Hot Wheels: America Keeps on Rolling

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For as long as Americans have been walking about, someone has been trying to add a little pizzaz by sailing on tiny wheels.

The first known use of roller skates was at a London theater in 1743, and by the mid-1860s, skaters in New York City were rolling about on a four-wheeled skate that allowed them also to curve. By the 1880s, roller skates were being mass-produced in America.

In the 1930s, vast roller skating marathons were conducted across the country, with couples dancing on skates for as long as six days.

From that evolved roller derby, a contact skating sport performed on banked tracks. In 1940, more than 5 million spectators watched the sport in 50 American cities.

Roller rinks became popular in the post-World War II baby boom of the 1950s; a roller-skating birthday party became a rite of passage for kids of the ’50 through the ’80s. Drive-in restaurants often featured servers on roller skates.

In the ’70s, roller derby became popular again with movies like Kansas City Bomber and Unholy Rollers.

And then, with the disco craze of the late 1970s, it wasn’t long before people were roller disco dancing.

The fad took the country by storm, with 28 million Americans buying roller disco skates at a then-average of $75 a pair. Celebrities of all stripes got into the act, from Bianca Jagger to Cher to The Village People, Olivia Newton-John, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall (of Laverne and Shirley) and even Andy Warhol.

In 1979 the skates were redesigned using polyurethane wheels in an in-line alignment and attaching ice-hockey boots, and rollerblades were born. Various wheel sizes are used for diverse skating styles—roller hockey, artistic inline, freestyle slalom and speed skating.

Now amateur roller derby has become a popular sport for young women, with more than 1,250 leagues worldwide. Emphasizing athleticism, a strong DIY ethic and more than a little camp as players adopt “derby names” such as Punky Bruiser and Ivana Crushyu.

No one knows what will come next, but it’s a sure bet that if new wheels can be fit on a shoe, new skaters will arrive for the fun.

— David Cohea

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Skating to  work in the 1940s.

Skating to work in the 1940s.

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Anne Gwynne, 1942.

Anne Gwynne, 1942.

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The Skating Vanities of 1948 poster

The Skating Vanities of 1948 poster

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Skating rink, 1940s.

 

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Roller derby, 1950.

 

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Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe skate in “Monkey Business” (1952).

 

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Drive-in with roller-skating waitresses, 1950s.

 

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Pepsi ad, 1958.

Pepsi ad, 1958.

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Raquel Welch in “Kansas City Bomber” (1973)

 

 

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Roller disco mania, late 1970s.

Roller disco mania, late 1970s.

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Roller disco diva Cher.

Roller disco diva Cher.

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CHiPs goes roller disco.

CHiPs goes roller disco.

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Boardwalk disco queens.

Boardwalk disco queens.

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Filed under Disco, Fitness, Skating

Vintage Vanity: Insane Beauty Treatments Down the Years

 

Freckle freezer, 1930s.

Freckle freezer, 1930s.

Women have been chasing the ideal image of femininity for thousands of years. The search inherently depends on unattainability—weight gain during times of malnourishment, weight loss during eras of excess, tan skin during the winter and so forth—and therefore has no foreseeable end in sight. Beauty “guidelines” vary by generation and culture, and require differing amounts of time, money and physical or mental sacrifice. Ironically, they rarely reflect the preferences of the opposite gender, who don’t give a hoot about hair highlights or pressed-on nails; instead, they arise more often from marketing campaigns designed fuel our own insecurities. Here’s a look at a few of the most grimace-inducing examples of the last century.

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The Permanent Wave Machine allowed straight-haired gals to attain the coveted appearance of naturally curly locks. The original model, designed in 1906 by inventor Karl Nessler, utilized chemicals and electricity to steam damp hair into permanent waves. Less desirable effects included brittle hair and burns from the extreme heat, which reached over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, the process was improved by the time it reached popular use in salons by the 1930s.

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The Beauty Calibrator, also known as the beauty micrometer, was concocted by beautician Max Factor in the early 1930s. It was intended for use in Hollywood — no, not as a prop in a slasher film, but as a tool for makeup artists to identify actresses’ facial “flaws.” Its adjustable metal strips and screws provided precise measurements; if any imperfections were detected, they would be remedied with makeup. Astonishingly, this procedure never gained widespread appeal, and only one Calibrator is known to have actually been created.

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Ironized Yeast — a “scientific formula” designed to help you gain 10 to 25 “normally attractive” pounds, new pep and new charm.” Though the concept of attractive pounds may seem oxymoronic in today’s diet-obsessed society, these tablets gained popularity during the tail end of the Great Depression, when malnourishment was a legitimate concern. However, some shady pill-pushing ads also promised dates, popularity clear skin and even a “healthy color.” The special free offer advertised here included a book on health entitled “New Facts About Your Body”  by a “well-known” (yet anonymous) authority.

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Mrs. D. M. Ackerman of Hollywood, CA discovered the secret to a beautiful complexion: enclosing your face in a bag that essentially robs you of oxygen. Her “glamour bonnet,” which lowered atmospheric pressure around the wearer’s head and stimulated blood circulation, supposedly mimicked the feel of climbing a mountain or flying “high in a plane.” Even better, the bonnet included a transparent screen that allowed the wearer to read in leisure while presumably drifting in and out of consciousness.

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Nose Shaper: Who could ignore a beauty campaign that claimed to affect “the failure or success of your whole life” and “your ultimate destiny?” In 1930, series of ads from a New York “face specialist” promised to improve readers’ appearances with the patented Model 25 Nose Shaper, a nifty contraption that “remodel[ed] the cartilage and fleshy parts” of the nose. Though the specialist’s 1921 patent explained how “more or less continuous pressure” could reshape nose abnormalities, an ad guaranteed a “painless” experience — or your money back.

— Ali Datko

 

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Filed under Vinage Beauty

Flaming Sausages, Liver Pineapple and Other Kitchen Disasters of the ’50s

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By Ali Datko

The Decade of the Housewife sounds like an era likely to produce a smorgasbord of delicious, mouthwatering meals, no? Well, no. 1950’s households were more often driven by experimental advertisers — Palmolive soap for a clear complexion, anyone? — and less often by anything that resembled common sense.

If you haven’t eaten lunch yet, take a look at these unforgettably regrettable recipes from the ’50s.

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1. Lime Cheese Salad

A list of retro Americana’s greatest regrets that didn’t include Jell-O would be nothing short of blasphemous. Gelatin was a kitchen staple in the ’50s, convenient enough to ease a busy housewife’s burden and firm enough to safely encase a cottage-cheese-mayonnaise-seafood salad.

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2. Meal-in-a-Mould

The title says it all — that is, if you like chasing dinner with a glass of prune juice. But wait! This from-a-can “summer meal” is wildly convenient, and as the recipe boasts: “every ingredient can be kept indefinitely … at home or summer cottage.”

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3. Unappealing Ways to Drink Soda Pop

Steaming-hot Dr. Pepper with lemon? 7-Up with milk for a “delicious blended food drink”? The 50s sure knew how to dress up a sugary, carbonated beverage — just don’t stir it, because THAT could ruin the flavor.

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4. Armour Star Appetizer Meats

Nothing says, “Welcome to our home” quite like an edible centerpiece of spreadable potted meat snacks arranged around an open flame. “Truly gourmet,” the copywriter states, in a tone that we can only assume sounds like tongue-in-cheek disdain.

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5. Liver Sausage Pineapple

Roll one pound of liver sausage into an oblong sphere. Cover with frosting made from unflavored gelatin and mayonnaise. Apply olive slices to the sticky, yellow membrane. Top with real pineapple leaves, because that makes sense.

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Filed under Food, Food Fight, The Fifties

How to keep the home front fires burning? Ask Etta Kett

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This 1943 “Etta Kett” cartoon shows that girl power proved to have real muscle in the Home Front during WWII — in more ways than one.

“Etta Kett” started out as a one-panel comic strip by Paul Robinson launched in 1925. In 1930 King Features Syndicate picked it up and it developed into a full Sunday strip and ran for some five decades. Etta Kett was a teenager before Americans knew what to call them, a wholesome gal whose fun-loving entourage of teens still managed to drive the parents of all suburbia nuts.

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Filed under Cartoon, The Forties, WW2

I Love You Darling: Love Letters From WWII

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Foreground, Arline Thurlow and Morris Densmore before they married. Background: The hope chest filled with letters. Pictures used by permission of the author.

By Martha Densmore

In June 2012, my mom sold her house. She asked if I wanted anything. We were standing at the foot of her bed. The cedar hope chest was open.

“I’d like the letters.”

“Take them!”

Over three hundred letters written from my father to my mother, dated from April 9, 1942 to May 12, 1946, were bundled and tied with thin satin ribbon. My mom’s private personal treasure had been sequestered in the chest for more than 60 years.

I took them home from L.A. to Denver in a hatbox.

Several weeks passed before I felt ready to read one. I picked it at random. First words shot me back in time. The scene came to life. Dad was on his ship in the SW Pacific. “These are my three requests about the ring,” he wrote. What the hell? The ring? No way! He’s talking about “the ring” in a letter? I felt like a ghost meeting my father as a young man for the first time.

My parents, Morris Densmore and Arline Thurlow, were all-American high school sweethearts living in Portland, Maine during the Second World War. Both were overcoming turbulent childhoods in the Great Depression and refashioning their lives. Both were ambitious and determined to succeed.

The first letter is a postcard from a weekend jaunt “Mose” took with guy friends to visit college: “We had swell luck on the way up. I guess we thumbed about a dozen cars.”  This begins an exhaustive history spanning his first year at Bowdoin College, the take-over of the college by the military, fraternity life, enlistment in the Navy, Midshipman’s School at Bates, Naval Academy at Annapolis, deployment to the SW Pacific and homecoming. Morris married Arline shortly after he returned home from the war in 1946.

Writing in great detail–Dad was a habitual list-maker—his letters disclose college and naval classes, his future plans, jobs, duties, entertainment, basically a universe of experience. During deployment in the Pacific he relates his hopes, longings and even despair.

In a letter to Arline dated Nov 19, 1944, Dad pretty well sums up the mood of every soldier writing home to his true love as he departs for battle:

Tonight I feel like writing you and perhaps, you might say, opening my heart to you. Tomorrow I am being detached from the Twelfth Naval District, which means (I am to) pack for embarkation. Sometimes, darling,  I may tend to be dramatic or melodramatic; perhaps it is just a weak or sentimental mood;  but I am sure all men feel somewhat as I do tonight.

… As fate would have it we were together in reality but nine months. Since that time we have been apart. We have been apart darling in time and space but as these two elements have increased I know my thoughts of and for you have also increased to the point where I have but one great immediate goal in life and you know what that is Arline. In a way darling I am not too sorry that I’m going over now because the sooner I go over the sooner I will be back.

… By the time you get this letter I will probably be on my way so this is probably my best chance to give you some information which you have asked about in your letters. I am going to the Dutch New Guinea area. I might possibly end up in the Admiralty islands but this also is in that general area. … Here I will be joining some flotilla of the 7th Amphibian Forces.

… As I understand it, there is a definite training routine before every operation which means darling that I won’t be dodging bullets all of the time. I have been issued a lot of tropical clothes and equipment. Remember Arline that you are always to use the same address unless I tell you specifically otherwise and never let anybody, either in your letters to me or in any other way, have any indication that you know where I am.

–Reprinted by permission of Martha Densmore; not for republication

Dad passed away in 1999. Our father-daughter relationship was for decades, arms-length, cerebral, emotionally vacuous. Don’t get me wrong. Morris was loving, even-tempered and honorable. It’s just that he demonstrated his love by deeds. “I love you” is something he never spoke or wrote to me. The closest, from his deathbed, was a nod, a vague answer about love. Both mom and dad were the “silent generation”: They rarely shared about the war. They had sacrificed all.

All that’s in the letters lives on. They are of soul and heart. Letters such as these are a lifeline of love, able to cross land and sea, years—even hearts.

I am watching the movies mentioned in the letters. I turn on Turner Classic Movies and watch them as if I were sitting next to my father.

His  “I Love you Darling” in hundreds of letters is a palpable connection. I feel closer to Morris than ever. This may seem odd, but they are written to me.

Letters that are my favorite and key historical documents will be the foundation of a book I plan to publish in Winter 2014. This wonderful romance is my personal story of healing through reconstructing the lives of my parents. I hope this American story will be an inspiration to others.

Guest blogger Martha Densmore  lives in Santa Barbara, California, and is an acupuncturist, nurse and writer. Her Love Letters of WWII Facebook page is loaded with all sorts of images from the age. Be sure to check it out.

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Letter from Morris Densmore dated Nov. 19, 1944. Use of a scan of the letter by permission of the author.

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Officer of Command Morris Densmore, U.S. Navy. The flag from his ship USS LCT-1088 is in the family’s possession. Photo permission of the author.

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The author with her father Morris. Photo by permission of the author.

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Filed under The Forties, WW2

Big Curves to See Me Home (B17 Nose Art)

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By David Cohea

Climbing above 10 thousand feet, you reach for an oxygen mask, knowing that the plane will climb a lot higher en route to its daily target. Outside, it’s 60 degrees below zero. You wear what protection you can against the cold – an electrically heated suit, heavy gloves.

You also wear a 30-pound flak suit and steel helmet—protection against antiaircraft fire that’s sure as rain to come.

No way you can work and wear a parachute, so you wear the parachute harness and hope when its necessary you can get to your chute in time.

Outside the window, you see dozens of B-17 bombers all around you. It’s an eight-hour round trip fraught with peril. Not all of you will return. And your chances of completing all 25 missions of your tour of duty are only about one in four.

It’s 1944, and you know you’re a long, long way from home.

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Living legends

The B17 was a strategic bomber flown by the US Air Force during much of the Second World War against German targets, a 4-engined behemoth capable of flying long distances and somehow keeping aloft despite taking heavy damage from German air and ground defenses.

Its 9-man crew consisted of a pilot, air commander, bombardier, 2 navigators, 4 gunners manning the top turret, tail, waist and ball turret guns, and a radio operator. They flew wearing oxygen masks and were bundled up against the cold of flying at up to 29 thousand feet.

Flying to their targets in the industrial heartland of Germany (seeking to derail the military output of the Reich), B17s flew in formations of 18 planes scattered at three altitudes, linking with two other 18-plane formations to form a wedge of destruction a mile and a half wide.  (Later the formation was changed to a more defensible formation of three groups of 12) Each plane carried a payload of about 2 tons of bombs; at the peak of the air war in November 1944, some 35 thousand tons of bombs would be dropped.

German defenses were strong. Since they were fighting over their homeland, the FW-190 and ME-109 fighter pilots could run multiple missions in a day. A pilot could be shot down in one plane and return in another in hours. Flak guns were numerous and powerful and a single shell hitting the right place could send a bomber plummeting to its destruction.

To defend themselves, the total combat box of the B-17 formation would carry some 640 50-caliber guns each capable of firing 14 rounds a second to a distance of 600 yards. Still, the cost was heavy. On October 17-18, 1944 some 300 attacking Fortresses were met by an equal number of German fighter planes of the Luftwaffe and some 90 Fortresses were shot down; 800 crew members died.

Later in the war, American P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes that could fly the distance along with the Fortresses greatly reduced the casualty rate, but in flying in a B17 was dicey business, dicey indeed.

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American military hardware was good as far as it went, but how to ensure a safe return? B17 crew members took extra measure to woo Fate as best they could, painting the noses of the aircraft with animals, cartoon characters, and, most usually, with women, sometimes clothed, sometimes not so clothed, usually young and marriageable, often named after wives and girlfriends back home.

Hoping it would boost aircrew morale, Air Force commanders tolerated the practice. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, prohibited nose art in the Pacific Theater; planes were simply painted with their numbers.

Much like ships of old, B17 bombers were given names and figureheads to personalize them and imbue them with that extra bit of added mojo. Maybe a pretty lady painted on the fuselage did no more than provide a visual reminder to crews than giving the crews a reason to fight their way through hell and back.

Maybe they personified those haunting voice on Armed Forces Radio sounding like a loved one back home, something angelic and pure and untouched by war. And maybe they were indeed angels, seeing to it that they made it back to base and provided blessing for the next day’s sortie and the next … Until that dreamed-of day came when an airman could fly at last to the real little lady back home.

At the height of the war, nose-artists were in very high demand. Professional civilian artists as well as talented servicemen would do the work. Tony Starcer was the resident artist for the 91st Bomb Group and painted some 217 bomber noses. Pin-up by illustrator Alberto Vargas published in Esquire magazine were a favorite of B17 nose painters.

The art was daring to a point — there was always the threat of censorship from Air Force brass — but the accent of curves may have been part of the unconscious association with the Beloved and the fragile hulk of the B17 fuselage, something all too penetrable without the valiant efforts of the crew.

Too often the crews would go down with their ladies. And yet, despite odds hugely to the contrary, some B17s and their crews would fly out again and again and again, dropping their payloads, surviving the withering fire of German defenses and make it back to the home field until it was time to go all the way home.

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One of these was the Memphis Belle, A B17-F of the 324 Bomb Squadron that flew out of Bassingbourne, England. The ship was supposed to be named after pilot Robert Morgan’s sweetheart back in Memphis, nicknamed Little One. But one night he and his copilot Jim Verinis saw the movie Lady For a Night in which the lead character owned a riverboat named the Memphis Belle, and that became the B17’s handle.

Morgan then wrote artist Charles Petty care of Esquire magazine for a pinup to paint on the fuselage, and Petty supplied one from the magazine’s April 1941 issue. Tony Starcer painted the image on both sides of Memphis Belle’s fuselage, with Belle in a blue suit on the port side and a red suit on the starboard.

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Memphis Belle was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions with her crew intact. The aircraft was flown back to the United States in 1943 to fly on a 31-city war bond tour. After the war, the Memphis Belle was saved from reclamation mostly by the efforts of Memphis mayor Walter Chandler, and the city bought the plane for $350. She sat out-of-doors deteriorating into the 1980s, with every removable piece of equipment pried loose by scavengers.

In 2005, the National Museum of the United States Air Force acquired the Memphis Belle and is in the process of a lengthy restoration. Nearly 70 years after she steered her crew through every flak and bullet thrown at them by the War, the Belle is still around, and her figurehead is still turned away from us, sighting a way home.

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Filed under Pin-Ups, The Forties, WW2

Glam: The Thrill of It All

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Roxy Music

By David Cohea

Even if the whole Blaxploitation thing missed you by a ‘70s suburban ‘mile, you could rest assured that your macho male demeanor would be threatened in the other way by a dude in gold lame pants, girlie shoes and woman’s makeup.

Zeitgeist, meet Ziggy Stardust. It was enough to make a boy wonder.

Glam — also called “glitter” rock — emerged in the United Kingdom in the early ‘70s and was performed by bands in outrageous outfits, including high-heeled platform boots and glitter.

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Marc Bolan and Mickey Finn of T-Rex.

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The earliest stirring of glam came in the late ‘60s, emerging from psychedelic and art rock music then in vogue. It probably started when Marc Boland’s folk duo was renamed T. Rex as they took to playing electric instruments and wearing glitter and satin when they appeared the UK’s Top of the Pops TV show in March 1971.

Glam is more identifiable as a fashion trend than a sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll, as the musical styles varied widely from the rock ‘n’ roll revival of Slade and Gary Glitter to the art-rock stylings of Roxy Music and David Bowie.

Roxy Music was founded in 1971 by Bryan Ferry after he lost he job teaching ceramics at a girls’ school. He advertised for musical collaborators in an avant-garde art-rock endeavor. The original band – Graham Simpson, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson, Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno and Ferry – released their first album in 1972. Three of the band members had school degrees, and the group combined their interest in music, fashion and art to create a carefully crafted look and style. Roxy Music’s “look” was as unmistakable as its groove, and the band played and recorded together for the next 10 years before Ferry struck out on his own. The band never formally disbanded, and Roxy Music made reunion performances up the present.

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Ziggy Stardust, AKA David Bowie.

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Most of the U.K. glam bands had middling success in the United States. The notable exception was David Bowie. Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” released in the U.K. in 1969 (rush-released to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing) and re-issued in the U.S. in 1973, eventually reached No. 15 on the Billboard charts.

In 1972 Bowie emerged as Ziggy Stardust, the flamboyant, androgynous hero of the Spiders From Mars band. Bowie made a huge impact on rock culture at the time, creating a what one biographer has called “perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture.” For Bowie, the Ziggy Stardust persona turned out to be one of many over a long career, but glam’s reigning imago belongs to Ziggy.

Some U.S. bands, notably Lou Reed and The New York Dolls, attempted to join the glam bandwagon, but glam never took hold on this side of the Atlantic.

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The New York Dolls.

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Glam’s influence proved wide-ranging, however. Glam styling can be seen in mid-70s rock bands like The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Queen.

Glam metal acts would follow toward the end of the decade and into the ‘80s like Kiss, Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot. In the UK, the androgynous vibe would be picked up in the ‘80s by Culture Club and Flock of Seagulls.

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Twisted Sister.

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During my high school years in Chicago, Broadway Avenue in of New Town (on the near North side) was a grand parade of chicks and chickdues clattering to and fro all wispy and serious in pants 6 inches too long to compensate for 8-inch platform shoes.

The Rolling Stones’ “Angie” is the anthem that makes me remember that time most whenever I hear it. Whether “Angie” refers to heroin (as songwriter Keith Richards later claimed) or instead to David Bowie’s first wife, who was rumored to have walked in on Bowie and Mick Jagger while they were engaged in sex), it still makes me think of walking grey freezing afternoons with all those young dudes looking so willowy and pretty.

Like glam, “Angie” was a song to a lover of indeterminate sex (perhaps the self-adoration of the age made the particulars of partnering unimportant), a spell against winter, and a sassy rejoinder to walk tall and wear mascara if that’s what it took to be loud and proud of it.

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Mick Jagger sings “Angie” in a 1973 promo video.

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Slade.

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Gary Glitter.

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David Bowie with the Spiders From Mars.

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Roxy Music

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Marc Bolan

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Filed under Rock n Roll, The Seventies