Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Retro-grade Raiment

This article was first published with Parisian Gentleman.

A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion chaired by the fashion critic Colin McDowell. In contrast to his interviewees, who took advantage of their momentary media appearance by wearing a medley of tight-fitting glitzy garments, McDowell’s clothes were conspicuous for being unremarkable. Sporting a jacket and trousers in complementary shades of grey and brown, he would not have stood out in a crowd. But one item of McDowell’s dress did catch my eye. Draped around his shoulders was a taupe– perhaps fawn, possibly mushroom –coloured scarf embroidered with the Calvin Klein logo.

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It is surprising how an unexpected visual stimulus can crystallise subconscious thoughts and catapult them to the front of your mind. Colin McDowell’s colour-keyed scarf was to be this stimulus. Calvin Klein is a brand that I largely associate with underwear, despite the huge window displays in its Regent Street store that showcase everything but. It is also a brand that I associate with the 1990s. In 1992, it was Mark Wahlberg’s arresting appearance, clad only in Calvin Klein briefs, that made underwear an item of designer clothing of the first order and highlighted the decade’s obsession with branded merchandise. When I saw the Calvin Klein logo on Colin McDowell’s scarf, I was suddenly cognisant of the present popularity of all things from the nineties. I became rudely aware that we are in the middle of a retro renaissance.

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2013 or 1993?

Backpacks and baseball caps are ubiquitous. Denim, Doc Martens and Converse trainers have been rediscovered. Over-size jumpers, T-Shirts and branded sweatshirts are de rigueur. Tartan, patchwork textiles and paisley represent the height of sartorial sophistication. For some. The fashionable markers of the 1990s have become today’s symbols of supreme style. Sartorial trends, fads and movements are rarely without an accompanying soundtrack and so it is here. Dusted off or recently purchased, over ear headphones are once again playing grunge and other angst-filled anthems from the 1990s. Travelling about the capital in recent weeks, I have caught snippets of lyrics from Blur, Sum 41 and Nirvana. Adorned in the correct wardrobe and wired for sound, it is only appropriate that people are also choosing to sample nineties-style entertainment. There is much on offer. Highlights include the Spice Girls’ ‘mini’ reunion and the stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ satiric novel, American Psycho. It is apposite that the musical’s lead, Matt Smith, will be recognisable to many for playing the title character in the eponymous, and recently revived, Doctor Who franchise.

Back To The Future

The fascination with the nineties is odd on at least two counts. Firstly, the years between 1989 and 2000 are typically considered to be a period that fashion forgot. Secondly, what we are seeing of the nineties is only an insipid distillation of what the decade was about; or at least what I think it was about, having lived through it. At a recent concert, I heard teenagers belting out and butchering songs from The Dandy Warhols and Fat Boy Slim, among other artists. To my ears, these groups’ songs were hardly reflective of a tumultuous decade that witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Internet and New Labour in Britain, the Gulf War (part one) and a presidential indiscretion that profoundly skewed our perspective of politics and cigars.[i] In ‘Bohemian Like You’, The Dandy Warhols sing about a broken car, waiting tables and the arrangements for a friend sleeping over after a relationship break-up. The lack of engagement with the decade’s dramas hardly seems to matter, and is generally not remarked upon, for this renaissance is commercial rather than cultural. And why should it be any different? The teenage revellers whom I heard a few weekends ago would have first heard ‘Bohemian Like You’ from their cots as it played on a Vodafone commercial.

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A Retrograde Renaissance?

The selections that companies and consumers are making from nineties’ popular culture suggests their intention is to bolster the enfeebled cult of commerce. They are seeking to cull the ephemeral euphoria that follows a retail splurge from a decade that experienced economic boom and distil it for a decade enduring economic bust. Akin to perfumers, who seek to capture and artificially prolong alluring scents, those who look back to the nineties are trying to rekindle the confidence and satisfaction of a time when the economy, and the culture it underpinned, was strong.[ii] Similar to characters in Woody Allen’s romantic whimsy, Midnight In Paris, people – particularly the young, who have never experienced a recession – are looking for a Golden Age to escape their present. They want to recapture a time when the bombast of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ seemed suitable and not merely satirical. This song, of course, had heralded the start of Tony Blair’s promising premiership in 1997.

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In Woody Allen’s film, procrastinating writer Gil (Owen Wilson) inadvertently boards a time-travelling taxi at the stroke of midnight and experiences Paris during the 1890s and 1920s, meeting artistic luminaries from Pablo Picasso to the F. Scott Fitzgerald along the way. It is after a conversation with Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas in a Belle Époque club that Gil, in conversation with his 1920s-timetravelling-companion Adriana (Marion Cotillard), realises his flight from the present is futile:

Gil: I mean, look at these guys. To them, their Golden Age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade La Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around. I’m having an insight now. It’s only a minor one, but it explains the anxiety in my dream that I had.

Adriana: What dream?

G: I had a dream the other night – well, it was like a nightmare – where I ran out of Zithromax and then I went to see the dentist, and he didn’t have any Novocaine. You see, what I’m saying is these people don’t have any antibiotics.

A: What are you talking about?

G: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then pretty soon you’ll start imagining another time was really your Golden Time… That’s what the present is. It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.

According to media pundits and populist politicians, (young) men find the present particularly unsatisfying because they have suffered most from the economic downturn, which has shattered their pretension to social and political significance. True or not, it is hard to deny that men seem to be conjuring a Golden Age through their dress. Three-piece suits and tie bars, boutonnières and braces, cigars and slicked-back hair, are style signifiers from bygone periods when men’s social and political position was unassailable.

Logomania is dead. Long Live Logomania

The majority of decades down to the 1920s have been pilfered for patterns and jaunty accessories, but a quick look on Tumblr confirms that style cues from the 1990s are still preponderant on the streets. Susie Lau has argued that the resurgence of nineties style and conspicuous branding is not solely about ‘consumerism, tackiness and a lack of taste’.[iii] Instead of escaping to the past, young people are reclaiming brands and their devices to help them place themselves in the present. Too young to enjoy or critically interpret logos in the late 1980s and early 1990s, twenty- and thirty-somethings are now ‘wearing [logos] in [their] own way’, with intelligence and individuality.[iv] This is apparently most evident with T-shirts that make puns out of prestigious brands.

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True as this may be, the actions of youthful consumers nonetheless show how culture – and clothing – has changed following the globalisation of the economy. In his seminal essay, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Fredric Jameson observed that there is an indissoluble connection between society’s conception of capital and the culture it produces. Presently, Western culture is increasingly abstract because its conception of money is abstract. The point is eloquently demonstrated by the inscrutable dialogue between cyber capitalist Eric Packer and his chief of theory, Vija Kinski, in Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.[v] Cultural messages now appear fragmented, even meaningless. Writing about the modern music industry, which has many parallels with the fashion industry, Simon Reynolds agues that the ‘gaseous nature of our existence’ fosters a lack of original thought and action.’[vi] The consequence is that we lack the imagination to do anything more creative than think of different ways of packaging former ideas. Fashion, like music, is frequently cyclical, but the circumference of chronological cycles is becoming ever smaller.[vii]

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Ideas from the nineties are easier to reconstitute because of our proximity to them. The reason men appear more willing – if sometimes subconscious – proponents of this retrograde renaissance is that their social status is more sensitive to economic ebbs and flows than that of women. The abandonment of the (pin stripe) suit after the economic downturn made a clamorous sartorial statement that man’s dress is frequently linked to notions of economic prosperity. The suit had become a dangerous symbol of man’s greed, his financial and political recklessness. It was swiftly replaced with mix n’ match jacket and trousers that suggested he was humane and harmless.[viii] The addition of a backpack, baseball cap and sneakers clarified the casual look that men sought to create. Simultaneously, these items reaffirmed men’s social position by demonstrating their continued ability to purchase from established brands. The acquisition of products from previous decades, not least the 1990s, provided psychological comfort through the material recreation of an apparent Golden Age. Men’s sartorial subterfuge therefore chimes with recent scientific research establishing that clothes really do make the man.[ix]

As a working theory based on Colin McDowell’s scarf I think my observations hold, but I am mindful of Adriana’s response to Gil in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris:

That’s the problem with writers. You are so full of words. But I am more emotional and I’m going to stay and live in Paris’ most glorious time.

What she says has undeniable truth and merit.

 


[i] D. Eggers, ‘1990s’, Vanity Fair (October, 203), 150.

[ii] See, F. Jameson, ‘Culture and Finance Capital’, Critical Inquiry, 24 (1997), 246-65.

[iii] S. Lau, ‘Check the Label: The Logo Strikes Back’, because, 1 (A/W, 2013), 34.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] D. DeLillo, Cosmopolis (London, 2003), 77-88.

[vi] S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past (London, 2011), xix, 420.

[vii] Cf. C. Beaton, ‘Is It the Clothes or the Woman? (1946)’, Beaton in Vogue (London, 1986), 157.

[viii] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013), 125; D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), 5.

[ix] J. Gaines Lewis, ‘Clothes Make the Man – Literally’, Psychology Today (August, 2012). www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201208/clothes-make-the-man-literally. Accessed: 5-xij-2013.

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