Fashion’s Past & Present

There is a scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis where the stretched limo of cyber capitalist Eric Packer is pelted with rocks and smeared with paint and human excrement as it meanders conspicuously through a crowd of anti-capitalist protesters at Times Square. Safe within the limo, Packer and his chief of theory Vija Kinski reflect coolly on the violence outside, as a man sets fire to his body. Packer is momentarily transfixed, but Kinski is unfazed. Her chilling verdict is that this form of protest, much like the causes that have spawned it, ‘is not original’. The exchange between Packer and Kinski, which occurs in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, encapsulates a profound sense of disenfranchisement with the modern economic system. This sentiment was remarkably prescient for a book published in 2003. The recent film adaptation of Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson, tapped into the financially frightened zeitgeist and was marketed as ‘the first film about our new millennium’.

Original Sin?

VogueA harsh critic might offer a similarly bleak verdict of the financial behemoth that is the global fashion industry, which is estimated to be worth $1,306 billion per annum.[i] In a recent interview, Valentino Garavani seemed to bemoan the increased commercialisation of an industry that he has worked in since a boy of seventeen: ‘Everything has changed; fashion became a profession, a money-making career.’[ii] As it has grown, the fashion industry has fought hard against accusations of exploitation – of models and child manufacturers – and is periodically accused of a lack of originality in its drive to sell more wares. In a revealing, albeit minor, way this point comes through in The September Issue – and it’s parody The Devil Wears Prada – when Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington debate whether certain combinations of clothes have been photographed for Vogue before:

GC: Well there’s two coats here and I’m sort of undecided about them.

AW: It is similar to the one we did in July.

GC: It’s not because you’re thinking of the one we shot and didn’t run. I’ve shot them twice, but we have not had them in the magazine. The coat didn’t run.

Originality poses particular problems for clothing because sartorial decisions are so prominent. As I have indicated before, people generally seek to be individual, rather than different.[iii] What we wear reveals so much about us, so we try commensurately hard to get it right. When choosing an outfit a myriad of decisions – conscious and subconscious – are made, based on the ‘look’ that we want to achieve and a withering self-interrogation of how we think people will actually perceive us wearing it. Adopting a new style of garment or a range of atypical colours can make an outfit novel, but if the cumulative effect is too different, too removed from our usual shapes and palette, the effect can be nugatory. I still rue the day that I thought an apple green roll-neck was a good purchase (although I have said before that I am colour-blind). By contrast, perpetually abiding by a tried and tested look becomes worn and dated. The best option, as Tom Ford observed in an interview with Bridget Foley, is for fashion to be new and old simultaneously:

BF: Invention is rare today. Reinvention is more the method of the moment, no?

TF: From music to film, everything has been about sampling, recycling. I mean, vintage clothes – people wear vintage now to the Oscars […] We seem to have some deep-seated need for familiarity, and at the same time, an obsession with newness. Culturally, there needs to be a quick understanding and a sense of comfort with things that hit us. We still want something new and fresh, but somehow if it can be something old yet something new, that’s the best thing. We can accept it quickly, which is why all these old brands are so important right now. It’s part of this trend of taking the familiar and making it new – an old brand like Gucci, an old brand like Vuitton, an old brand like Dior – and transforming it.[iv]

But designers also need to take care because the desire for ‘quick understanding’ and acceptance means that they too are pigeonholed, as Ford explains:

We do get typecast. If Lee [McQueen] sent out a collection that was like one of mine, you’d think it was dull and boring, too commercial. We all get typecast. Miuccia Prada is the intelligent designer; Tom is the sexy designer; Yves was the delicate, fragile designer who wore his heart on his sleeve. It’s just how a lot of us construct ourselves to the outside world.[v]

Familiarity Breeds … Fashion

Familiarity in fashion is important because it provides that reassuring sense of the past that we evidently crave whilst also offering a frame of reference, a tested – better yet, proven – approach to wearing a particular outfit that can be subtly tweaked, just so much that it becomes our own. This helps to explain why designers have frequently looked to the past to find inspiration for their creations and why fashion companies invoke the past to provide potential consumers with the assurance of familiarity to buy their products. A recent squabble between two perfumers over Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962, shows how important fashion’s past is to its present. Dior’s current television campaign uses doyens from the golden age of Hollywood to market J’Adore perfume.

In the one and a half-minute film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, a tardy and flustered Charlize Theron arrives back-stage at a Dior fashion show, which is taking place in one of Louis XIV’s grandiose palaces. As Theron rushes to slip into her shimmering gold dress and head out to the catwalk, the camera pans around the dressing room to reveal Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe waiting to strut their stuff. For a perfume launched in 1999 to claim such heritage maybe unconvincing, but few who watch this glitzy confection will be counting the years, I expect. If Annaud has done his job, audiences will be as rapt about J’Adore as the CGIed Marilyn Monroe, who is shown cradling a bottle of the fragrance as the film reaches its climax. With a tad more legitimacy, perhaps, Chanel have recently used photographs, interviews and audio to capture Marilyn Monroe’s apparent, and oft-repeated, preference for Chanel No. 5, of which she famously wore five drops in bed. Invoking Monroe to promote Chanel No. 5, the perfumer has been quite explicit that this enhances the ‘legend’ of the scent.

Heritage is equally important for the tailors along London’s Savile Row, even though they are selling a very different product and, in some cases, use their past in a less conspicuous manner, which can sometimes manifest itself as a barrier to potential consumers. Such is the illustrious history of many of the Row’s tailors, who have clothed royalty from Buckingham Palace to Hollywood, that they have often eschewed any form of advertising. Even in Beau Brummell’s day, ‘the tradesmen of the area around Savile Row … did not put anything in their shop-window or a nameplate on the door. It was a question of exclusivity and the nuances of class.’[vi] And if the advent of Abercrombie and Fitch on the Row is the sign of things to come, a certain amount of sartorial reserve – even snobbery – might not be a bad thing.[vii] Things have changed somewhat, though, largely because of Richard James, who was the first of the Savile Row bespoke tailors to advertise in men’s style magazines and who, in 2000, ‘really went for it’ by obtaining the lease for the largest shop along the Row and installing large windows ‘that showed the world what we were doing inside. It was the opposite of the traditional Savile Row tailor and that’s not a criticism.’[viii] In this sense, the extent to which a fashion brand engages with its past has a profound impact on its modern image, its products and, thus, its customers. A fashion company’s past can promote new business or preserve that which already exists. An illustrious past can be championed, as in the case of Tom Ford, who reintroduced bamboo and the horse bit to Gucci, or it can be used to shroud a company in a mystique to maintain a sense of exclusivity and privilege.

marilyn-monroe-chanel-no-5

 

Oriental Excess

The management of fashion’s past has had a significant impact in the East, which is set to account for nearly half of the world’s total outlay on luxury goods by 2020.[ix] Scores of high-flying Chinese have bought western brands to flaunt their newfound wealth, sometimes ill advisedly: when government officials were snapped wearing £1,500 Hermès belts, there was a veritable media storm. Initially, well-established brands that conferred heritage and legitimacy on the nouveax riches sold well in the East, but no longer. Burberry, which has sixty-six stores in China, and Louis Vuitton, which has thirty-nine, have become ubiquitous and consequently less desirable. By contrast, ‘stealth-wealth brands’ like Prada and Bottega Veneta, are faring better.[x] A look at when these four companies were founded may seem to throw the argument about the importance of heritage in fashion on its head. In ascending order of age, the companies are as follows: Bottega Veneta (1966), Prada (1913), Burberry (1856), Louis Vuitton (1854). But the buying preferences of the Chinese recall the observation of Tom Ford; namely, that consumers like their clothes and clothing apparel to be at once old and new. Whilst Burberry and Louis Vuitton are considerably older than Prada and Bottega Veneta, their marketing is now as commonplace as the scarves and leather holdalls they peddle. For the design-conscious Chinese, these companies are old in two senses: their length of operation and their length of trade on the streets of China. The former is acceptable, but the latter is not, hence the popularity of old and ‘new’ brands like Prada. In a society that is becoming saturated with brands, subtly is key. As Gemma Soames notes, ‘The cool crowd tend to leave the obvious labels behind – Louis Vuitton almost marks you out as a novice.’[xi]

Gendered History

If there is a slight difference in attitude regarding fashion’s past between the East and the West, there is a greater contrast between the genders. Trends in men’s clothing generally seem to eschew the past, which is often regarded as frivolous. Women’s clothing, however, seems to have a more dynamic and positive relationship with past styles. If Charlie Porter is right, this could be because men do not share ‘the female romance for the catwalk.’[xii] Aspects of male dress are making a comeback – the pocket square and tie pin are obvious examples – and today sees the launch of London Collections: Men,[xiii] but the influence that fashion icons like Beau Brummell, the Count d’Orsay and Edward VII possess over modern men’s style stems largely from the characters they were and the lives they led. Dressing like these ‘heroic’ figures is an incidental step towards being like them, which often seems to be a greater concern for men. I doubt the pocket square and tiepin would have made such a convincing comeback if it had not first been worn by men’s men like Dan Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Even Beau Brummell, trendsetter extraordinaire, remarked that ‘it is folly that is the making of me.’[xiv] By contrast, the women icons of yesteryear, women like Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, who are gracing the screen once again thanks to Dior, have perhaps always seemed enigmatic. Their dresses and accessories attract attention because of their intrinsic beauty and workmanship, rather than because of who is modelling them. Whilst this observation may not be a universal truism, it shouldn’t surprise that fashion’s past is viewed in a gendered perspective when that is how fashion’s present is seen.

tdesigns

Either way, the fashion brand that ignores its past, clearly jeopardises its present. Fashion brands that lack the familiarity and legitimacy of heritage could do worse than take a leaf out of Thom Browne’s book. Browne’s eponymous collections appear to derive from historical vogues. His monotone aesthetic recalls the sartorial code of Beau Brummell and his eyewear range looks as though it is taken straight from the eighteenth-century factory, price tags notwithstanding of course.[xv]


[i] E. Van Keymeulen & L. Nash, ‘Fashionably Late’, Intellectual Property Magazine (Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012), 53. www.cov.com/files/Publication/8fc11e54-27e2-4da3-9323-0663dd0a5746/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/45a27275-df92-475b-9e11-11154b0c1061/Fashionably%20Late.pdf.

[ii] ‘The Inventory: Valentino’, FT Weekend Magazine (January 5/6, 2013), 7.

[iii] ‘Clothes are not just for Christmas’, December, 20 2012.

[iv] Varia, Tom Ford (London, 2004), 26.

[v] Ibid., 30.

[vi] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 204.

[vii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, Life & Arts: Financial Times (January 5/6, 2013), 1.

[viii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 199-200.

[ix] G. Soames, ‘Orient Express’, Style: The Sunday Times (18 November, 2012), 35.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 36.

[xii] Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, 2.

[xiv] Kelly, Beau Brummell, 207

[xv] Ibid., 186-208; www.thombrowneeyewear.com.

1 Comment

  1. A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian reported that demand for Burberry goods in China has increased, beating analysts’ predictions. The unexpected sales surge was apparently due to ‘an improvement in wider consumer sentiment.’ I suspect this is a verbose way of saying that Burberry has benfitted from a recent resurgence in interest for ‘Brand GB’, perhaps due to LC:M. As the British Fashion Council’s Value of Fashion Report stressed, ‘The value and reputation of classic British heritage looks and quality – “i.e. style anglais” – should not be underestimated.’

    D. Milmo, ‘Entrenched: China loves Burberry,’ The Guardian (Wednesday, 16 January, 2013), 19.

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