, took the idea of matching leopard-print pieces to the next level, combining space-age garment shapes with animal print on outfits that covered a wearer’s body, legs, hands, head, and even faces. In the 1970s, animal print was presented in more familiar silhouettes. Women were determined to literally wear the pants as well, not just casually but also in the office. This suit combined layers of power: the power of the present over the past; the power of a woman to wear clothing that suits her convenience; the economical power of a woman to work and earn her own money; and the power to choose what to wear. It wasn’t long before women were able to wear, if not leopard pants, pantsuits to the office, and several decades later the pantsuit would become the symbol of the first major party female candidate for president of the United States. Even in the ostensibly frivolous world of London fashion, women’s determination to have their power acknowledged was becoming clear.
Of course, high-fashion designers still figured out ways to keep some leopard print for themselves. It was too good to give up. Among them was Yves Saint Laurent, who got his start in Dior’s atelier. When he went out on his own he continued to share Dior’s affection for the pattern and became well-known for his use of leopard burnout velvet, which continues to appear in Yves Saint Laurent designs today. He created beautiful high-end jackets and dresses in leopard-patterned flowing fabrics that echoed Dior’s 1947 goddess-dress design.
However, the 1970s designer with the most direct influence on how leopard print is worn in the twenty-first century is probably Diane von Furstenberg. In 1976, she began marketing her wrap dresses, figure-hugging jersey pieces that managed to be both easy to wear and office right, at least for administrative assistants and fashion editors if not for the then-rare female CEOs. The dress appeared on Upper East Side mavens as well as on the highly charged dance floor of Studio 54—the hottest and most exclusive disco in the world—where she could be seen in her leopard wrap dress chatting up Andy Warhol. Von Furstenberg hinted that the dress had been purposely designed to go from an all-nighter at the club to a walk of shame to the office, possibly without sleep but with plenty of polish. It was a little naughty, sure, but not tacky. Leopard print is so awesome that the elite and wealthy couldn’t give it up altogether.
Despite the best efforts of the era’s high-fashion designers, the 1970s have remained the source of much tacky nostalgia. Tacky, as time has proven by the affection people continue to have for it, is often where the imagination runs free, where the heart is, where the soul is, and where the fun is.