Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hot Pants College


"You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard," sings Ray Davies in "Celluloid Heroes." You can also see a decent number of hookers, many of them wearing gold hot pants.

For a brief period in the early 1970s and at around the same time that knit maxi-vests were popular, hot pants were the fashion equivalent of the Big Mac: cheap, semi-digestible, and ubiquitous. It has been proposed that the trend started in Germany, where the German prostitutes must have cursed their climatic bad fortune. Another truth is that hot pants were an organic extension of the miniskirt and took over where the miniskirt left off: convenient indecency.

In 1971, hot pants were a retail cluster-bomb, the type of trend that has universal appeal and isn't just limited to regional gaucherie. It was as if they had been dropped from the skies above and scooped up as salvational juju just when Gloria Steinem was at her most maddening.

What women's libbers failed to apprehend was that many women did not want to be the equal of men. They may have resented bras that chafed at the shoulder blades, but they did not want any part of abjuring feminine ritual or bagatelle. To mock or scorn time-honored gender roles and their conventional behaviors would be to forswear everything mainstream society deemed not just acceptable but affirming. The very foundation of civilization would crumble under the dust of female armpit hair.

It was to reassure the male gender that women still liked playing traditional sexual roles that hot pants were dropped, scud-like, onto the fashion terrain. Hot pants were thus an index of control even as they appeared to represent the nadir of a woman's enlightenment. The result was a brief, albeit happy, period in which men felt free to ask shorts-clad stewardesses for a date without being arrested and a "dirty" magazine still meant Playboy.

Hot pants were an extended metaphor for the emancipated urbanite of Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl and later for her Cosmo Girl. This was a woman who not only had an adult interest in sex, she also had a vested interest in displaying herself in ways that would attract the fittest of males. Males were known to like a little leg and hot pants were just dichotomous enough to deliver that message without being lewd.

The trick to hot pants was that they couldn't be scandalous. Worn correctly, they gave off the desired good girl/bad girl vibe that is the reason Playboy Enterprises is an empire and not just any old pornography business. Hot pants, unlike youth, were not wasted on the young. The minute shame crept into the picture--in whatever form it took--the shorts became obscene.

At nearly 40, Liz Taylor shouldn't have gone anywhere near hot pants, not even when they formed the bottom half of a matching ensemble. Strutting through Heathrow, Liz wore hot pants so short that they looked cannibalistic, which was probably the point. Liz's fashion missteps were already legendary; it seemed as if once she tried on the slatternly, uncouth Martha of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she was unable to part with the excitement of vulgarity and channeled it right into her closet.

Liz turned hot pants into a steamy danger zone. Where a stewardess was able to wear the shorts with a wink, Liz wore them with a radiator's hiss. The irony was that everyone expected that of Liz anyway, so the hot pants were simply a case of gilding an already overripe lily. The Burtons' sexual appetites were the stuff of legend, and no pair of shorts was going to fan the flames any higher than they'd already risen.

Still, though, the first covenant of hot pants was not to let them creep into ripeness, and once they did they got a return ticket to their home base on the street corners of Hamburg and thence the world.

6 comments:

enc said...

Hot pants are a hot potato. There are so many connotations that go along with them, as you point out. How I construe them all depends on how they are presented to me. Clean or Dirty? Sweet or Sexy? Triumph or Trite?

WendyB said...

I love that photo of La Liz.

Suzanna Mars said...

enc, as far as I am concerned, they look cute on Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and few others. But I'm cranky.

WB, I am trying to think how Liz's ensemble could be any worse. The top-heaviness of it, the meatiness of the thighs against the shorts that look like knickers, the boots, the hair...only she herself could outdo this ensemble!

Thomas said...

I don't have a problem with Liz wearing those hot pants. However, I can't say I think much of them in general. And really - do we need to pair them with Uggs? Do we need to do that? (Answer in Vancouver - yes, yes we do.)

K.Line said...

Am I the only one who thinks La Liz is channeling La Lohan in this pic? K

riz said...

Thomas - They certainly feel that need in the South! lol.

Hmmm, now I am wondering what other celebutantes are legendary because of their fashion missteps...