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Changes in women’s footwear – part 6: 1970 to 1979

Considering a dramatic decade – in terms of both world-shattering international events and fast-moving footwear fashion.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © PeopleImages |

The 1970s has often been portrayed as a pivotal time of change in the history of the world. In fact, so many dramatic events took place that a Hollywood movie of the decade would be a whirlwind of action lasting for several hours. Before examining how footwear designs changed during the seventies, it is worthwhile getting an idea of (or remembering) what was going on around the world, all of which must surely have contributed to shaping society and its demands on the fashion industry – especially when it resulted in extreme styles which may have been a form of escapism to many people.

Following the post-World War II economic boom, the populations of many countries faced the shock of a financial upheaval. Following their perceived support for Israel during the 1973 ‘Yom Kippur’ War, a number of industrialised nations were seriously affected by an embargo by the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries. This led to a global economic shock which caused petrol shortages (and subsequent rationing) in many lands. Sweden rationed heating oil, Germany, Italy, Norway, Switzerland and the UK prohibited boating, driving and flying on Sundays, and the Netherlands imprisoned people who used more than their ration of electricity.

The United Kingdom also faced a series of strikes by coal miners over the winter of 1973-74. As a result, the British people were asked to heat only one room in their houses over the coldest month of the year. Between January and March 1974, the ‘three-day working week’ was one of several measures introduced in the UK in an effort to conserve electricity, the generation of which was severely restricted owing to industrial action by coal miners. Services deemed essential (such as hospitals, supermarkets and newspapers) were exempt from the rationing, and television companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10:30pm during the crisis to conserve electricity.

The global dependence on oil was seen once again in 1979 when another international crisis erupted and caused shortages for a second time in six years.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

1975 sandals with metallic uppers

The ‘Cold War’ between communism and capitalistic nations was still a key issue affecting many countries, with nuclear weapons on both sides of the divide ready to be deployed at a few minutes’ notice. The long-running Vietnamese War finally ended in 1975 once the USA had withdrawn its forces from that devastated nation, and there were also major conflicts in Afghanistan (invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979), Angola, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Bangladesh, as well as the previously-mentioned 1973 war in the Middle East. The 1970s also saw coups and revolutions in such lands as Uganda, Iran, Chile, Ethiopia, Portugal, Argentina and Pakistan. Sporting events were not immune from political mayhem, with terrorists killing 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich.

US president Richard Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 while facing charges over the Watergate scandal. Democracy was restored in Spain when military dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975 after 39 years in power. There were no fewer than three popes over the Roman Catholic Church in 1978. Paul VI, who had ruled since 1963 died and was replaced by John Paul. However, only 33 days later this new pope was also dead, after which John Paul II took control. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein gained power in 1979 and started on a violent path that would ultimately lead to two Gulf wars and his execution 27 years later. Another dictator ruled the African nation of Uganda, with Idi Amin taking control in 1971 before beginning a programme of persecution against anyone opposing his ideologies.

Assassinations of national leaders was rife during the decade – the king of Saudi Arabia and the president of Bangladesh were both murdered in 1975, and former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro died at the hands of the ‘Red Brigade’ in 1978. There were also two attempts on the life of US president Gerald Ford in 1975.

Women in Western society gradually gained increasingly flexible and varied roles during the decade, and more females entered the workforce. The power of feminism grew around the world and this was evident in the significant number of women acting as heads of state. The list of female national leaders during the seventies included Isabel Martinez de Perón (Argentina), Elisabeth Domitien (Central African Republic), Indira Ghandi (India), Golda Meir (Israel), Lidia Gueiler Tejada (Bolivia), Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo (Portugal) and Margaret Thatcher (UK).

The 1970s saw many natural disasters, with major earthquakes in China, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and the Philippines, in addition to a tsunami that followed this latter quake, cyclones in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), India and Australia, and tornados in the USA.

On a more positive note, modern computing took a major step forward in the seventies with the development of the world’s first general microprocessor. Popular computer and video games of the decade included ‘Space Invaders’, ‘Asteroids’, ‘Snake’, ‘Pong’ and ‘Breakout’. The inaugural email was sent in 1971, and the 1970s also witnessed the launch of fibre optics that went on to transform worldwide communications, microwave ovens, videocassette recorders (VCRs) and e-commerce which began in 1979. The first ‘mobile’ (‘cell’) telephone call was made in 1973.

If everything going on in the world was not breathtaking enough, there was also the music scene to consider, which played a considerable role in contemporary shoe design.

The British are coming

Against the backdrop of all this international mayhem and scientific advancement, popular culture was definitely varied. Although the Beatles disbanded in 1970, the music industry during the early part of the seventies continued to be dominated by the stars of the 1960s, such as the Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton. New rockers, such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin appeared on the scene.

‘Glam rock’ developed in the UK during the early part of the decade by musicians who wore flamboyant costumes, makeup and hairstyles, and particularly favoured platform shoes and glitter. The UK charts were inundated with glam rock acts from 1971 (when T. Rex lead singer Marc Bolan appeared on the BBC’s music show Top of the Pops wearing glitter and satin) and 1975. Other British glam rock artists included David Bowie, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Mott the Hoople, Sweet, Slade, Mud and Roxy Music. In the USA, the scene was much less prevalent, with Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed being the only American artists of this genre to score a hit. Elton John was another British performer who in the 1970s threw caution to the wind and performed in very flamboyant costumes and eye-catching shoe styles – including eight-inch platform heels decorated with sequins.

1970s fashion often adopted extreme styles

Things changed suddenly in the middle of the decade, with the rise of disco music provided by the likes of Abba, the Bee Gees, Boney M, Chic, Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band and the Village People. Shoes worn by women at discos ranged from knee-high boots to kitten heels, and a common style had thick heels with transparent plastic uppers. While wedges (arguably the most popular women’s shoe of the mid-seventies) or high platform shoes with chunky heels were also initially worn at discos, dancers soon demanded more comfortable footwear, so strappy sandals became the choice of millions of women worldwide. By the end of the 1970s, such shoes with slender heels – reminiscent of 1950s styles – had also regained their popularity away from the disco floor. There was even a craze for wearing roller skates at ‘roller discos’. In 1971, Melanie had a hit with her song ‘Brand New Key’ (also known simply as ‘The Roller Skate Song’), and the decade ended in 1979 with actress Linda Blair roller skating across cinema screens in the movie ‘Roller Boogie’.

Towards the end of the seventies, a new culture exploded onto the world scene in the form of punk rock, led by such bands as The Clash, the Ramones, The Sex Pistols and Talking Heads – but more of them later. In the USA during the late 1970s, country music – provided by Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Willy Nelson, Kenny Rogers and many others – became more mainstream and so enlarged its own popularity. The trend started really gaining momentum in 1978, when the first season of the TV show ‘Dallas’ was broadcast.

There were, of course, other music genres with their own followings – all of which, to a greater or lesser degree, influenced footwear styles around the world.

A shoe shop photographed in 1974

Footwear fashion on the high street

Many of the footwear designers working for the decade’s music stars let their imaginations run riot, and many of these dramatic styles quickly found their way into high street stores.

Espadrilles with long laces

However, because outlandish footwear was not always deemed suitable, alternative – somewhat ’toned down’ – shoe designs were needed, although many women of the time still considered that the highest footwear available was the best. This led to the most popular women’s shoes, boots and sandals of the early seventies, which featured platforms and tall, chunky heels, and were even used on many men’s shoes. Despite the incredible popularity of these blocky styles, consumers still demanded other designs of women’s shoes. Perhaps surprisingly, Edwardian-style court shoes and styles with squared-off toes reminiscent of the 1940s were reintroduced and these sold well. Later in the 1970s, shoe designers began to pair thick soles with narrower high heels and even stilettos. Another popular style of the time was an espadrille held on the foot by laces which wrapped around the wearer’s leg.

Boots still in demand

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

1972 knee boots with blue, green and gold textile uppers

Fashion fads have always come and departed again. One of these was the desire to wear patchwork clothes and hats, and carry patchwork bags. For a time, this style made its way onto the footwear designer’s palette, primarily in the form of knee-high boots with platform soles.

Tall ‘go-go’ boots, which became popular in the 1960s, became really mainstream in the seventies. As with other footwear designs, they could be very eccentric, for example when paired with platform heels. White remained the most popular choice, but a spectrum of vivid – and in some cases garish – colours were also available. At the beginning of the decade, ‘wet look’ was very popular, which was normally achieved through the use of glossy vinyl materials.

The surfaces of many 1970s boots featured some texture, which led to the term ‘crinkle boots’ being coined. This type of material was available in virtually any boot design, including stretch boots and knee-highs. Platform boots, like similar shoes of the time, featured an exaggerated sole up to four inches tall. While sales of wedge-heeled boots were slow at the start of the seventies, by 1975 they were proving irresistible to female shoppers.

Having come onto the market in the late 1960s, so-called ‘Granny’ boots were also popular during the 1970s. This style was lifted straight from the 1920s – they laced up the front and usually finished just below the wearer’s knee. However, unlike the earlier decade’s offerings (which normally came in black or dark brown), seventies Granny boots were available in a wide variety of colours, patterns and materials. This new generation of boot often had a chunky heel, rather different to the slender units attached to the 1920s designs.

After so much flamboyancy with clothing and footwear during the early to mid 1970s, it was no surprise that fashion ‘calmed down’ by the end of the decade, and shoe designers followed suit. As a result, brown leather boots that zipped up the side and with a short heel were very popular in 1979. Popular shoes in the latter half of the seventies included Mary Janes, knee-high boots with rounded toes, platform shoes, sandals and loafers, all of which were far more restrained than in previous years.

Alternative styles

Although very fashionable footwear had a massive following around the world for much of the 1970s, it was not to everyone’s taste, and other styles of shoes were sold during the decade, some of which involved claims of improved health. As an example, Scandinavian wooden clogs were popular with many women, although even this style could have platform soles several inches high. A similar shoe was the ‘exercise sandal’ featuring a contoured wooden sole to which were fixed two vamp pieces that buckled in the middle to form a single vamp band. Created in 1961 by orthopaedic specialist Dr William Scholl, it was designed to exercise the wearer’s foot and leg. Having to grip onto the shoe with the toes when walking was said to engage the muscles of the foot and leg, which ‘toned’ them up. Many (perhaps most) of the women who wore these sandals still chose them for their styling rather than any health benefits.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

Seventies pink and green brocade platform mule clog

The ‘Earth Shoe’ was an unconventional style of footwear developed in the seventies by Danish shoe designer and yoga instructor Anna Kalsø. Incorporating what was called ‘negative heel technology’, her sole design was thinner at the heel than at the forefoot. As a result, wearers walked heel-downwards which, she claimed, imparted certain health benefits. Earth Shoes were launched in the USA on April 1st 1970, and their popularity quickly surged, especially after they featured prominently on Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight Show’ and in TIME Magazine. When the manufacturer was unable to keep up with worldwide demand, franchise owners pursued legal action against the distributor in the USA. Retail sales of the Kalsø Earth Shoe were discontinued in the USA by the late 1970s, although they were re-launched in 2001.

Sports shoes enter mainstream market

Although the trainer (sneaker) craze of the seventies was just a foretaste of what was to come in the 1980s, the decade still saw an unprecedented rise in the demand for athletic shoes. For the first time, running became one of the world’s most popular pastimes, and sports shoes started to sell by the million. This trend was, at least partly, due to the fact that an increasing number of sporting events were being televised around the world as never before. However, it also became acceptable to view sports shoes as fashionable everyday wear – both for men and women – and this fundamental change has grown phenomenally down to our day.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

1970s Nike waffles

The wearing of trainers became an integral part of the music industry and its followers many years ago. This style of shoe has particularly become an important part of hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll cultures since the 1970s. In the UK during the seventies, the previously-mentioned punk music scene also developed a reliance on classic trainers – both high- and low-topped versions – regularly worn by members of the Ramones as well as by the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious. This connected the world of trainers to a younger and more diverse global customer base. Brand owners began to release ranges of so-called ‘street-inspired’ footwear and styles that were as much for fashion as they were for function and performance.

Into the eighties

As the decade drew to a close, fashion had changed dramatically over ten short years – more so, perhaps, than in any preceding period. What would the 1980s hold for footwear producers around the world?

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 40 of the September 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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