Modern fashion as an eternal recurrence of previous trends. Illustrate your essay with specific examples
Contemporary fashion collections appear to be a constant regurgitation of trends that seem to be all too familiar. Can something that is obviously based on a retro style ever be considered cutting-edge? This thesis explores the recurrence of previous trends in current fashion in the contexts of post-modern thinking, second-hand culture (with a particular nod to vintage clothing) and the retro phenomenon. It argues that although the appearances of trends in fashion are indeed recurring, it is the context that is ever-changing.
In 1998 British Vogue saw model Kate Moss as unsuitable to match the desire of the new and unseen that existed at the time. Instead of featuring her on the cover of the September edition, three newcomers were chosen – Angela Lindvall, Bridget Hall and Carolyn Murphy on a cover that loudly proclaimed “All Change.” In a piece inside Fiona Ellis, a scout for Models One Agency at the time, was quoted as saying “I think Kate Moss gets more beautiful every time I see her – but people were getting a little tired of all that perfection” (Holgate, BV 1998: 204). Only two years later, however, Moss was back for a September edition of this fashion bible again and is still now, in 2007, arguably one of the leading representatives of the fashion world. This illustrates how fashion, which claims to be constantly changing, actually appears to operate in cycles.
It can be argued that everything in fashion comes and goes – what seems crucial at one time can easily be obsolete at another only to return as trendy even later. Its values, connotations and importance might fluctuate, but shapes will stay the same. However, this seems to be contrary to fashion’s claims of being innovative and constantly changing. Can a retro look ever be cutting-edge?
This dissertation examines the question why modern fashion is an eternal recurrence of previous trends by focusing on three main aspects of this issue: Chapter One analyses the impact of post-modern philosophy on the fashion industry and examines ways in which trends are re-imagined. Chapter Two investigates second-hand culture. It pays particular attention to the concept of vintage clothing and investigates how garments are re-used. Chapter Three brings these two aspects of fashion together and focuses on the concept of ‘retro’, combining the re-use of trends in the fashion industry with the re-use of garment patterns (or actual garments). It will be concluded that although the looks of trends in fashion are indeed recurring, it is the context that is ever-changing.
This analysis is based not only on relevant literature, but also an investigation of how trends changed through the years by examining the September issues of British Vogue at two year intervals from 1980 to 2007. The September issue can be seen as a trend indication as it is the ‘International Collections Issue’, here the trends of the year are discussed from the collections at the fashion shows. In order to show which quotations have been from one of those issues a ‘BV’ has been included in the references where appropriate.
It could be argued that the influence of post-modern thinking has led to a decrease of stylistic innovation in the post-modern era. Indeed, fashion could be used as an illustration of what this philosophical movement is all about. As Steven Connor states, “the study of fashion as a cultural practice has produced some striking analyses of the effects of postmodernism” (Connor, 1989: 213). Postmodernism in its most simple terms can be described as the loss of the master narrative. In the context of fashion this ‘master narrative’ was the dominance of haute couture. In the modern period “the great designers saw themselves as unique artists and the evolution of fashion had its own internal dynamic” (Wilson, 1990: 224). In the post-modern era this was about to change with the punk movement often seen as a turning point in the history of fashion (compare Hebdige, 1979), especially Muggleton stated that it was heralding the sub-cultural break from modernity to post-modernity (Muggleton, 2000). This chapter will establish the context of recurrent trends in fashion by linking selected examples as portrayed by British Vogue between 1980 and 2006 with aspects of post-modern philosophy.
It took some time to filter up to the decision makers, but when in the 1980s British Vogue suggested to become more conservative and invest in one suit that could be combined with other pieces that already were in the readers’ wardrobes, this was a first manifestation of a new post-modern trend. Instead of encouraging the chase for a new prescribed style in every new season, a mannerism peculiar to modernist fashion, the magazine advised the purchase of good-quality classics, clothes that were not only durable but would also remain wearable (stylistically) for years. This new appreciation of multiple styles soon took inspiration from elements of past trends, thus utilising, or maybe creating, the constant recurrence of former styles.
The idea to associate the post-modern period with styles from the past is supported by Elizabeth Guffey in her 2006 book Retro: The Culture of Revival. According to her it was the modernists who aimed to create utopia based on the technological change, methodical progress and social improvements that would take society away from the past. However, “in the years after World War II Modernist ideas began to lose their influence and looking back to older periods and styles was not just nostalgic, it also suggested, ‘the search for vitamin’, a kind of elixir” (Guffey, 2006: 24).
In 1988 as a result of the bicentenary of French independence on the horizon, designers had reproduced the military uniform of 1790 in their ready-to-wear collections.
Napoleonic frock coats appear, reinterpreted by Patrick Kelly in royal blue, scarlet and black, to dramatic effect at Ferre, who throws one in floor-length white taffeta over blood coloured satin trousers, or more romantically at Chloe, in crystallized fruit coloured silks, with matching embroidered waistcoats. (Hoare, BV 1988: 303)
Together with the uniforms, high collars came back into fashion. Overall 1988 was a tribute to military styles and a call for the return of the smarter, more disciplined look of uniform dressing. Ironically, however, this fashion was conceived for women instead of men.
Styles used for inspiration were not always centuries old. In 2004 British Vogue’s ‘Spy’ section referred to Perry Ellis, who had founded his label in 1978, for inspiration and stated that “the elegant designs of Perry Ellis’ new creative director, Patrick Robinson, are bringing the brand up-to-date” under the sub-heading of “Feminine Wiles” (Limnander, BV 2004: 215). Designers in 2004 borrowed heavily from the past in order to create ‘new’ styles. Robinson and Ronald Mouret, for example, were using the same lady-like look from the nineties as their starting point. However, they were re-imagining it by changing the perception of the style and presenting it as more grown-up. Ronald Mouret quoted: “The Nineties were about the youth. I want to make clothes for real women. How else can you make your mark as a designer?” (Quick, BV 2004: 299). Therefore women wore similar elements as in the decade before, such as white blouses, pencil skirts and belts, but the new look was designed to make them feel more confident. As Harriet Quick put it in her article “All Woman”: “The new woman fashion is certainly conservative and speaks to the world with a kind of well pronounced confidence that says, ‘I know myself and I am in for the long term'” (Quick, BV 2004: 304).
Stuart Sim (2001) stated that a result of the postmodern condition was a loss of sense of reality. This led to heterogeneity of styles and the replacement of parody by pastiche. “By pastiche we mean the works of art [that] are made in old, historical styles. If nothing can be completely original, then it becomes natural to make new versions of old styles”. (Kratz & Reimer, 1998: 201) The erosion of reality in favour of pastiche and copies of copies resulted not only in the disappearance of the individual subject it was also frequently highly ironic, as Kratz and Reimer argue it can be difficult to make copies of copies “with a completely straight face” and suggest that “an ironic stance may be appropriate” (Kratz & Reimer, 1998: 201). Jim Collins, on the other hand, believed that “the post-modern aim is not haphazard pastiche, motivated by perversity, but specific juxtapositions for particular purposes” (Collins, 1989: 199). These purposes were to present the imitation and integration of mixtures and styles in post-modern fashion into a new discourse (Tseelon 1995) rather than only serve at the altar of irony.
The loss of individuality of style reached its peak for the first time in 2000, when the mood was proclaimed to be “unashamed pile-it-on decadence” (Ryder Richardson, BV 2000: 169). In her collection Donatella Versace mixed Pucci-style prints with eighties glitz and big Rap medallions. That season was dominated by one single message: layering. This, however, was not done in the early nineties style, with strips of chiffon and organza, but rather with a nod to the eighties: piling on one piece on top of another with no sense of a unifying style. This example illustrates Sim’s theory: there is no more individuality and feeling of the designer present, just a heterogeneous copying of already copied eighties trends, although with an innovative twist in their presentation. Whatever was newly introduced had really originated in the past.
It is not only the past that is probed for inspiration, it is also different cultures (and their respective histories as well). When in 1982 Japanism was introduced to the Western fashion scene as a ‘new’ style it opened up not just a season focusing on Japanese designers and their unique approach, but also the history behind the clothes they create and with that another rich source of inspiration for the post-modern society.
In the same vein, in every decade it can be observed that designers imitate art in their collections. In 1990 Christian Lacroix seemed to be passionate about 20th century art with his harlequins reminiscent of Piccasso’s early work, as well as prints influenced by Joan Miro and the later Abstract Expressionists. Lagerfeld seemed to admire Menzel while creating short, embroidered coats and high collared shirts. Yohji Yamamoto was inspired by Futurist Umberto Boccioni when he was creating dresses and short tops (Sunderland, BV 1990: 306). Poets, novelists, and painters have long looked to their predecessors for inspiration, and now that the art of the best fashion designers is taken more seriously, it is hardly surprising that they too should study their history and use it in their efforts to push their art forward (Tolkien, 2000: 148).
Whether inspiration comes from the past, from different cultures or art movements it can all be combined into a pastiche. Frederic Jameson agrees that with pastiche the individual subject had disappeared and that this resulted in an increasing unavailability of personal style. He states that there is nothing as unique as a person’s fingerprints and as incomparable as a person’s body and that therefore the producers of culture, such as fashion designers, have nowhere else to turn than to the past (Jameson, 1984). David Muggleton reiterates Jameson’s definition of this world of pastiche “in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles” (Muggleton, 2000: 44).
Jameson’s sees the compulsory confusion of styles as an anarchy which exemplifies the post-modern frame of mind: a sensibility in which all sense of development and history is lost. It could be argued that the jumble of stylistic mannerisms becomes as schizophrenic as the consumer culture in which they originated (Wilson, 1990: 224).
In 1996, for example, British Vogue proclaimed that the overly feminine look as represented by the likes of Pamela Anderson was on the decline. What became sexy that year was a “look that, gender-wise, is pretty ambiguous” (Armstrong, BV 1996: 64). The idea was not to look like a woman in men’s clothes, as it had been in 1988, but something more subtle. Women had been abandoning men’s apparel in every decade, mostly for reasons of practicality, as Coco Chanel had demonstrated. Before the year 1996 women chose men’s suits mostly because they were comfortable or in order to achieve an ironic effect. In and after 1996 the fashion anarchy Jameson predicted led to an adaptation of androgynous identities. Whether it was due to a garment exchange between boyfriends and girlfriends (Armstrong, BV 1996) or because men’s and women’s roles in society had become more and more blurred: this was the period when curves were replaced with underdeveloped adolescent look (and, as a (men’s) tailor whose clients included Naomi Campell and Dina Carroll pointed out, there were “compelling aesthetic arguments” for utilising this male type of clothing: “a man’s suit with pleats at the back is fantastic for emphasizing the waist. Flared cuffs show off elegant arms”. (Armstrong, BV 1996: 65).
This development conforms to Muggleton’s view that subcultures within postmodernity, such as fashion, have two choices: one of them to “feed off each other in a cannibalistic orgy of cross fertilization, destroying their own internal boundaries in the process” (Muggelton, 2000: 44). In other words fashion styles merge with each other to produce a hybrid of already existing styles, which results in ambiguity.
The other choice Muggleston predicted for post-modern subcultures, that they “indulge in the stylistic revivalism that Johnston has derisively termed post-punk nostalgia” (Muggelton, 2000: 44), happened in fashion, too. Since the late seventies, as Steve Redhead outlines, there were revivals of teddy boy, mod, skinhead and hippie subcultures (Redhead, 1993).
Hebdige noted that in this sense the teddy boy’s theft and updated Edwardian look which had been revived in the early fifties by Savile Row for rich young men, can be considered as an act of bricolage (Hebdige, 1979). This does not necessarily mean copying a particular style from the past as “a bricoleur is a person who creates things from existing materials” (Wikipedia, 2007). 1992 was finally the time when fashion aficionados officially did not have to follow any rules anymore. “Rules are fashion’s scourge: smash them, they only fragment. But now, as designers unanimously burn the pieces, new shapes are appearing in the flames” (Martin, BV 1992: 173). Consequently Karl Lagerfeld referred to his 90’s collection of suits and replaced skirts with leggings, while keeping the jackets; Versace combined biker jackets with taffeta skirts; and so on. By choosing and combining different pieces from different periods of times designers created their new collections.
Interestingly enough what seems to have happened in fashion was actually a combination of the two options suggested by Muggleston. The 1998 movie “Velvet Goldmine”, for example, attempted to reinvent the glam rock subculture, which subsequently did affect fashion at the time of the movie release. Producer Todd Haynes stated that “Glam took the more flamboyant and effeminate aspects of hippie culture and hyperbolized them, giving them a flashy, trashy, sci-fi look” (as quoted in: Hoskyns, BV 1998: 132). It can be concluded that since Haynes referred to hippie when reviving seventies glam, nothing is original or new. It really did come to a cannibalistic orgy of cross fertilization of styles as quoted above; designers seem to create something new, but out of elements taken from revivals.
Punk was revived, too, ironically this time around in the name of high fashion. If post-punk stylistic revivals are examples of pastiche, then they can say nothing new, represent nothing more than our “pop images” and “cultural stereotypes” of the past, for the peculiarity of postmodern time has now and for evermore precluded any possibility of subcultural “originality”. (Muggleton, 2000: 45)
Punk motives started reappearing in 1986 under the slogan ‘New Conservatism.’ With more than a nod to dada, this new trend focused on zips, chains and metal as accessories, with “decoration becoming integral design” and “deconstruction [becoming] decoration” (Wintour (ed.) BV 1986: 354).
By 2000, when there was another punk revival attempted, it had become clear that designers might be able to revive the punk look, but nothing more. As Soho buyer Nicola Formichetti pointed out: “I am pleased that some of the big houses are doing punk, but it’s a fake punk. There is no real energy there” (as quoted in: Quick, BV 2000: 176). After all, the original punk movement in the early seventies was a reaction to their perception of ‘no future’ for them due to the economical situation Britain was in. Since in 2000 there were far less reasons to rebel and historical moments can not be imitated, the only thing left to replicate is style. Year 2000 was desperate for new energy, and fashion designers attempted to source it from the past. The result was a new punk style. Rei Kawakubo, for example, “wanted something harder, so she looked inside herself. All the energy comes from inside. She took punk’s key element – its energy – and melded it into her own unique vision.” The designer herself stated: “I am not copying I am originating” (Quick, BV 2000: 175f).
Hebdige argues that “Modes and categories inherited from the past no longer seem to fit the reality experienced by the new generation” (Hebdige, 1979: vii). However, it is not the modes and categories which do not fit the reality, but rather the spirit which is just impossible to reproduce. As has been discussed in this chapter, post-modern designers might be recreating the styles, but in a manner which will forever stay unique in every re-imagining.
Another important issue in investigating the phenomenon of constant recurrence of styles is the re-use of individual garments. This chapter investigates second-hand practices focusing on vintage culture and its influence on fashion, specifically in a psychological dimension.
Second-hand culture is more than just people wearing styles from the past; it is based on certain processes and mechanisms, which will be briefly explained below in order to establish a context for this phenomenon. First of all, buyers of second-hand clothes can be divided into two different groups, the people who are price-driven and the people who are garment driven. The first category is the people who cannot afford to buy any clothing other than that which is cheap and second-hand. In that scenario the clothes themselves usually do not represent any special meaning to their purchaser. The second category, however, are buyers who are interested in second-hand clothes in order to express their own uniqueness. As Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe argue in their 2003 book Second-Hand Cultures, “Purchasing second-hand can be about capturing difference” (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 4). This section of the second-hand culture is the one more interesting in the context of this thesis and will therefore be focused on.
Second-hand clothes can create a sense of individuality because each item can represent a symbolic value. As Gregson and Crewe put it, “In order to understand how the second-hand market comes to be, we need to explore the sequence of value transformations as commodities pass through different stages in their biographical journey”. (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 115).
The glove as an accessory, for example, has its origin in the 12th century. In pairs they became an indispensable part of fashionable dress during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, no well-dressed woman would appear in public without them. Although still quite expensive, gloves were becoming more accessible to the common people and their popularity grew quickly. By this accessory a woman’s status in society could be identified and gloves remained constantly present in fashion throughout the centuries. In the 20th century, however, gloves went through a certain amount of upheaval where their meaning was concerned. While in the fifties and sixties they were still the sign of a well-dressed and proper lady, one just has to look at Doris Day films of that period, the hippie movement was not as enchanted with them and they lost appeal. In 1986, however, gloves returned with a completely different meaning: they were now a part of so-called “cool fashion”. By using gloves as part of an outfit in 1986 designer Patrick Kelly expressed his originality of style (Wintour (ed.), BV 1986: 356). It is clear that particular commodities can express different identities as time passes.
Second-hand clothes often also have benefited from a different quality of production that makes them unique when compared with new garments available to buy off the peg today. For example “the styles of the 1960s are seen to embody qualities of craftsmanship, design and attention to detail which were lost with the turn to mass production” (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 116).
Consequently today’s fashion values go through different transformations, mostly because of the end-results of production. Skills such as garment-beading and corsetry-making, for example, are “in short supply in the fashion industry” today, “which give[s] value to original, traditionally constructed garments” (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 116).
There is much talk of quality and how contemporary clothing is not crafted to appropriate standards anymore. Comparing a relatively low-quality new garment with a piece of clothing from the sixties, for example, the older dress turns into an original object by its ability to capture a sense of the old, the antique, it becomes so valuable because its quality turns it into an artefact of the past (Palmer & Clark, 2005).
It is no wonder that wearing second-hand clothes has turned into a mainstream phenomenon, highly commodified within the global fashion system of production, marketing and consumption (Palmer & Clark, 2005). With this development second-hand culture has become a fashion movement in its own right, where wearing past styles is considered to be fashionable and glamorous. Wearing second-hand clothes “seems to be a way of setting themselves [the wearers] up as the arbiters of good (elite) taste, in the classic Bourdieu sense” (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 149).
Buying second-hand clothes often comes as part and parcel with an almost casual disregard of obvious attributes of wealth and contempt of the ‘colour of money.’ As Angela McRobbie explains in her book Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket, Stuart Hall saw that members of the hippie movement identified themselves with the poor, and denied the usual grace of middle class (McRobbie, 1989). Therefore, in a way, second-hand fashion can be used to look poor, giving the wearer an opportunity to be distanced from both conventional dress and from real poverty (Tseelon, 1995).
Second-hand clothes can be seen as of little or no value
due to the fact that they have been worn by other people and show traces of wear like sweat and holes, used clothes are often perceived as unhygienic. They are referred to as trash and rags, which others no longer want. Second-hand clothing has for some people an association with poverty and need. These clothes are not seen as fashion, and therefore are seen to be without value. (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 184)
For others, however, this quality of having been worn before actually adds value to the clothes because they “bear the traces – the imprints – of their previous owners; their bodies have literally left their marks, through personalized ways of wearing, smell and so on” (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 7). That is exactly what distinguishes second-hand clothing admirers from every other purchaser: They love the clothes that actually came from the seventies, not the seventies look achieved through imitation. They adore the texture and fabrics; they will wear a particular garment because of this fabric, which seems to have lived through a different age, with the style being almost of secondary importance (Gregson & Crewe, 2003).
It is possible that people do this in order to escape their own reality; our world is so complicated that people prefer to refer to the past in order to hide away from the present.
Palmer and Clark argue that the nostalgia for second-hand garments was a representation of fashion as a form of bricolage that “reconfigures used clothes” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 174). As Connor puts it:
Most accounts of postmodern style constitute the notion of postmodernist fashion by analogy with other accredited symptoms of postmodernism, and most particularly the mode of bricolage, or the improvised juxtaposition of incompatible or heterogeneous fragments, often for ironic or parodic effect. (Connor, 1989: 214)
It is no wonder that there are so many car-boot sales and charity shops. The real ‘valuers’ go to these places, because among all the trash they may find a valuable piece of clothing. However, as Gregson and Crewe state, there is a very unclear and complex relationship between what is considered rubbish and what is valuable.
At one end it is rubbish, at the other is high (commercial and aesthetic) value, but in between are a range of possible object-value relations, gradations which include junk, debris, trash and kitsch on the one hand, and heirloom, antique and treasure on the other. (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 115)
That is why buying second-hand often involves additional ‘work’ by the purchaser, far more than would be part of buying new, and this process appears to vary according to particular aspects of the material culture. Reworked second-hand clothes can be considered vintage commodities (Gregson & Crewe, 2003). The understanding of second-hand culture all depends upon its transformation.
In 2002 Lucie Muir, a journalist from British Vogue, reported on a trend saying that “This winter’s woollies are oversized, shaggy and super-chunky…old fashioned knits your granny used to make” (Muir, BV 2002: 202). The idea was to wear clothes that appeared like they had been knitted by the wearer’s grandmother sitting by the fireside.
That opened up the opportunity to wear garments that actually had been knitted by hand in times past. These could be called ‘vintage’, although it could also be argued that they would be examples of re-worked second-hand clothes – taken from the grandmother’s wardrobe, but presented differently. As Palmer and Clark point out: “Second-hand dress becomes the material whereby consumers can play with the past to create modern identities” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 173)
Over the years the wearing of clothes that were out of fashion made the wearer stand out as having eccentric tastes. The previously mentioned ‘poor look’, for example, was closely associated with a bohemian lifestyle which had “set out to turn the banality of everyday life into an ongoing work of art with oneself at the centre” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 173). Whereas in the fifties this look was authentic – it was created by individuals by combining original garments that had been abandoned by others, in 1988 Bohemian Chic was revived as a trend by the fashion designers, bringing the concept of ‘vintage’, and with that the second-hand culture, to the attention of the fashion industry.
The term ‘vintage’ is used to cover a huge spectrum of clothes that are not newly designed. Vintage designs are worn internationally by the avant-garde, be they young or mature. The concept incorporates the ideas of not only old, authentic fabrics and production-methods, but also an element of having been worn, which means vintage as such cannot be copied. Subsequently, whether it is wealthy or average income consumers, in the aspiration to establish individuality through these types of clothes, global and local sources need to be exploited (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 174). It is no coincidence that these days “boutiques and department stores […] stock authentic vintage fashions” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 175).
Finding and wearing vintage is a symbol of fashion independence, as much as sewing ones own garments and designs. “Each displays an individual’s ability to operate outside of the fashion industry’s seasons and dictums by being one’s own designer” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 174). Vintage clothing has come to be associated with being ‘in fashion’, but at the same time allows the wearer to express an individual style. Perhaps that is why vintage became so popular, especially the pieces which belonged to significant people.
Vintage can be clearly identified as a symbol of individuality. “It is the uniqueness of vintage that appeals to consumers who now consider themselves connoisseurs and collectors, and that makes buying an old garment complex in terms of style and price” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 175). In her studies of vintage culture, Tolkien considers vintage as one of the most striking aspects of the modern fashion industry. She points out that even those most glamorous women who could easily afford the most expensive leading high-end designer clothes others can only dream about, stick to vintage and that is what makes it even more desirable and valuable (Tolkien, 2000).
The concept of vintage clothes appears to exist because if people consider fashion as a part of self-expression – some clothes are just impossible to replace. Fur, for example, is valuable and will always be part of vintage looks, if it is real. In 1996 British Vogue stated that “the Americans called it yak in the Sixties and it was big. This season, designers are calling it shag and it’s everywhere” (Murray Greenway, BV 1996: 193). Although it would be wrong to dismiss fake fur out of hand (as that has also a place in vintage styles, particularly when it comes to fifties looks), it is real fur which brings with it a connotation of wealth, thus helping the wearers not only to present themselves with perfect taste, but also to become associated with a particular status.
However, it is not only consumers who take inspiration from vintage clothing to work out their individual styles, designers do too. The New York designer Norma Kamali, for example, made some of her lines from “remaindered garments” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 175). More and more designers are starting to experiment in this way: Paris-based designer Lamine Kouyate reconfigures old clothes as well, a new meaning of the concept of recycling (Palmer & Clark, 2005); In 2002 models from DKNY appeared on the catwalks wearing their own print shirts and cords, but with a change of retro prints on them; Marc Jacobs launched his denim collections with models wearing sweetly nostalgic “Wonder Years-esque clothes” on the runway (Sanders, BV 2002: 225) with distressed fabrics in soft, worn-out silhouettes and forms, with a shade of the seventies nostalgia (high-school jackets, tidy tops and bodice front dresses). As Donna Karan explained: “By blurring the lines between modern and vintage, soft and tailored, you can make those items you know really well become special and different” (as quoted in Sanders, BV 2002: 225). Designer Marni Consuelo Castiglioni stated that while making these clothes her motives were the feelings of eternity that women will feel when they wear her clothes. She explained that it is important that the purchasers consider those pieces as if they have had them forever, that they will feel at ease in them from the first moment they wear them (Sanders, BV 2002).
It is essential to consider that fashion is a tool people use to express their emotions and in extension, particularly for women, clothes have the potential to become psychologically linked to a feeling. As Banim and Guy argue in their article “Why do women still keep the clothes they no longer wear?” most of the time women keep some of their clothes because of the emotions associated with these particular garments. Even if pieces are no longer worn, they allow women to maintain a connection with former, important aspects of themselves and their lives. Although the women are aware on some level that these clothes are not usable again, specific garments signify certain elements that the women wish to be reminded of or even continue in terms of their current identity (Banim & Guy, 2001).
When British Vogue’s September issue of 2004 devoted an article to the history of the label Biba, many different women shared their memories of it. Throughout the article there was an unmistakable nostalgic mood which signified that it was not the clothes that those women admired the most, it were their associations with the sixties, of which Biba had been a stylistic epicentre (Shulman (ed) BV 2004).
When modern designers refer to styles of the past they remind wearers of their youth and the emotions they went through at that time. As Tracy Tolkien explains in her 2000 book Vintage: The Art of Dressing Up: “Emotionally too there is something very romantic about the idea of these lovely, once treasured clothes coming out of their dark hiding places to live again and become associated with special moments in our own lives, as they once were in the lives of their original wearers” (Tolkien, 2000: 9).
Clothes kept in the wardrobe, as well as clothes previously worn by somebody else, will forever remain as memories of the past, while similar garments can become an inspiration for present identities. When in 2006 designer Bella Freud was charged with relaunching Biba .
She rediscovered [a coat she once owned] in the Biba archives; it became a must for inclusion in her new collection. She found that deciding which other classic pieces to revive from the archives was almost as easy. All of them highlight the mix of old Hollywood glamour, Victorian femininity and rock’n’roll renegade spirit that epitomized the label, and the new collection takes an almost custodial role to the Biba phenomenon. (Ings-Chambers, BV 2006: 233)
It is clear that the re-use of clothes, whether it is born out of an individual sense of style or a desire to capture the spirit of a past time, has a significant impact on fashion trends. As has been discussed in this chapter, second-hand culture has been such a conspicuous part of fashion culture that it has invaded the runways and has thus become another area from where designers can source their inspirations.
retro – Using the past to Create the Future
With the rise of vintage styles in the fashion community the challenge to duplicate those styles in more or less exact reproductions was set and the concept of ‘retro,’ the re-modelling of clothes from old patterns, was born. This chapter investigates how this collision of post-modern thinking with second-hand culture has affected the formulation of fashion trends.
Although there have been many investigations into what retro exactly means, an exact definition has not been found. However, the general opinion seems to be that retro is perceived as a trendy though meaningless term, that is used by the fashion industries to announce the diverse fashions from the past as new looks. Retro-look or retro-style can be defined as a visual or rather materialized recourse to objects and images of the past, stimulating memories of subtle associations with images and objects from other decades and centuries. (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 179)
On the catwalk (and off) a retro effect can be achieved with the use of small details, even if the rest of the elements are clearly contemporary. White tights, for example, evoke a clear sixties connotation ever since Twiggy wore them in Vogue in 1967. When in 1996 Gucci, Chloé, Karl Lagerfeld and others used them in their collections; it made the whole season look retro, although the other garments the designers used were of completely different styles.
Interestingly, despite the fact that consumption of the past “has been highly visible for several decades,” it is the young people who appear to be the “main cultural actors of the retro-styles” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 178f). This might be due to the fact that retro fashion is affordable – not as expensive as either haute couture or vintage, retro clothes can be found on the ‘rag market’, which provides copied styles in often poor quality fabrics (McRobbie, 1989). No wonder that the brightest examples of this are the clothes of young professionals:
The “new” items which now make up his or her wardrobe were almost, to the last sock or stocking, discovered, restored and worn by young men and women who worked in, or hung around, Camden Market and a whole series of provincial rag markets, in the late 1970 and early 1980s. The ladies suit announced as the high fashion item of the summer 1988 is a reworking of the early 1960s Chanel suit worn by Jackie Kennedy and others. A boucle wool version in pink and orange can be found on the rails of Next this season, but it is not simply a 1980s revamp of the Chanel original, because it was in the late 1970s, as part of her war on conventional femininity, that Poly Styrene first wore this most unflattering of outfits, the ladies two-piece found in the jumble sale or rag market in abundance for 50p. (McRobbie, 1989: 27)
Here the cultural distinction becomes obvious between people who are “authentic” (Gregson & Crewe, 2003: 149), well informed on a scene and ‘rich’ when it comes to cultural capital, and those who only superficially embrace a style and buy and wear new mass-market copies of original pieces (Gregson & Crewe, 1989).
In 1992 the way the past was referenced in fashion was unique. Designers did not simply look back some years; instead they referred to the most historically valuable past, as far as 100 years ago.
[In] Karl Lagerfeld’s show, for instance, models with pale, refined faces and mysterious, dark rimmed eyes looked as though they had stepped out of a Lartigue photograph. On their feet were little ankle boots, on their sleek chignons were balanced ornate hats … and on their bodies were long, slender, richly coloured tailleurs that revealed the wearer’s shape in the most modern, sexy way, yet somehow had a demure, pre 1914 feel about them. (Armstrong, BV 1992: 187)
That was one of the years when Britain admired the era of the “sweet and carefree” as it was described by Osbert Sitwell (Armstrong, BV 1992: 187). Designers managed to reflect on the development of fashion before and during the wars in their own artistic manner but still very close to the look – and all in one season. According to Galiano what this history lessons taught was to dress eclectically and not to follow anyone’s formula (Armstrong, BV 1992).
If fashion is perceived as a way to express and experience things then retro has inherent value, because with the dress as the closest object to the body, people who have not experienced the time themselves can experience it through the garments:
Retro functions much like timeless or classic as cultural advertising; retro products can assume an iconic status, denoting an undefined time gone by. Retro quotes styles from the past, but applies them in anomalous settings, it regards the past from a bemused distance. Casting a glance backwards, to older but still modern periods, retro eludes the positivist progressivism that inflected the Modern era. Retro came to symbolize a deviant form of revivalism. (Guffey, 2006: 13)
Retro styling is the ultimate bricolage tool and top designers like Galliano, Dolce & Gabbana, Westwood and Prada all re-invented and recombined a variety of earlier eras while a popular fin de siècle passion for vintage swept through the mainstream. Dolce & Gabbana in particular produced dramatic, sensual, retro-inspired clothes inspired by the fashion past that were considered some of the best of the nineties decade. Miucca Prada made a huge impact; too, with a simple black nylon backpack that has since become a true fashion icon (Tolkien, 2000: 145).
In contemporary fashion, revivalism is a mechanism which allows people to experiment with style. Fashion designers McQueen and his colleague Galliano go to the archives for inspiration before creating a new collection: “Re-wearing clothes from a personal wardrobe and wearing newly acquired vintage and retro clothing, can be understood as a desire to recreate familiarity, or felicity in a world that is rapidly changing and increasingly impersonal” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 202). Therefore it can be stated that retro and any revivalism of style appear to cross the boundaries between origin and time, creating an atmosphere of both a historical past and historicised future in which to search for an appropriate fashion for the present (Palmer &Clark, 2005).
Charles Baudelaire once proposed that artists use the past to confront the present. In the creation of contemporary life, numerous designers modeled works of art in the reconstitution, re-examination, and revelation of the past. This impulse to be of the past but in the present – to be in “the historical mode” – became clearly discernible in fashion. (Martin & Koda, 1989: 7)
As has been explained in this chapter, the makers of post-modern fashion trends embraced second-hand culture, to the extend that they were ‘faking it’ through the introduction of retro garments. However, although designers might use old patterns for their new collections it is the context and combinations that were, and still are, inventing old style anew.
The past, just as other aspects such as culture and art, has always influenced fashion. As Richard Martin and Harold Koda argue in The Historical Mode – Fashion and Art in the 1980’s “The past just before our time, of which we are capable of recollection, and the present that is a reinterpretation and representation of the past make a fascinating juxtaposition” (Martin & Koda, 1989: 12).
If fashion can be an expression of individual identity, then it becomes reflective of the events that happen to the wearer in the present. Maybe subconsciously the fashion industry absorbs events from other cultural spheres and provides its clients with what they want to have. After the events of September 11th 2001, the fashion of the following year was reviving the punk and goth movements. As had been the case in the seventies these styles were representative of the rebellious mood of society. In 2006 tailored suits were re-introduced to women’s fashion and gave women the opportunity to feel more important and business-like than ever. This was due to the constant instability between women’s and men’s roles. The hemlines of skirts are changing each year, with the long skirt a staple in the wardrobe, though not necessarily as a symbol of manners and chastity any more. Today the experimentation with lengths in skirts shows the free rights women have: they can wear whatever they want if it makes them feel comfortable and styled.
Although through developments triggered by the second-hand culture styles, and indeed garments, come back into fashion. As has been discussed it is the post-modern context that changes them – not only in their appearance, through re-inventing as well as re-combining them, but also in their meaning. “Nostalgia and a search for authenticity have been identified by scholars as characteristics of the late or post-modern period that preceded the millennium” (Palmer & Clark, 2005: 174).
Contemporary culture is in a constant state of uncertainty and is searching all the times. Human beings need to rely on something that will make them feel more confident and it can be memories and past events that make them feel less vulnerable in the present. The “imitation of bygone styles lends historical depth to a world of surface signifiers, and shows a desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past” (Tseelon, 1995: 132). In order to find that part culture, and with it fashion, refers to the past, individually experienced or movements in decades gone by, for the sake of creating anew.
That is what distinguishes post-modern fashion from the modern period. With their ambitious view of the future modernists tried to keep away from the past for the sake of creating a brand-new outlook on society. They were open to any sort of experimentation, but not to re-inventing the past. Maybe as a result of that the post-modern period has nowhere to turn to for inspiration but the past.
As Simmel argues:
The motive of foreignness, which fashion employs in its socializing endeavors, is restricted to higher civilization, because novelty, which foreign origin guarantees in extreme form, is often regarded by primitive races as an evil. This is certainly one of the reasons why primitive conditions of life favour a correspondingly infrequent change of fashions. Civilization, however, transforms this affection into it’s very opposite. Whatever is exceptional, bizarre, or conspicuous…exercises a peculiar charm upon the man of culture. (Craik, 1993: 3)
Tolkien puts it differently: “The kaleidoscope of fashion, ever turning, ever new but never new – what goes around comes around, and rediscovering and reinventing the past is part of the fun” (Tolkien, 2000: 6). Whether seen as an existentialist mannerism of the post-modern condition or just fun, the recurrence of trends in fashion is not an exploitation of the past, but a re-interpretation within new contexts. It allows designers to utilise, admire and question what has come before and thus create a richer future. Retro can indeed be cutting-edge.