Roy Halston Frowick—better known simply as Halston—with models at a fashion show in 1977.

Charles Harrity/AP/Shutterstock

The Groundbreaking Forces of ’70s Fashion

From Halston to Burrows, these designers redefined style for generations.

January 17, 2023

It’s no secret that we’re utterly enamored with 1970s style—especially the era’s groundbreaking fashions. From the bohemian glamour of the international jet set to the slinky, sensual gowns that dotted the dance floor at Studio 54 to the sophisticated separates embraced by on-the-go urbanites, the era’s defining trends still permeate our modern zeitgeist. So what, exactly, made the ’70s such a groundbreaking chapter in fashion history? We spoke to designer, consultant (his client list includes iconic brands like Calvin Klein and Tom Ford), and ’70s fashion buff Michael Berkowitz to learn more about the names behind the decade’s most influential looks.

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How were the 1970s in fashion so drastically different than previous decades? What spurred those changes?

Through the 1960s, designer clothes were often sold as an ensemble, which derived from the couture model where everything was shown as a full look. If you look at fashion magazines or advertising from department stores at the time, you’d see that a dress would come with a coat, or a tailored skirt and jacket with a blouse. In fact, when Calvin Klein started at FIT, he worked for what was known as a “coat and dress” manufacturer. In the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent in France really helped smash that model when he launched YSL Rive Gauche sportswear. It was a much younger approach to fashion—he really encouraged people to mix and match separate pieces.

  • Yves Saint Laurent with a model—wearing an ensemble from his first solo collection—and assistant in his Paris workshop in 1959.

    Photo by AP/Shutterstock
  • Ten years later, Saint Laurent poses with Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise outside of his new Rive Gauche boutique in London.

The fact that it became easier to fly transatlantic also really helped to open up that connection between fashion in New York and Paris and Milan in the 1970s. The jet set way of life sped everything up and gave people access to so much more—suddenly, they were able to go shopping for a weekend in Europe.

Designers were also using materials that weren’t previously available, right?

Halston’s jersey dresses and separates might have been his biggest contributions to fashion in the sense that he was using this new technology to make really modern shapes for a woman on the move—you didn’t even have to press it! Most of the top designers worked with an American mill called Jasco. Back then, designers actually credited fashion mills because they appreciated the artistry of their fabrics.

Halston, pictured with models in a December 1972 Vogue shoot, pioneered the use of materials like rayon matte jersey and Ultrasuede.

Duane Michals/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

In addition to the big names like Halston and Calvin Klein, who else played a key role in moving American fashion forward?

Anne Klein really created the idea of luxury American separates and using them to build a wardrobe—she was even bigger than Calvin Klein in the ‘70s. Stephen Burrows designed some of the era’s best looks; women loved to dance in his lettuce-edged jersey dresses, and both Halston and Saint Laurent were big fans of his work. Norma Kamali’s sleeping bag coat was also a major moment. She was dating Ian Schrager at the time, and he loved them so much that he decided to have the Studio 54 doormen wear them to keep warm!

Models wearing Stephen Burrows hold the New York designer aloft for the September 1977 issue of Vogue.

Oliviero Toscani/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

What about American couturiers?

Two of the designers who kept the couture tradition alive in America were James Galanos and Norman Norrell. They always worked at the highest level, mostly making made-to-measure clothing and employing old-world techniques. Norrell’s clothes took days to make; they were really about understated elegance and making an impression. Michael Kors was later very influenced by him. James Galanos was all about uber-luxury; he worked according to his own timetable instead of the fashion press calendar.

  • A model wears a sequined evening gown and feathered coat in Norman Norell’s Fall 1971 show.

    Bettmann / Getty Images
  • A look from the James Galanos Fall 1973 couture collection.

    WWD / Getty Images

While we look at the ’70s as such a singular time in fashion, it’s also true that designers at the time were drawing a lot of inspiration from previous decades too, right?

A lot of people—European designers especially—were influenced by 1920s and 1930s American fashion and would travel to the U.S. to buy vintage clothing. You saw a lot of Art Deco revival, gangster looks, women in pinstripe suits, and of course there were movies like Paper Moon and The Great Gatsby that were really popular. Even Norma Kamali’s sleeping bag coat was a callback to the down jackets that Charles James designed in the late ’30s. A fashion illustrator named Antonio Lopez rediscovered James’s work and brought it back to life from the archives, and all of a sudden you were seeing the same look on a model in Studio 54!

  • A drawing of designer Charles James’s padded and quilted eiderdown jacket by illustrator Antonio Lopez, circa 1970.

    Chicago History Museum, ICHi-062780; Antonio Lopez, artist
  • A Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat, originally designed in 1973, on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

    ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo