Disco: a complete history

Disco music is still enjoyed today in the 21st century, but the flamboyant fashions have been relegated to vintage fancy dress and costume parties. However, disco fashion is so popular because the clothes are so fun and flamboyant you can really show your extrovert side. Disco is not dead. Here is a complete history of disco and disco fashion.

The heyday of disco fashion blossomed from the music played at gay underground New York clubs such as the Loft, Tenth Floor,and 12 West in the early 1970s. Other clubs such as Infinity, Flamingo, the Paradise Garage, Le Jardin, and the Saint launched a disco culture that brought with it an anything-goes attitude and all-night dancing.

Studio 54 became the place to be seen in disco clothing such as boob-tubes, platform shoes, flared trousers and body-conscious shapes dressed in lurex, glitter and crazy patterns or colours. Studio 54 played an essential role creating the nightclub scene that is still with us today – a place where people dress to be noticed and in the latest fashion.

The successful movie Saturday Night Fever (1977) ensured that disco hung around for a few years before becoming very unfashionable when Punk Rock and New Wave became the new anti-fashion fashion.

But what happened before the 1970s to influence the style of disco that we are so familiar with today? Let’s go back in time and take a look……….

The Days Before Disco

1900-1933: In the US, people dance in clubs to a piano or jukebox. Mulberry st.This nightclub scene goes underground with Prohibition until 1933 when nightclubs become popularised again with the use of big bands and swing music.

Spring 1939 – The Swing Kids are a small middle-class German youth movement dedicated to jazz and the flamboyant fashion that accompanies the music. They come together to dance and to show off their latest moves and jazz clothes. The Swing Kids are reacting against the growing Nazi movement (which saw jazz culture as a bad influence with it’s ethnic and international culture). Despite being a non-violent refusal of the dominant culture, the group is closed down by the SS (try the movie Swing Kids – 1993- to see the story).

In Occupied France, jazz and bebop music and the jitterbug dance are banned by the Nazis. They are labelled as degenerate influences. French Resistance groups meet at hidden underground dance clubs called ‘discotheques’. They dance to swing music played either on a juke box or on a single turntable. Dancers wear zoot suits just like the swing dancers in America.

1942La Discotheque, a basement nightclub with only one turntable opens in Paris. The term ‘discotheque’ is used in Europe to describe clubs where there is no live music played.Later in Paris (1947) Paul Pacine opens the Whiskey A-Go-Go club – one of the first ever nightclubs.

At Whiskey A-Go-Go in 1953 DJ Regine uses two turntables with no breaks between the music. There is a dance-floor, coloured lights and no juke-box.

Late 1950s. Meanwhile in London, coffee bars in Soho become the trendiest places to be seen such as was Les Enfants Terribles at 93 Dean St. However, these cafes are unlicensed. Frequented by French and Italian immigrants, they cater to the very young who want to dance in the afternoon. In 1950s London, the rock and roll hipsters prefer bars and taverns to nightclubs (the nightclub is not really mainstream here until the 1970s).

It is early 1960s, and Mark Birley opens a members-only discotheque nightclub, Annabel’s, in Berkeley Square, London. 1961: the US goes Twist crazy. By 1962 New York’s Peppermint Lounge becomes the hip place to be seen twisting the night away on your own or with a partner or two – anything goes. So now people are dancing frequently without a partner. The Peppermint Lounge is witnessing the birth of go-go dancing. In the UK, Roger Earle DJs at The Twisted Earle in Manchester UK, and creates the foundation of the Northern Soul scene (which would have a big impact on Disco).

The Dawn of Disco

It is 1965 and Arthur opens in New York City with DJ Terry Noel (the first DJ to mix records). Other clubs such as Regine’s, Le Club, Shepheard’s, Cheetah, Ondine also open in the mid-1960s.

Meanwhile over in Europe in 1966 records such as Hold Me Closer and Baby Come Back become hits and kickstart the Eurodisco scene. The club scene in Paris hots up with new clubs named Chez Castel and Chez Regine.

New York, 1969, and a club named The Contentinal Baths opens and the Sanctuary opens on West 43rd Street with now legendary DJ Francis Grasso. Jerry Butler’s Only The Strong Survive record is released. It pioneers the Philly Sound that would become one of the most important elements of Disco music history.

Such clubs entertain and engage the growing confidence of marginalised groups at this time. African American, lesbian and gay, psychedelic, Latino mix with hipster heterosexuals in the New York City and Philadelphia clubs during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a decade of growing social fragmentation and lifestyle choices, the reaction against the dominant white rock music and culture in America champions the dance music scene of the jazz heyday. Disco also appeals to women, newly liberated by the pill and feminism now a topic of the modern workplace. Women seek to go out unchaperoned, get dressed up, spend their hard-earned wages and dance the night away to funk, latin and soul music.

Many disco sounds and sights also take inspiration from hippy culture elements such as psychedelia, free love, colourful clothing and drug-taking. It is the era of the counter-culture, the dawning of the age of Aquarius and emancipation and freedom.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, clubs are playing erotic tracks like Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus and long, smooth tracks such as Isaac Hayes’s Walk On By.

By 1970, DJ David Mancuso and his Loft parties begin in New York, becoming a foreunner of many more private clubs to come. His parties are members-only affairs at his home.

Early songs hinting at a disco sound include Bla, Bla Diddly (Giorgio Moroder, 1966), You Keep Me Hangin’ On (The Supremes, 1966), Only the Strong Survive (Jerry Butler, 1968), Message to Love (Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, 1970), Soul Makossa (Manu Dibango, 1972), Keep on Truckin’ (Eddie Kendricks,1973) and The Love I Lost (Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes,1973).

1971: Disco reaches television with the Soul Train music and dancing show.

1973: the first article about disco is written in  by Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone.

Disco Dancing

1973: Karen Lustgarten introduces her disco dance lessons in San Francisco. Her book, The Complete Guide to Disco Dancing(Warner Books, 1978), is the first to name, break down and teach popular dances from disco. The book is a bestseller and translated into several languages.

Individual styles are choreographed to match the different disco sounds and vocals. The Hustle becomes a common name for a number of stylised moves. This partner-dance uses elaborate hand movements and funky twists and turns, influenced by swing dancing of the 1930s and 40s. Other dances also influence the style of disco dancing such as the Latino moves of Mambo and Salsa. Dancing in a line is popularised first in Florida and then New York City, during the early 1970s.

Disco Fever 1974-77

Saturday Night Fever

 

From 1974 – 1977, disco music continues to increase in popularity as many disco songs top the charts.

In late 1977 disco fever peaks with the release of the movie Saturday Night Fever. Seen as a marketing tool to broaden disco’s popularity beyond the counter-culture, it is a huge success and the BeeGees soundtrack becomes one of the best-selling albums of all time.

In the late 1970s disco becomes firmly fixed into the mainstream pop culture. Existing non-disco songs are frequently given the disco treatment. The rich orchestral accompaniment that identifies with the disco era conjures up the memories of the big band era. In turn, several big band artists record disco arrangements including Perry Como.

Classical orchestral arrangements also become disco-fied as long musical tracks gain popularity on the dancefloor. Even Ethel Merman is at it, releasing an album of disco songs The Ethel Merman Disco Album in 1979. It would seem that everyone is doing disco.

1970s Disco fashion

Disco fashions are very popular by the mid-1970s. Even Elvis is wearing a flared jumpsuit cut to the navel. Discotheque-goers of New York are wearing expensive and extravagant fashions for nights out: slinky, wrap dresses by Diane von Furstenberg; flowing Halston dresses for women and polyester, patterned Qiana shirts for men with pointy collars, preferably open at the chest. The leisure suit becomes popular with double-knit polyester shirt jackets and matching trousers.

The trend for these ready-to-wear accessible couture styles quickly filter down into affordable high street fashion for this anything-goes era of fashion. Men become peacocks displaying bright colours, flamboyant patterns and showy jewellery.

For women, 1970s fashion began with a continuation of the mini skirts, bell-bottoms and the androgynous hippie look from the late 1960s. But the 1970s trend for disco brings fashion to a new level of flamboyance. The fashionable turn away from the childlike look of the late 60s to a more sophisticated, sexually-aware and mature style. These styles become part of popular culture until everyone and their grandma is wearing them.

Here’s a rundown of these distinct must-have items that have come to define the disco era of the 1970s:

Hotpants:

A Florida Marlins MermaidHotpants were popular among young women since 1971. These shorts were very tight and very short (as short and as tight as possible). Originally designed to be worn with thick opaque tights, the anything-goes attitude meant that hotpants would get worn any way possible – tights or no tights.

Platform shoes:

Appearing in fashion in 1971 platform-soled shoes elevated both men and women at least 2-4 inches from the ground. Despite helping to keep wide-long flares from trailing on the ground, there was little practicality in these shoes.

Flared jeans/trousers:

Trousers were fast becoming a more popular choice for women in the early 70s. Labels became important as a fashion status symbol with Vanderbilt and Fiorucci jeans becoming must-have items. Trousers are practical and freeing for the liberated working woman.

In a departure from the 1960s hipster trousers, styles were high-waisted and tight-fitting around the hips and thighs, flaring out to cover those lofty platform shoes. The width of flares got so silly that people were falling over them whilst getting their platform shoes caught in all the extra fabric.

There was a choice of flexible man-made fabrics allowing for anything from the plain white satin look to full psychedelic colours and floral patterns. Flared trousers lost their fashion edge in the mid 1970s, however, and skin-tight trousers became the must-have item for dancing (women) and a more roomy/less structured trouser shape (for men).

Three-piece suit:

Popularised by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, the white polyester suit with matching waistcoat was a new style choice for men. It was often teamed with costume jewellery such as an identity bracelet or medallion pendant worn under an open-to-the-navel shirt. Wide lapels, wide legs and high waists were required and suits could also come in various bright colours to suit the dance floor hues. White also looked great under the ultra-violet lighting that became popular in discos.

Wrap dress:

The simple stretch-jersey polyester wrap dress was introduced by Diane von Furstenberg in 1972 – also seen in Saturday Night Fever. It was worn with slingback sandals or knee-high boots with chunky heels. It could be worn to the office by day in a plain colour and transformed into a sexy shape by night.

Glitter:

It was the decade known for introducing glam and glitter to the masses. Inexpensive man-made fabrics ensured that anyone could afford a bit of glitter in their clothing and people went mad for it. Metallic threads, satin-look, sequins, anything with sparkle and shine was great. Glitter also appeared in the make-up, with girls spreading a glitter gel on their cheeks, lips, eyes. Lip gloss was essential. Eyebrows were also plucked to a thin arched line.

Boob-tube:

Often sequined, the boob-tube was a stretchy strapless tube worn around the chest and torso, or baring the midriff. Halter neck tops were also a fashion staple at the disco.

Dancewear/Leotard:

Again this was seen in Saturday Night Fever. From 1974 the leotard became a popular fashion item for the discotheque. Body-conscious silhouettes and a sign that you are serious about disco-dancing and learning the latest moves. You could dress it up with a scarf wrapped around your hips or layer it up with contrasting colours.

Much of this type of clothing was actually professional dancewear. Its flexibility was useful for rigourous moves and hot nights on the dancefloor. Polyester spandex clothing had made its way into popular fashion through the dancewear introduced in the 1960s and via the disco dancefloor of the 1970s.

Dancewear also showed everyone that you were interested in keeping a fit and toned body – an obsession with it’s roots in the rise of fitness and health clubs and exercising regularly. Jogging and skating and other physical pursuits became very fashionable for those who wanted to look good.

Accessories:

Feather boas, slinky scarfs, turbans.

Hair: think afro, shaggy and feathered layered looks and that’s just the men! Hair was easy going and loose or tight and curly with just some tonging, hairspray or gel and maybe some glitter gel for the girls.

The Death of Disco

The whole disco look was gradually replaced by Punk Rock anti-fashion in the late 1970s. The disco style was considered too escapist and flamboyant and out of touch with the politics of the day. In the USA anti-disco resentment grew amongst rock fans who began wearing anti-disco slogans on t-shirts.

This peaked with the event known as Disco Demolition Night, July 12, 1979. An anti-disco demonstration at Comiskey Park in Chicago took place involving exploding disco records. It ended with a riot as the crowd ripped out seats and tore the place up.

Some say the disco backlash was encouraged by music producers who wanted rock to become more popular again. Others have decribed the destruction of disco as a deliberate bigoted attempt to smash the popularisation of a music culture loved by many minority groups in society.

However disco lives on in the hearts of many and there will always be a little piece of disco in the soul of everyone who steps into a nightclub today to dance the night away without having to pair up with a partner.

Revivals and Eurodisco

In the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s, a revival of the original disco style was popular. By the end of the century many disco-influenced songs were hits.

Eurodisco was always more pop-oriented, and less soul-influenced than American style disco. It remained in the pop culture throughout Europe and the UK with groups like ABBA and BoneyM enjoying great success. Such groups remained a significant influence in Europe and the UK throughout the 1980s with such acts as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, and many successful records released through Stock, Aitken and Waterman in the UK.

Disco will always remain popular in music even though the extreme fashion of its heyday has been relegated to history.

20 Comments on “Disco: a complete history

  1. really you idiots have nothing else to do but become captain obvisous? dumb asses :/

  2. Hey Julie, nice job and pretty thorough! My husband & I are from the Disco Days, (he deejayed and I danced! … we were big “hustle” dancers and about 10 years ago he began recreating those nights with retro disco dance parties…We now are 60 & do an internet radio show called back to the boogie ….I would love to give excerpts of the history of disco on our radio show. Hoping you will give me permission and I will also direct people to your page. Please let me know soon … our next show is Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2015. Thank you!

    • Sorry, I’m a bit late to reply but no problem with permission. I love to hear from people who lived through the disco era as I was just a child back then.

  3. I remember the Disco days very well.
    When I got out of the Air Force in 1974 I was living in northern CA, Fairfield. My father had opened up a club in a area of Philadelphia that had been home to numerous clubs. My fathers club was the Hippo at 2031 Sansom St. This location was previously arguably one of the first urban malls in the US? (The Sansom Village). The Hippo was hot from 10:00PM till 5:00AM! I lived it.

  4. Im a middle school student and im doing a NHD Project about disco, this really helped 🙂

  5. Hi Julie , what a fantastic article and so acurate. i am working on a film about the discos . I would love ti discuss with you about using your article for refrence

  6. Julie,

    This is an excellent survey of early and mid-stage disco history. But why end in 1979? While Disco’s “golden age” lasted (approximately) from 1975 to 1979, Disco experienced a hearty “silver age” from 1980 to 1984. You fell into the trap of seeing that “Death of Disco” protest at Comisky Park as an ending point, but this media event was led largely by straight, blue-collar, white guys who resented that disco had taken up much of the radio and record market formerly dominated by their cherished rock music.

    Consider that The Saint (for gays) and Paradise Garage (for blacks) venues experienced their greatest moments during the period of the early 1980s. Where would artists like Madonna be today without their start in 1980s disco? Yes, black and gay people kept the disco fires burning long after kids from the ‘burbs moved on to punk and DOR (dance-oriented rock).

    What really killed disco? For blacks, it was the rise in rap music. Even though the earliest rap songs often digitally sampled disco tracks, it was not really danceable. For gays it was the unfortunate rise of AIDS. Health issues caused many gays to shy away from large dance clubs where the temptation was too great.

    But you and I know, that disco will never die–all of these disco revivals around the world every 10 years or so prove it!

    Ron Levine
    Philly

    • Hi Ron, thank you for your valuable input. It is much appreciated. It is sometimes difficult to know when to stop and how far to go back – sometimes I find myself back in ancient Egypt looking for connections. I will certainly look into the early 80s story, as I know from my own childhood memory, disco was still very much alive (in the UK anyway). I totally agree – it never really died and inspired so much to come after. I so appreciate your comment. Thank you.

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