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It's a Bell Epoch Again, and Pants Have Wide Appeal


So you thought they could never return. You packed them safely away in that trunk with the broken latch or donated them to some faraway thrift store. Or you thought you'd save future generations by turning them into cut-offs or pegging them so tight your children would never know you owned a pair of . . . bell-bottoms.

But that staple silhouette of the late '60s and most of the '70s is ringing again in the '90s. And it's making big noise. Trendy kids can't get enough. Hip women are taking a second look. Retailers are scrambling to stock the pants. And designers are turning them out.

After years of appearing only at underground nightclubs, the bell-bottom pant is fashion's "new" shape. "I think that's what is making people buy," notes Lisa Ferrero, spokesperson for Hue. "They need a reason and this is something new that's generating a lot of excitement."

Bell-bottoms were bound to resurface with the rehash the fashion industry has entertained for the past 10 years. But today's bell swings in modern fabrics such as Lycra, prints such as stripes and colors such as black, chocolate and the primaries.

"If you look back, the '70s really was one of the most innovative times in fashion history: the details, fabrics and overall experimentation. I think that same thing is happening now," says Jim Duval, merchandise manager for 26 Red.

The Irvine label offers men a very '90s version of the bell in colorful stripes or solids ($52) that reflects the oversized look of late more than the snug hip-huggers of two decades ago. A triangular panel is added to the side of the pants for the flared effect. 26 Red will introduce a corduroy version for fall.

"It's for the rave customer who's grown up. The (rave) music has regressed into a disco beat, so that customer takes a turn looking for a new style that reflects that sound," notes Duval, who foresees this trend "stayin' alive for a while."

Besides ravers and other night-clubbers, a wider audience now considers the style as a way to update its wardrobe.

Lead by the likes of Donna Karan and Gianni Versace, who fondly recall the freedom of the belle '70s, the trend has caught steam in recent months, says Candice Prezens, spokeswoman for Tripp NYC. The label churns out trendy club wear collections when they hit the underground--such as the bell-bottoms it has sold to cosmopolitan boutiques for the past seven years.

With big-name designers giving an enthusiastic nod to the bell, Prezens says retailers have been more willing to try it. Stretch bells are even replacing straight leggings as Tripp NYC's hottest seller.

In addition to offering several dozen cotton Lycra styles in solids, plaids, Pucci-inspired flowers, polka dots, stripes and psychedelic prints, the New York-based company sells versions in denim, stretch satin, ultra suede, vinyl, velour and see-through fabrics, such as spider web netting, crochet and sweater knits ($39 to $70).

"You have to be a slender woman to wear most bells," Prezens admits. "But that's were crochet comes in. It caters to a fuller figure when worn with leggings." Other alternatives are sporting cotton tights under peek-a-boo bells or showing off some flesh with same-color thongs or hot pants.

"Everybody's wearing leggings," says Hue's Ferrero. "Now this is the next step."

Hue's cabana bells offer an alternative that is light in fabric at 90% nylon and 10% Lycra and light on the pocketbook ($38). For those still reluctant to slip on a pair, Ferrero suggests its cabana top ($48); the sleeves give the bell effect.

"This whole hippie '70s rage also falls into grunge, which goes further with hip huggers," she adds.

Indeed, everything that was old is new again, says Chazz Wergeles of Tippecanoes. The new grungies are old hat to the Laguna Beach store, which has been selling vintage duds to counter-culture kids since 1975.

"We just got in 55 pairs of new old stock of '70s bell-bottoms that we found in St. Louis," Wergeles says. "Who knows how long this (trend) will last? It's definitely what's happening now." The never-worn vintage bells sell for $12.50 to $27.50.

Counter-culture kids started grooving in bells and hip huggers around 1966. Having bagged other militia fashion, flower children and fledgling designers turned to the original bell-bottoms, worn by seamen in the U.S. Navy. Traditionally in white or navy, the trousers were cut wide at the hem to facilitate rolling up for deck work.

Booker T. & The MG's celebrated the trend with "Hip Hug-Her" in 1967, and Derek & the Dominos did it with "Bell-Bottom Blues" in 1970.

Hippies dug the tight fit at the top, which befit their credo to show off the body. The flared bottom provided a funky silhouette that contrasted with the straight-trousered establishment of the time.

Pantsuits--many in bell form--also became an integral element in women's wardrobes, as they pushed for equality and exerted themselves in the work force.

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