Chris from Clothes on Film and I sat down to discuss this iconic movie, the regional aspect of culture, Angel’s Flight pants and Gunne Sax. Read on…
KB: Do you remember the first time you saw Saturday Night Fever – what were your impressions?
Chris: I kinda forgot about the big issues before I watched it over again. I likely saw the edited PG version as a kid. Disco probably seemed like a joke to me then – not even real. The film seemed so different to me now; I loved it all the more.
KB: If I may, how old are you – were you around for disco?
Chris: I’m 32, so I was born the same year! I went through the retro revival in the mid-90s though, so I actually wore some of these clothes out and about, especially as a student. Were you around for the disco scene? I noticed you said it wasn’t that big in California.
KB: Actually disco was big in California, it just manifested in a different way. You didn’t see all of the hardcore blue-collar stuff. That’s a primary difference between the east coast and the west coast. The blue-collar/white-collar stuff has a different relationship. I was a girl when the movie came out, and I remember being taken to a disco in like 1979. I wanted to twirl and fly, robin, fly like the best of them.
Chris: This is interesting. Do you find that trends are often marginalised to specific decades without taking into account geographical considerations. From my understanding in 1977 London it was punk that most trendy. Vivienne Westwood was big news. Could you expand on the blue/white collar thing?
KB: To me, at such a tender age, disco was fun, free of the sleaze and disgusting reality of what the scene actually was. It was great music; that was all. For sure, in 1977 punk was it for you Brits. We in the states were always trying to catch up to you guys while pretending it didn’t matter and doing our own thing.
Back on the east coast, I think the divisions between the classes are more distinct. The neighborhoods are older, and generations have lived there longer than in California. In certain situations, you get a “blue-blood” sensibility, a certain propriety for having been around longer, having established land ownership and wealth. Those are generally the white-collar people. They employ the cheap labor, usually immigrants: blue-collar. After a few hundred years, people become accustomed to this dynamic. California does have its class issues, but ours are straight along the lines of immigrant population, unfortunately, rather than the established land ownership or anything else.
California has a relatively relaxed dress code. You don’t see a lot of people in the streets wearing business suits. If someone is wearing a suit it is because they are going to a job interview, managing a hedge fund, or getting married. On the east coast, people take things a bit more formally, as clothing goes.
Chris: London is like that, the immigrant thing. The class division in UK is between London and the north. The suit thing too. People only really wear suits up north for work. In London it’s a style thing.
KB: Yes, London is very different. But here on the east coast, those “blue blood” generations have been there forever. Think about the grandma in SNF – she’s a first-generation immigrant; she doesn’t really speak much in the film, probably because she doesn’t speak English. They live in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, which is why Tony thinks the dance contest is rigged, so that the Italians win. It’s inertia, a lifestyle of complacency.
Anymore, though, Brooklyn is a bedroom community for NYC – lots of hipsters live in Brooklyn now. If you watch Spike Lee’s films, especially Jungle Fever, he goes into detail about these neighborhoods and what it means to be a part of them, and stuck in the lifestyle.
Chris: Apparently grandma tried to expand her part in the film by adding lines between her and Travolta. I totally see now why she just sort of huffs and sighs. That makes sense. Not to keep harping on about London but there is a comparison – places like Notting Hill were so much different years ago.
KB: Yes, I see what you mean. These boroughs and neighborhoods are constantly in flux.
Chris: Do you think Tony was ever really stuck in Brooklyn though? Why was he? The class thing? Education? Just comes down to money?
KB: Tony was stuck in Brooklyn because getting out was never an option for him. Some people just dream about change, and others become the change. That was never encouraged in his family – his mom wasn’t allowed to get a job, his brother wasn’t allowed to leave his job – so the status quo becomes the norm. When change is perceived as bad, why go there?
Plus, he didn’t think enough of himself to realize his value. If everyone only ever tells you you’re a dumb meathead, you’re inclined to believe them. It was only when he saw through the veneer of the lies – his friends, the old guys at work, the dance competition, Gus lying about the Barracudas – that he knew he had to become the change.
Chris: I see. Could he be more than a meathead though? I’m not sure we ever learn enough about him to judge. I see Tony as rather childlike: the way he gets so upset shouting at his mum or his frustration when things don’t go his way (Stephanie not letting him walk her home or winning the dance competition at the end). If it wasn’t for sequel I don’t see him ever leaving Brooklyn properly.
KB: Hahahah, the sequel…
Chris: Ugh, the sequel. It’s on UK TV tonight.
KB: I smell a dueling banjos review, revisited!
Chris: Ha, ha! I may have contradicted myself with the judging Tony thing. I say I don’t seem him leaving, yet I also say I don’t think we learn enough to judge. I loved that image of him on the train though smoking, more iconic than the dancing stuff I think.
KB: Yes, I think that when we see him explaining the Verrazano Bridge to Stephanie, or commenting about having read Romeo and Juliet in school, and identifying Shakespeare as the author, not Zeferelli, we are being let in to his intelligence. And for that, I don’t think he’s a meathead. His friends; yes. But him – he changes and evolves in this film, becomes enlightened. Goes from black to white. It’s interesting.
Chris: Could I ask you about Angel’s Flight pants? It’s not a term I familiar with over here? How are these different from, say, tight flared trousers? Or is this essentially what they are?
KB: Regarding Angel’s Flight pants:
Chris: Ah, ha. Just looking at the link now. It was a brand name? Just popping back to the white suit – I like the way the suit becomes grubbier until Tony is sat slumped on the subway train. He is cleansed but paradoxically more dirty.
KB: Yes, Angel’s Flight was the brand name, but any polyester disco pants in that era were referred to as “Angel’s Flight” pants. Kind of like when people say Kleenex or Ziploc bag.
Chris: $140 for angel pants now?! I used to buy lots of vintage clothes – I’ve gotta get back in the business!
KB: Regarding the aging on his suit – the subways at that time were disgustingly dirty. They are much cleaner now, if you can believe it. I’m surprised he wasn’t dirtier, actually! And yes, 140 bucks for angel’s flight pants nowadays – they were not cheap when they came out, either – it was fashionable!
About California, though – men did wear the angel’s flight pants here. Those clothes were just worn in a different way. We had a lot, a LOT of hippies in California in 1977, so it was sort of more conspicuous to be a disco dandy.
Chris: You’d never wear a white suit in London; it would be covered in dirt from the tube in minutes. How did they wear those pants in a different way in California? Like without the stacked shoes? Less of an evening uniform?
KB: Well, I wish I had some good pictures for you, but if you think about the later 1970s – hold on, let me grab some images.
KB: I found some online – these are not my family, but have a look…
These are all from California, 1976 – 1977, and they pretty much sum it up
KB: Everything was about weed and the Eagles’ music, hard drinking and going out to the desert to trip on acid and peyote. People wore buckskin boots and grew their hair out. It took a long time for that to go away in California, and I am still not convinced it’s gone.
Chris: I’ve never really seen the genuine hippy look here, maybe by the south coast but only a few. It’s mainly uni students now wearing afghan coats, beads in their hair and flowery dresses.
KB: Ooooh, the hippie look, especially the modified-hippie-look, was for real here!
Chris: I just realised I left the DVD on mute in the background. Bobby just fell off the bridge. In trainers!
KB: Yes, they were not the platforms, as I mentioned – too dangerous for the stunt guys!
I am going to have to get some pictures from my family about hippies. Online it’s a bunch of crap. My aunts and uncles were big-time hippies.
Chris: Well spotted. His platforms were mad, weren’t they? In one scene with Travolta when he walks out of shot especially.
KB: Yes, I had to screen-capture them. They are awesome. So tell me about your feelings regarding these costumes picking up a 1930s vibe – we both perceived that.
Chris: I’d love to see some proper hippy pics. Hippies here would have been freezing.
From what I understand there was something of a 30s revival during the 70s. It seems pretty blatant in SNF. The styles seem a mish-mash though: Annette with her fur coat and big collared check shirt, Tony with his wide lapelled suit yet no tie. Unusual to see the waistcoat though, kinda formal. The trench too – very prominent.
KB: I felt the influence most in the ladies’ dresses, the choice of fabrics – chiffons, jerseys – that clung to the body as a bias-cut dress of the period would. Further, the hair on the ladies, chin-length, curly, with flowers at the ear – felt very 1930s to me. Fran Drescher – okay, “Connie” – looked gorgeous and very neo-thirties in her green mandarin/halter dress. Beautiful. The shoes were interesting, too – beautiful shape to the heels of those dancing shoes.
As for the guys, though — it’s harder for me to find the 1930s look in their stuff. I mean, the other decorative elements – the furniture in Tony’s bedroom, in fact – all throughout the Manero home – was 1930s, so that tipped me off. Perhaps it was just a statement about change. That these people were stuck in a rut, in the past, etc., while the world changed rapidly around them – with, or without them.
Chris: Fran was stunning. According to Badham she felt the need to announce she had no underwear on with that green dress. Stephanie’s dress for the dance competition at the end – I too couldn’t help notice how unflattering it seemed on her. An odd choice? It appears to me that the 1930s shape for dresses is what practically all evening dresses now are based on. The bias cutting, the length, maybe not the chiffon.
KB: Well, regarding the final Stephanie dress – it really was a classic disco dress for the period. It would have been considered beautiful in 1970s eyes. I wish I had some prom pictures from my old babysitters to show you exactly how fashionable that dress would have been, in comparison to what was out there. There was a designer called Jessica McClintock that was coming into prominence with a line called Gunne Sax… and this final Stephanie dress was almost a visual transition into full-blown Gunne Sax heaven…
Chris: What is this mainly the one-shouldered look then?
KB: Yes, and no. It (Gunne Sax) involved a lot of ruffles, gathering. If you look at the BG players in SNF, you will see the traditional, sleek disco look. There is one dancer who wears a one-sleeved black dress, very sleek, and that is a classic disco look. But this ruffly chiffony dress on Stephanie, it hearkens more to the Gunne Sax look in my mind than sleek, sexy disco. It’s girlish. It has an ethereal flow to it, though – which is probably what they were looking for in a dance dress. The funny thing is that on the poster, they’ve colored this same dress red, for dramatic effect. She never wears red in the film at all. At all.
Chris: Oh, I see now. Thanks. Gunne Sax is a very feminine look, seems a lot was in the 70s. Looking at the DVD cover now – you’re right! Just got to bring up what Tony’s mother was wearing. She did look so matronly like you said. It’s how all boys like to see their mum, completely desexualised: just ‘mum’, nothing else.
KB: Yes, and it was sad. But man, that woman has a great “b*tch please” face. She’s like a painting – you can see her weariness, her sadness, her pain, on the surface. She was really powerful in the film.
Chris: Looking through the Gunne Sax images. Are you aware of Laura Ashley? Still big in the UK, very similar, slightly Victorian influenced look.
KB: Yes, Laura Ashley. That is more 1980s for us, I think. She was British, yes? Kind of a Princess Di look. That’s how I would code it: Early Princess Di.
Chris: Tony’s mum (I feel bad I don’t have the actress’ name to hand) was incredible. Definitely the most honest character. Re: Laura Ashley – it’s going through a revival. Early Princess Di definitely. I think later she started on the business-type suits.
KB: Yes, interesting. Tony’s mom was called “Flo” in the film, played by Julie Bovasso.
Chris: I could chat until you told me to go away. Just want to mention the John Waters looking guy – such a good spot. Thanks. Well, we can wrap it up I think.
KB: I really appreciate talking with you – I hope you have a great weekend and many thanks for sharing your thoughts with me and the frocktalk peeps!
Thank you, Chris, for sharing your time with us here on Frocktalk! Be sure to check in with Chris’ blog, Clothes on Film, for more of his observations on costume and film!!