The Silence Of Style

In April, I delivered a lecture at the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design about ‘The Sounds of Style: How Clothes Communicate’. I argued that our dress conveys personal messages, regardless of whether we are cognisant of this when donning our glad-rags in the morning, and used the theories of Norbert Elias, Erving Goffman, Roland Barthes and Alison Lurie to suggest that anyone who really wanted to understand and enjoy their clothes, certainly anyone working within the fashion industry, should be aware of how they converse.[i] Barely two months have passed, but I realise that I shall need to tweak my pitch before the talk’s next outing. The central tenet of my argument remains unchanged; clothes talk and we can usefully analyse how they do this by thinking in terms of language, as Alison Lurie suggests.[ii] However, as I have recognised in recent posts, the clarity and volume with which our clothes communicate has diminished markedly over time. If the clothing of the sixteenth century shouted, that of twenty-first century merely mutters.

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Acceptable in the 80s

Remarking on the raiment of teenagers, a friend recently observed that they all dress the same. And they look like paupers. This may seem rather harsh, but my friend was making the point that young people today generally do not covey their personality through their choice of clothes. He thought boys were particularly bad at dressing: they wear, in the main, short branded T-shirts, so as to flash the waistband of their designer underwear, branded jogging bottoms or designer skinny jeans and pump-like footwear featuring the logos of popular sports retailers. The contrast with my friend’s youthful style could not be greater. Apparently, he would not have thought twice about wearing make-up, a skirt, or something equally gender-bending, when he was a twenty-something in 1980s-London. According to him, the 1980s represent fashion’s final flourish, when big shoulders, big hair, bold colours and even bolder shapes were common, if never completely de rigueur. Over the past twenty years, there have been no significant developments in fashion, for either sex.

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A similar, if less polemical, argument is made by Robert Elms in his sartorially themed autobiography, The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads. Between 1965 and 1983, Elms’ formative years were influenced by profound changes in the style and sounds of London, a city still struggling to recover from the Second World War. During this period, changes in fashion followed fast. Much of the 1960s were dominated by the Mods, whose sharp fitting suits projected an uneasy confidence. By the close of the decade, Skinheads had displaced this sartorial asceticism, although they were no less fastidious about clothing details, as Elms’ fondness for his Ben Sherman shirt reveals.[iii] The 1970s were particularly turbulent and the rapid rate at which new fashions appeared reflects this. Elms suggests that David Bowie’s performance on Top of the Pops in July 1972 changed the sartorial rules overnight. It caused consternation in playgrounds the following morning, as fashionistas debated whether to follow this daring look, and ever after. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition, David Bowie Is, (which I still cannot get tickets to!) reveals how powerful his alluringly sexual look was, all the more so for being androgynous. The resulting confusion may explain why a multiplicity of styles, including soul and a brief return to the 1920s (an homage to Robert Redford’s starring role in the 1974 Gatsby movie), culminated in the Punk movement by the middle of the decade. The legacy that Punk enjoys, as evidenced by the Met’s summer exhibition, seems somewhat disproportionate to its initial popularity, at least in London, for the New Romantics were in ascendance by 1980. The ability of clothes to shock and awe was fading fast, however, and branded goods were beginning to flood the market. Elms expresses disappointment at this turn of events, but is seemingly relieved that the desire for ever-more distinctive dress was now stemmed by an almost universal subordination to the cult of brands:

[T]here was now one all-pervasive, all encompassing scene, one size and style fits all, which perfectly suited a generation which had grown up on the overpowering, unchallenged dominance of global brands from Microsoft to Madonna, Nike to Sony.[iv]

Growing up in the early 1980s, I remember how important it was to be seen wearing the right logo on your chest and feet. Adidas and Nike were the most popular brands, followed, I think, by Reebok. The Fruit of the Loom was frowned upon among boys, presumably because its logo was an assortment of fresh produce, rather than gender-neutral lines or an assertive tick. Denim was the leg covering of choice; jeans for boys and mini-skirts for girls. In the late 1980s, coloured and striped jeans were particularly popular. I remember owning a pair of green jeans (a brave choice) my father had a pair of red jeans (an equally brave choice) and my sister had a pair of cream jeans printed with red roses (no comment). Mercifully, I cannot recall an occasion when we all appeared together in our multicoloured denims, but this may have happened, especially as our jeans enjoyed two lives; when the knees wore through, they were recycled as shorts. This was not necessarily about thrift. If memory serves, frayed denim cut-offs were common and much loved. But that is it. The hierarchy of popular brands changed, but the sartorial staples upon which the various logos were stamped remained constant. Over a twenty-year period between 1965 and 1983, Elms documents at least six significant changes in dress. In the twenty years that followed this, I cannot recall any. Men’s fashion is now more diverse, but the penchant for pocket squares, three-piece suits, provocative T-shirts and correspondent footwear mimics old modes. Thom Browne’s truncated suits are the only innovative sartorial development in menswear that comes immediately to mind and this is very recent.

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Sartorial Whispers

The communicative ability of clothing has waned for two reasons: the establishment of democracy and the rise of multinationals. If democracy deterred people from dressing too distinctly, for fear of being deemed decadent or disruptive, the growth of multinationals largely eradicated the means to do so by steering consumers to homogeneous products through sassy marketing.

As I indicated in my previous post, the advent of democracy has promoted sartorial sameness by championing the twin cults of consensus and conformity.[v] People are deterred from looking different because this implies non-conformity and challenge. The consequences are not so deadly, but the French revolutionary rhetoric that declared citizens to be with Robespierre and his sadistic ideologues or against them, springs to mind. People have always used clothing to express their innate desire to belong, but the weakening, or abolition, of monarchial authority in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed by the creation of nation states in the nineteenth century, seems to have acted as a catalyst for conformist behaviour and vogues. These were centuries in which civilian and military uniforms became increasingly common.[vi] This was also a period when the economy, facilitated by technological advancements made possible through the industrial revolution, became truly global.

Depending on their incomes, consumers now gained access to a wide range of goods through which they could indicate their status. Sumptuary legislation in the West had long been abolished and fashions that were once monopolised by society’s elite could now be enjoyed by all, given time and allowing for variations in materials and manufacturing processes. But the promise of limitless choice was illusory. Theodor Adorno, who develops a similar argument about consumers’ commercialised compliance, refers to a ‘pseudo individuality’.[vii] To cater for enlarged markets and to increase profit margins, multinationals divided their consumers into different demographic categories and supplied each with homogenised garments that could be made, marketed and sold with ease. The result, by the early twentieth century, was a ubiquity of unimaginative and ill-fitting clothes for the majority of consumers. And today’s clothing scence is not necessarily so different.

The Beckham dynasty’s involvement with fashion is an extreme example, but it seems to demonstrate the relative lack of clothing choice, as a single look is promoted to millions of consumers, and, perhaps more uncomfortably, it reveals our acceptance of this: both David and Victoria have launched perfumes; Victoria has her own fashion label, David is apparently considering the launch of his own; both have modelled for large clothing brands, from H&M to Dolce & Gabbana; their oldest son, Brooklyn, is the face of Burberry. As the fashion industry has grown, we appear to have become more content to let self-proclaimed experts, for the most part, advise us on what to wear. Celebrities, whom we worship and follow as extensions of ourselves, act as a via media and provide choice clothing edits bearing their seal of approval. It is as though the scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where there is uncertainty about a cerulean blue belt, is really how new vogues take shape.

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Rebellious Raiment

But whilst our clothes may now only whisper, they have not entirely lost their voice. Alan Flusser considered it ‘ironic’ that the Great Depression of the 1930s had acted as a stimulus for men’s fashion. He notes that American Esquire was launched in 1933, just four years after Black Thursday.[viii] But the connection between sartorial styles and cycles of financial boom and bust is strong considering the power of persuasion that multinational brands possess. In the democratised West an economic crisis, which causes acute social anxiety and momentarily destabilises companies’ market positions, is very likely to stimulate sartorial change as people reflect on their social positions, how they are perceived and how they present themselves. If enough consumers from similar backgrounds are sufficiently disenfranchised and feel the desire to rebrand themselves or the need to be more thrifty during this turbulent time, a sartorial shift occurs. This sounds very mechanistic, and I’m sure Elizabeth Wilson would demure, but I do not think it is coincidental that major changes in dress have occurred during times of socio-economic stress. Think of the 1930s (Zoot Suit), the 1940s (Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’) and, as documented by Robert Elms, an almost constant period of sartorial readjustment between the 1960s and 1970s. The changes that Thom Browne’s innovative take on the suit have spawned occured in tandem with our recent economic collapse.

Portfolio Portraits

This seems rather bleak. The flip side, I think, is that as the clothing industry has become increasingly crowded, designers and editors have begun to think far more critically about the role that clothing plays in our society. They are more inclined to experiment, to appear distinctive, and they are more inclined to consider the cultural and historical context in which clothes are, and have been, designed and produced. As last week’s graduate fairs revealed, there are plenty of young designers out there, from a wide variety of backgrounds, who appreciate the communicative power of clothing. And they are producing garments that talk every bit as loudly as their sixteenth-century predecessors.


[ii] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 3-36.

[iii] R. Elms, The Way We Wore: A Life in Threads (London, 2005), 48-49, 56, 61-62.

[iv] Ibid., 264.

[vi] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 18-36; E. Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London, 2013), 35-40.

[vii] T. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J.M. Bernstein (London, 1991); Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, 64.

[viii] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: The Principles of Fine Men’s Dress (New York, 1991), 6.

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