Sunday, June 30, 2013

Theorising how fashion changes over time

When I was writing the book, I did a lot of scholarly research about theories of fashion. Pretty much all that remains of that in the finished volume is my experience of sitting in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. I did some intensive study there at the start of last year, taking notes from academic books.

I love the Baillieu. Working in there is like stepping back into the Mad Men Time.

A librarian checks books in the newly opened Baillieu Library, 1959.

Students in the second floor study area, 1959. Check the Mitzi chairs.

The Baillieu Library today. Mitzi chairs!


The reason I was researching theories of fashion history was that I wanted to explain the mechanisms that drive our ideas of fit. We have a certain understanding – either intuitive, or explained to us by the fashion media – of how tightly or loosely our clothing should fit, and in which places on the body, in order for us to feel the most attractive and morally appropriate in our clothes. Those ideas change over time, and when we look at them in hindsight they become the 'fashion' of certain historical periods.

The cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 model early 1990s-style jeans.

Fashionable jeans during the 1980s were commonly high-waisted, tight across the torso and narrow at the ankle. They became baggier in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s they were flared at the ankle and very low-slung on the hips. Even though not everyone dressed like this, the fashion was widespread enough, and expressed often enough in pop culture, that we can guess when a photo was taken by the style of someone's jeans.

Britney Spears models early 2000s-style jeans. Tag dag!

When a style of jeans isn't currently in fashion, we call it 'frumpy', 'trashy' or 'dorky' because it becomes negatively associated with nerds who don't care what's cool, or older people clinging pathetically to the looks of their salad days. And once fashion has moved on even further, certain fits acquire a retro cachet. Tight, high-waisted jeans are cool again now – and hip twentysomethings even celebrate baggy, high-waisted, '90s-style jeans ironically, as 'mom jeans'.

Of course, not everyone wears jeans. They've also meant different things at different times to different people: utilitarian workwear; bohemian rebellion; a youthful uniform; a sexual invitation; even a litmus test of weight gained or lost.

We might grasp this multiplicity of meaning intuitively because jeans are familiar to us… but the further back we travel in time, and the more unfamiliar clothes become, the easier it is to lose sight of the ways in which fit is culturally influenced, and the more tempting it is to make broad generalisations about how and why it changes.

'Costume history', as an academic discipline, arose from art history and shares its analytic techniques. Fashion reference books in this old-school genre promise a broad survey of aesthetic change over time, explaining which sartorial motifs appeared when, and how they were devised, combined and repeated. In seeking to make the past concrete, these books can seem oddly fixed and timeless themselves. For instance, François Boucher's epic 20,000 Years of Fashion was first published in 1966, while Ruth Turner Wilcox's The Mode In Costume dates from 1942. Both have been consulted by generations of students, designers and aficionados.

But like fashion itself, this aesthetic approach to fashion history can very quickly seem dated. In my own collection is a 1974 reference book for children, Clothes in History by Angela Schofield, which I bought in a sale at my local library. In a piece of retrospective comedy, it begins with an illustration of cavemen and ends with a photograph of a bearded 1970s hippie in a shaggy shearling coat who looks, to my eyes, hilariously similar to the cavemen.

Thinking of clothes chronologically does help reconcile fashion's emphasis on the 'now' with its constant citation of past styles – but we rarely stop to ponder how weird and arbitrary it is to link fashions either with broad eras or specific decades. For instance, why do we speak so sweepingly of 'the Victorian era' when it lasted from 1837 to 1901, during which time a vast variety of distinctive clothing styles came in and out of fashion? Why must the 'Edwardian era' or 'Belle Époque' make way for the 'Twenties' through to the 'Nineties'?

In today's atomised understanding of fashion motifs, 'military' and 'nautical' conquer 'tribal' and 'boho'. It seems that the more recent the clothes, the less hindsight we have on them in order to slot them into neat epochal categories. But in any case, understanding how styles evolve over time doesn't tell us what it meant to live through history, striving to be fashionable.

Another thing I noticed during my research is the application of sociological theories to fashion changes. I'd argue that these ideas have acquired their current authority through sheer force of repetition. They're another way that we try to master the past by overlaying a grand narrative on it – this time of class, rather than of aesthetics.

For instance, it seems persuasive that rich people might wear fancy, restrictive clothes to advertise  their independence from manual labour – but that's because American economist Thorstein Veblen's theory of 'conspicuous consumption' and 'conspicuous leisure' has been parroted since 1899, snowballing in plausibility as generations of fashion historians and journalists based their work on it.

The idea that rich, powerful people innovate fashions for the plebs seems so natural now that in the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, superbitch fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) sounds unassailably authoritative as she acidly schools her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) in the market diffusion of the colour cerulean:

This 'trickle down' theory has been around since 1904, when German sociologist Georg Simmel argued that once a style becomes accessible to the lower classes, the elites abandon it and create a new fashion to distinguish themselves further. And the idea that fashion industry gatekeepers – designers and magazine editors – are now the elites dates from 1969, when Herbert Blumer wrote that someone's ability to interpret the zeitgeist – the 'spirit of the times' – and sense where modernity was heading elevated that person to elite status.

Of course, some trends are spearheaded by non-elites: marginalised ethnic, working-class and youth cultures influencing the sartorial sensibilities of dominant, bourgeois white culture. Back in 1970 marketing academic George A Field theorised this phenomenon as 'status float'. And by the time anthropologist Ted Polhemus dubbed it the 'bubble up' (as opposed to 'trickle down') effect in 1994, subcultural style had become so entrenched on couture runways that it had already been the subject of a retrospective at London's Victoria and Albert Museum!

Whether it trickles down or bubbles up, if we attribute every change in fashion to an ineffable zeitgeist it becomes, in the words of fashion historian Joanne Entwistle, "almost a supernatural hypothesis". We forget that people's clothing choices aren't shaped monolithically by social structures, but by their subjective experiences of history, society and industry.

For instance, World War I may have broadly provoked the radical changes in women's fashion between the 1910s and the 1920s, but the war didn't directly make hemlines rise, nor inspire bobbed haircuts. There was no mass consensus among newly emancipated women to "throw away their corsets", as we're so often told.

Those fashions developed gradually, chaotically, from myriad changes that spread through different aspects of Western cultural life, like the intersecting ripples from several stones thrown into a pond at once. They only seem sudden and decisive from our vantage point, a century on.

Culture, much more than aesthetics or socioeconomics, captures ephemeral social attitudes and contextualises the past, like a lens focusing our appreciation. Just as I came to appreciate the Mitzi chair after Mad Men turned me on to midcentury modern design, our associations of historical dress with artworks, novels, movies, songs and more shape our understanding of the past.

That's why my analysis of fashion history in the book is largely refracted through culture: because our subjective, emotional consumption of these texts re-injects historical clothes with the subjective agency and affect that aesthetic and sociological theories strip away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the above. From my perspective on (men's) clothes Veblen is so often trotted out (well not very often but you know what I mean) as the only possible explanation for many things. Why do academics have a fixation on linear causative explanation for something (clothing) which clearly have myriad influences and pathways.

One of the biggest influences on the way current men look is just availability - you can only wear what is available to wear, even if you have a "raised consciousness".

It requires a high(ish) degree of interest and sophistication (and $) to attempt getting your clothes made to your own specification. Not to mention getting a tailor who can execute the items.

Just a few random brain spurts - thanks again.