“How do you get into those pants?”
“You could start by buying me a drink.”
So begins the goofy courtship of Felicity Shagwell and Austin Powers, he in his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit and frilly ascot, she in a skintight zip-front one-piecer that ends in hot pants so abbreviated they have Austin’s eyeballs popping through his black horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
Who could imagine Austin and Felicity, hero and heroine of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, without their silly get-ups, those shining symbols that have come to represent social protest and social excess, casual drugs and casual sex, a lost nirvana of sensual democracy and sartorial privilege? Ridiculous and exaggerated as these outfits seem now, it’s easy to forget that in their time they embodied a distinct revolutionary spirit, a dramatic fuck you to the constricted clothing that people had been stuck wearing for most of the first half of the century.
The few years between 1959 and 1969 saw the wholesale jettisoning of gloves, hats, spike heels, nylons in summer; the end of compulsory neckties, brassieres, garters, and girdles; and finally, even the dismissal of the ancient prohibition on pants for women. Not since the 1920s, when a similarly celebrated generation (“Flaming Youth” in America, “Bright Young Things” in England) banished lugubrious Victorian costumes and layers of fussy underwear, did the world experience such radical dress reform in so short a time.
Dress codes were everywhere in the decades immediately preceding the 1960s— in schools and on college campuses, in business offices (where women marked time until they got married, always worried about being too ambitious and appearing unfeminine), in every nook and cranny of bourgeois social life. When the British rock and roll invasion of the ’60s starting tearing the codes down, bringing pictures of long-haired boy groups with names like the Kinks and Herman’s Hermits dressed in Austin Powersish suits and smiling snaggle-toothed grins from the paper sleeves of 45s, a feverish Anglophilia gripped American youth. The long-held assumptions about certain kinds of male attire that made even bright colors suspect (“I was wearing my red shirt and [my father] said, ‘What’s the matter, you turn queer?”‘ recalls a character in James Baldwin’s 1960 Another Country) had all but disappeared by the mid ’60s. The equation of long hair with homosexuality, or at the very least rank bohemianism, was similarly swept away on a tide of cheerful androgyny. (Strange that long hair on men now often signifies the opposite— a right-winger of the criminal class.)
Before the ’60s, funny trousers were the province of Liberace and a tiny proportion of madcap country-club fathers; after the ’60s, there were surfer jams and David Bowie and Versace. When Austin photographs models in a send-up of David Hemmings in Blow-Up, he’s wearing a pink striped button-down shirt and a pair of trousers printed like a multicolored stained-glass window; he’s supposed to look like a nutty impostor who’s time-traveled from the ’60s, but the fact is, he could have bought those pants yesterday on Ocean Drive in Miami’s South Beach.
If the chains that bound men to three-piece suits and homburgs and sober colors were breaking, the situation for women was similarly emancipating. In that same party scene where Austin spots Felicity, the rest of the gyrating female guests are costumed in a riot of ’60s symbols: dangling plastic earrings, crotch-skimming Russian tunics over bare legs, marabou scarves, body-painted tummies. (Of course, Austin Powers is hardly a documentary: the silicone that enhances the swollen breasts panting under those minidresses wasn’t readily available in the ’60s, nor, believe it or not, were gigantic boobies even particularly fashionable.)
When Austin and Felicity carouse on Carnaby Street (to the strains of Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello— don’t ask) Felicity is wearing a crocheted peek-a-boo dress that just matches her orange undies; when she lifts up her dress and wiggles her heinie, she hasn’t got any stockings, panty girdle, or garters to tie her to the rest of the century.
Part of the fun of ’60s culture was that it turned age-old conventions upside down: homely guys could grow their hair long, don funny clothes (Seventh Avenue even had a name for it: “the peacock revolution”), pick up a guitar, and maybe get the girl. Suddenly being brawny and good at sports weren’t the only attributes that counted— sensitivity and an attendant foppishness were miraculously coming into fashion. Alas, for women, the game was and remains harder to play: notions of female attractiveness have become even less expansive over the last three decades. It’s shocking to look at women’s magazines from 30 years ago and see the relative chubbiness of the models. (In fact, at no time in the century have the dictates of slenderness been more merciless than they are at present.)
Felicity’s explanation to Austin that the reason she became a spy in the first place was that she idolized him: “I thought I wanted to be you, then I realized I wanted to be with you,” is an echo from the dark ages, when women— or birds, or chicks, or dolly girls— could achieve full satisfaction only by being the subservient half of a heterosexual couple (the women’s movement didn’t get going until the ’70s). But another inheritance from the ’60s is well worth celebrating: the thrilling possibility of a pro-sex, freewheeling, rambunctious adulthood, where men and women alike, no matter what physical gifts God gave them, can look in their mirrors, smile a crooked yellow smile, and gloat, “You are one sexy bitch, baby!”