When it comes to fashion, the saying “everything old is new again” is true. Such is the case with flared jeans, which are often referred to as bell-bottoms. Bell-bottoms—so named because all though snug in the upper leg, they then flare out from the knee down and are widest at the hem, creating the look of a bell—has a fascinating history. They have been worn since at least the early 19th century by sailors, who would roll the legs up to avoid getting their pants wet or dirty when doing such chores as checking the rigging or swabbing the decks. A sailor who fell overboard could easily remove the pants over his shoes or boots, tie the legs at the bottom, and inflate them to use as a flotation device until rescue arrived. (Fun fact: To this day, the U.S. Navy makes its sailors learn how to turn a pair of pants into a life preserver during basic training.)
During the 1960s, young adults, rebelling against what they saw as their parents’ emphasis on monetary wealth, often bought clothes in secondhand stores, where they came across—you guessed it!—surplus Navy pants. By the 1970s, flared pants, made not only from denim but other, patterned fabrics, had found their way into the mainstream. Although you’re not likely going to ever have to turn your pants into a life preserver, there are other things you will have to do—mainly, style them. Here are some tips on how to do just that.
When it comes to styling your flared jeans, the easiest go-to’s are women’s T-shirts, especially in white. Tees come in a variety of necklines, such as crew, scoop, or V-neck, and sleeve lengths, so no matter your size or shape, you’re sure to find one that suits you to a T. Add a leather belt that’s at least 1 inch wide; anything narrower will not be noticed given all the fabric in flared jeans. Balance your white T-shirt with classic white sneakers; if you want to be super on-trend, opt for platform kicks.
Surprisingly, flared jeans pair well with tunic tops. Conventional wisdom says if your top or bottom is loose, the other piece should be fitted (more on that below). However, pairing a slightly wider tunic at the bottom with a pair of flared jeans creates a pleasing silhouette. Swap out the tunic for a gauzy, flowy peasant blouse that has some trim around the neckline for a variation of this look. Wear a few bangles and hoop earrings, and add a pair of ankle booties to finish the look.
Another classic that works well with flared jeans is the fitted top. The smooth line created by a fitted top or blouse nicely offsets the looseness at the bottom of the jeans. Wear your flared jeans with boots in your favorite style. If donning your bell-bottoms makes you want to channel your inner disco dancer, head over to your local thrift shop and try to score a fitted Qiana shirt. You’ll look fabulous. Hang a mirror ball below your ceiling light, and you’ll be ready to point and hustle your night away.
As with other jeans styles, flared jeans look great when worn with layers. For example, add a cardigan over your classic white tee for a look that is, well, classic. When the weather is cooler, swap out the T-shirts for ribbed turtlenecks. The ribbing will elongate your torso, providing balance for your overall look. For a more on-trend variation, swap out your cardigan for one that is knee-length and add a pair of lug-sole boots and a bucket hat. If you want to up your game further, exchange the T-shirt for a cropped tee and bare a little midriff under your cardigan.
If you already own a pair of flared jeans, you’re halfway to your costume the next time you need to attend a ’60s- or ’70s-themed party. Wear your favorite tie-dye shirt or your most wildly patterned blouse or top; if you want, you can layer a denim or granny square vest on top. Accessorize with beaded or leather jewelry (or beaded leather jewelry) and a macramé belt and tie a fashion scarf around your head, letting the ends hang down. Finish the look with a pair of Chelsea boots.
Whether you want to show you’re au courant with the latest trends in jeans or live a not-so-secret hippie lifestyle, you can do both with a pair of flared jeans, although not necessarily at the same time.