Are we still living in the ’70s?

As the trends of the seventies re-emerge, it’s time to take a step back, reflect, and decide if Australia has made improvements.


Some of the current trending fashions of the 70’s. (Image by Blueboyphoto, courtesy of Mellow Mellow Label)

Flared pants, platform sneakers, bold tones and boho styles: it’s as though many of us have walked straight out of the seventies.

Founder and owner of retro clothing brand Mellow Mellow Label, Bobbi Rickards, says that the retro style just won’t seem to die.

“Every few years it has a resurgence,” Rickards explains. “I don’t know if that’s because it’s fun to wear or it just represents a time in history that was full of colour, art, revolution and electricity.”

Founder of Mellow Mellow Label, Bobbi Rickards. (Image: supplied)

The seventies weren’t just a time for iconic fashions and the Beatles’ more depressing albums. This era is hallmarked as a time of revolutionary change for many social groups among civil rights movements, as well as the beginning of post-war neoliberalism in Australia.

But despite being the front runner of the social and political changes across the last fifty years, the seventies presented a multitude of injustices towards minorities in Australia, many of which we still see today. While some may argue that of course Australia has made improvements since then, that isn’t quite the truth.

Professor of Public History at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Paul Ashton says we’ve landed right back where we started.

And it’s not just about the fashion.

Are we doing better by our Indigenous Australians?

Professor Ashton says that the short answer is no.

“In terms of being direct and impactful and owning up to the atrocities about our colonial and post-colonial past,” he says.

Paul Ashton, professor of public history at UTS. (Image: UTS)

Since the release of the Bringing them Home Report in 1997, which records the removal of First Nations children from their families through government policies up until the early seventies, Indigenous Australians are still denied reparations.

In a statement from the Queensland Government, The Healing Foundation’s Chair of the Stolen Generations Reference Committee Florence Onus says that research indicates that those affected by the Stolen Generation are still facing disenfranchisement in their communities.

“The research shows us that the people affected by the forced removal of children… are 50 percent more likely to be charged by police, 30 percent less likely to be in good health, and 10 percent less likely to have a job,” Onus explains.

Indigenous Australians are still facing the long-term traumas of the Stolen Generation, and according to Professor Ashton, the Australian Government’s response has been nothing short of subpar.

Beyond Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry Day” speech in 2008, an insufficient welfare scheme, and the alteration of the national curriculum, there isn’t much recognition for our First Nations Australians facing intergenerational disadvantages.

“It’s become this sort of band aid response to these major problems that aren’t being seriously addressed,” Professor Ashton explains.


Well, what about Australia’s treatment of immigrants and refugees?

Professor of Political Sociology at UTS Andrew Jakubowicz says that while the rise of multiculturalism began to take a hold in the early 1970s, the assimilationist perspective was disintegrating.

“There were new generations of politicians who were interested in inclusion, as well as that migrant communities which arrived during the fifties and sixties were getting organised and demanding a more participatory place at the table,” he says.

Professor of Political Sociology at UTS, Andrew Jakubowicz

Although multiculturalism was generally embraced in Australia, Professor Jakubowicz says that there are still political movements that are more nationalistic, and racist, in their approach.

This is clear through policy, an interesting example being the eradication of the White Australia policy, which was enacted until the mid-1970s.

Although this policy has not existed for 50 years, the Australian government has implemented other anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies such as the Abbott Coalition’s notorious “Stop the Boats” campaign in 2013, which is still being pushed by the Liberal party.

Professor Jakubowicz explains that although nearly every state in Australia has a current Multicultural Act and a multiculturalism agency working with migrant communities, the Federal Government refuses to adopt either.

He believes that this is credited to an increasingly conservative right-wing government which is underrepresented by culturally diverse Australians.

Professor Ashton believes that we have seen the failure of multiculturalism to a large extent.

“We were moving into becoming a multicultural society but fifty years later we’re still monolingual,” he says.

The acceptance of multiculturalism continues to be a pressing issue, and the Australian government has dropped the ball regarding policies and fair treatment towards immigrants and refugees.

“I think the notion that they’ve made improvements is wrong,” Professor Jakubowicz says.


How about gender equality?

Professor of Modern History at Macquarie University Michelle Arrow says that although there have been big changes since the 1970s, they aren’t necessarily considered progress.

“We’ve seen the decriminalisation and transformation in attitudes to homosexuality… same sex marriage is often very much told as a story of progress,” Professor Arrow says.

Michelle Arrow, professor of Modern History at Macquarie University. (Image: The Lighthouse, Macquarie University)

There is a shortage of other success stories like this in Australia. Men and women still do not have equal pay, however due to the COVID-19 pandemic the wage gap has shrunk due to men’s wages dropping as opposed to any structural changes for women.

Domestic violence was largely unreported in the seventies, and family violence was merely dismissed as “private matters”. Fortunately, awareness and reporting has since been normalised.

“In the 1970s domestic violence was not something that was seen as a social problem and one of the big things that feminists did was problematise domestic violence and name it,” Professor Arrow says.

The seventies were also rife with protests for women’s rights and gender equality. However, many of these issues still exist fifty years on.

Protestors attending the first International Women’s Day rally in Melbourne, 1975. (Image: National Archives of Australia, A6180, 19/3/75/5.)

“We’ve seen this year with the March 4 Justice that there are still really endemic issues with sexual violence and discrimination that still limit women’s lives,” Professor Arrow says.

Despite the growth of awareness on gender equality, progress is limited mostly to white women, with intersectional groups often left behind, which is something that current social movements have grown more considerate of.

“I think in the 1970s they were always trying to identify the biggest possible group that was going to be impacted by reforms… they didn’t always take race and ethnicity into account as much as they could,” Professor Arrow explains.

“I think it’s important to think about this as change rather than progress because sometimes change is good, sometimes change doesn’t happen.”


Politics in Australia

A big reason why we are still facing some of the same social and political issues we saw in the seventies is due to Australia’s rather complex political makeup.

“There were a lot of older political dynamics washing through the sixties and into the seventies and some new ones coming in,” Professor Ashton explains.

The seventies saw a rise in religious and conservative parties. There was a strong conservative reaction to the change of lifestyles and the rise of hippies, modern music, and sexuality, which were attributed to the rising Americanisation of Australian youth.

“Our political landscape in the last couple of generations has moved to the right and people that are now in the left of the Liberal Party would 30 or 40 years ago had probably been in the Labor Party, so I think we’ve moved generally to the right in politics,” Professor Ashton says.

“The rise of globalisation is really critical in this too, in the 90’s this led to a resurgence of conservatism.”

Religion has also taken its place at Australia’s political table alongside conservatism with the Federal Government’s emphasis on family-based values.

“I think that the pendulum’s swung back now that we’ve got an evangelical Prime Minister, and we just inherited a new (NSW) premier,” Professor Ashton says.


So, why do we love the 70s so much?

“I think nostalgia is the primary reason,” Professor Ashton says. “It’s about returning to a past that was seen to be nicer, more liberal and free.”

Professor Jakubowicz believes that this nostalgia reflects the perception of freedom that was so eminent in the seventies.

“I think a lot of people are very apprehensive about the future therefore turning back to a past where things were actually changing and getting better rather than changing and getting worse is quite an attractive proposition,” he says.

Corporate interests are also at play with clothing and entertainment industries commodifying this sense of safety and nostalgia.

However, Rickards thinks that the fashion trends are returning because they look flattering on many different body types.

“These styles might not be to everybody’s taste, but I feel that garments like bell bottom flares, wide leg trousers, flowy blouson blouses and platform boots are some of the few trends that I’ve been seeing recently, and they seem to magically look amazing on everyone,” Rickards explains.


My mother’s family Christmas photo, 1975. (Image: supplied)

Why do we ignore our past?

“I think these revivals are about a selective remembering of the past which makes us feel nice because it’s not about dealing with the confronting present,” Professor Arrow explains.

She believes that Australia is very good at forgetting its past, partially due to the number of current events we’re distracted by, and an unwillingness to learn about our history.

“One of the things that this revival might be about is a lack of historical understanding, so it’s sort of approaching the 70s in a very vague way because you don’t really know much about it,” she says.


So, before we pull on our bell-bottoms, should we acknowledge our history for what it was?

“I would say that there’s a moral obligation on people to acknowledge those things, but for a lot of people, their morality is different, their values and ethics are different, and they won’t do it,” Professor Ashton says.

Professor Arrow believes that we should try to be more mindful of the past that Australia wants to forget.

“Politicians often try to enforce a very narrow vision of the past… whereas I think Australia’s history was incredibly complex,” she says.

With an adequate understanding of Australia’s history, Professor Jakubowicz believes that we should learn from the past and avoid ignoring or repeating our mistakes.

“Sometimes I’m very positive and hopeful; sometimes when I see flared pants I think ‘no, that’s not the way to go,’” he says.