The following is based on a talk that I gave recently with Rising Minds in London…
As a historian – by training and quite possibly by nature – who researches and lectures on the subject of fashion and who works with luxury fashion companies, I sometimes feel like a pilgrim in an unholy land. Why? Well, because in conventional thinking at least, there exists an unbridgeable rift between the Past and the Present.
If I mention the Past, you might think of the following associations – Then, Tradition, Heritage, Craftsmanship, Time/effort, By hand, For some, Expensive, Exclusive, Immutable. If I mention the Present, you might think of the following associations – Now, Future, Fresh, Young, Fast, For all, Accessible, Malleable.
In conventional thought, the Past is akin to a stubborn, immobile megalith representing outdated ideas and practices. The Present, by contrast, is up for grabs and subject to all manner of possibilities. If the Past is old and obsolete, the Present is immediate and so very relevant. The Past is the esoteric and ivory-towered world of thought and philosophy; the Present is the realm of doing and practical application, which is surely more enjoyable and useful.
And yet, in recent years the Past has been harnessed by an increasing number of luxury retailers, particularly those in the fashion industry. On the face of it, this is just odd. What is fashion, which by definition embraces the here and now, doing conjuring with the Past to market and sell its products?
So, in my historical sort way, I got to thinking: “How in the competitive world of luxury retail is the past benefiting the present: how, has Heritage become the cornerstone of so many marketing successful strategies?” To answer these linked questions, I did not delve into my theoretical and esoteric history books, of which I have very many. Instead, I turned to evolutionary biology and the concept of Neoteny.
Derived from two Greek words – a noun and a verb – meaning ‘young’ and ‘to extend’, neoteny refers to the persistence of juvenile traits in adult (older) members of a species. If the concept sounds decidedly abstract and unwieldy, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould explained its very important relevance to us in a study of Disney’s lovable cartoon Mickey Mouse. Gould’s article and idea is the rock upon which my musings rest.
Created in 1928, Mickey is now an old-timer, well over eighty years old, and yet, as he has aged – as his character has evolved – he has actually got younger. Today, he appears with increasingly juvenile features: essentially, shorter limbs, larger eyes and larger head. Mickey Mouse isn’t the only cartoon creation to have become more youthful in old age; another example would be the Simpsons. Here again we see that drawn features have become softer, more rounded and eyes have increased relative to the size of the head, all of which makes for a more sprightly appearance.
The animators were probably unaware of what they were doing and why, but scientific studies have indicated that juvenile features in humans trigger an emotional response in adults that makes them fawn and, by consequence, induces them to respond positively and protectively over the infant. This is because we humans are ourselves neotenous – evolving from the cave to the café, our features have become more round and youthful.
Crucially, the emotional attachment that adult humans are known to have towards younger humans is thought to be just as potent with inanimate objects. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that some of our most favourite and covetable pieces of design appear to have become younger as they have aged and gone through many stages of redevelopment: the Mini, launched in 1959, and Apple’s iPhone, launched in 2007, are among the clearest examples of this trend.
Developing this point further, the Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz suggested that the concept of neoteny can help to explain ‘experiential attachment’, a term he used to describe the situation when people invest inanimate objects with human attributes:
“Steeply rising, somewhat overhanging cliff faces or dark storm-clouds piling up have the same, immediate display value as a human being who is standing full height and leaning slightly forward” – that is, threatening.
It is this evolutionary response, people’s subconscious recognition of, and feeling towards, beings and objects that exhibit youthful – and human – features that can, I think, help us to fathom the unlikely and lucrative relationship that exists between the Past and Present in (luxury) retail.
The change of a brand’s colour scheme or logo design, the realignment of the armholes in a tailored suit or the movement of the waist, which change the silhouette of people’s clothes, are just some of the methods that companies use to make their products seem fresh and relevant. The concept of neoteny tells us that these changes appeal because they subconsciously exploit people’s emotional attachment to youthful features.
This ‘gut response’ or bond is made stronger, I think, by the fact that we are seeing afresh a product, a brand, a concept with which we already have experience and familiarity through its previous incarnations. If we are wired to attach ourselves to the young and young-looking, it is, then, our knowledge and experience of past encounters with a product or brand that make us so inclined to continually trade in and upgrade. The Past has the role of making what is recreated in the Present appear legitimate, it validates the feelings of attachment and excitement that we feel when the unveiling of a new, or revised, product or service is imminent. In some ways, this may seem an ‘obvious’ even disappointing conclusion for an article that invokes Mickey Mouse and the Simpsons, but whilst we may have thought this was what was happening, now we can know with a little bit more certainty why it is happening.
A footnote and a caveat: In light of all this, it might make commercial sense to harness neoteny, but as the Rising Minds discussion emphasised, to focus on rejuvenation and modernity is to run the risk of privileging the present and diluting and detracting from the past. Some contemporary products and services have made use of the past in a sensitive way, but one designer observed that today’s Mini is now a shell of its former self; for sure, it bears a passing resemblance to its 1959 ancestor, but there, for her, the connection stops: the latest incarnation of the Mini is not about preservation of the past or respect for it, but peddling a successful formula to make a profit.
 S. J. Gould, ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’, in idem, The Panda’s Thumb (1980), pp. 81-91.