The Obsession With Vintage Clothing

With repeated, enhanced versions, the past is refined into something more positive than it actually was at that time. Entire decades are reduced to a few prominent images: the Nineties had grunge; the Eighties, shoulder-pads and guilt-free consumerism; the Seventies had flares, glam-rock and punk; the Sixties had the mini-skirt and free love; the Fifties, poodle skirts and the ‘housewife’ female stereotype and the Forties era had red lipstick, broad shoulders and victory rolls. As time progresses and moves forward, representations of these decades lose their definitive meaning and become romanticised by our desire to escape from the dreary elements of today.

During hard times, such as the recession society is currently facing, people want to appear purposeful and we look to the Forties – a puritanical age, when in comparison with today, culture was moral and virtuous.

This paper sets out to question our obsession with nostalgia through the use of vintage (and vintage-inspired) clothing which has become an increasingly popular fashion trend, and to investigate why we romanticise a grave past, disconnecting political reality from fashion and wear clothes inspired by the war-time period.

Theoretical explorations will take place to determine the notion of nostalgia and to explain how this relates to post-modern culture and the cyclical nature of fashion; the recycling of styles is a phenomenon of the fashion industry, referring to the past and creating a new aesthetic.

The paper will investigate particular post-modern designers today, who re-cycle ideas from the past, such as designer John Galliano.

The paper will also focus on the 1940’s period in particular; reflecting on World War II and the time immediately after, analysing and questioning Dior’s romantic ‘New Look’ which occurred following such hard times.

It will also compare such a time to now, discussing the way in which the fashion world is changing in style toward post-war fashions and other vintage looks, after adjusting to increasing economic pressures of Britain’s recession.

The paper also sets out to highlight other severe times in history which have had an impact on fashion: for example, other wars, economic depressions or social political strife that many eras were involved in, which we romanticise and hark back to for fashion inspiration.

Fashion trends tend to reflect the current economic climate. At present, Britain is witnessing a recession and as a result fashion is peering back-in-time for inspiration. Society’s way of dressing today consists of ‘quotes from other decades’, where a particular fashion trend for the 21st century has yet to be uncovered.

Instead, extravagant styles are being replaced with simple, timeless pieces. Designers have realised that any new ideas they have to put forward may not be so interesting to consumers. Due to people being more financially aware, classic pieces are to be invested in which will always be fashionable – such as, the “little black dress”.

Three years after Coco Chanel fashioned the little black dress, which has become the epitome of chic, came the Wall Street Crash – also known as the Great Crash, in 1929. This economic downturn was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its fallout; the crash contributed to the Great Depression of the 1930’s and lasted for approximately 10 years.

Radically simple, Chanel’s little black dress was an instant success. Widely available and only offered in black, Chanel believed fashion should be functional as well as chic. Her dress was designed to fit every woman and to conceal stains. By wearing this dress women felt that they no longer had to create the impression of great wealth.

More relaxed and casual styles in fashion are increasingly apparent during times of recession or war, which is demonstrated in the periods of recession that occurred in the early 1980’s and another in the 1990’s.

Economic gloom was mirrored by the black clothes and make-up of the Goth movement. Revolutionary Japanese designers Comme des Garçons, invented the “recession style” of the 1980’s. Their complex garments were constructed from black fabric and were designed to shroud the body rather than flaunt it – unlike the body-con styles seen earlier during the corporate “power dressing” period, before the recession ensued.

Designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, said of his work:

‘I try to make clothes that are new, that didn’t exist before, and hope that people get energy and feel positive when they wear them. I believe that creativity is an essential part of life.’

Consumers became more self-conscious and as a result the fashion trend ‘grunge’ emerged in the 1990’s, which signified the appropriate rejection of the conspicuous consumption that characterised the previous decade.

Black appears to be a dominant colour during periods of recession. Considering the economic collapse we are experiencing at the moment, previous to which, bright colours dominated trend colour palettes:

‘the global recession is marked by the return of black as a major fashion trend’

A portrait by Spanish artist, Diego Velázquez, during the 17th century depicts King Philip IV of Spain, shown circa 1656, is portrayed wearing a plain black tunic. During King Phillip’s reign, Spain suffered a decline as a European superpower.

Furthermore, during the 18th century when France’s bankruptcy and revolution occurred, Marie Antoinette’s infamous frivolous dressing was replaced with austere black. Dark colours of dress are usually considered to be associated with formal wear, serious and business-like attitudes or occasions, for example, mourning clothes at funerals. They also appear during times of depression and war.

Famous for his flamboyant use of colour, designer Christian Lacroix’s autumn/winter 2008 collection saw a vision of black. Lacroix states that ‘black is like a mask’ and this current shift back to black holds a sensibility toward a new minimalism. Similar to the grunge period of the nineties, this return to an austere colour palette – arguably an absence of colour – sees a decidedly sharper edge in terms of design and cut, with hints toward the power dressing trend of the eighties.

Lacroix said of his collection:

‘The new pureness of lines centered on cut rather than decoration, the laser geometry of shapes and silhouettes are all maybe signs of a graphic protection linked unconsciously to recession, just like at the end of the ’80s.’

Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute, suggested that black is always the colour people rely on most often in times of hardship, especially with regard to more expensive items. Furthermore, Eiseman states that wearing black is also a psychological matter:

‘it’s also the colour people wrap themselves in to become impervious to the outside world. It’s a security blanket’

However, like Chanel, designer Narciso Rodriguez believes that black is considered to be more of:

‘ a reflection of practicality and reality’

rather than of disposition.

The avant-garde fashion of the 1990’s was thrifty recycling and wearing outfits from charity shops. These were then mixed with designer pieces for a dressed down, ‘poor’ look, which was ‘notional rather than actual’. The grunge style soon evolved into ‘boho chic’ which is still apparent in fashion today.

Another recycled fashion trend is the frugal concept of ‘make do and mend’, which was popular during the war period of the 1940’s, consisting of the reparation and adaptation of clothing. This notion of recycling can be observed today in a society, aware of their financial funds, where there is a personal limitation on purchasing fashion items.

The main flow of contemporary fashion is revivalism: many of today’s fashions are inspired by the past; for example 1980’s fashion is mainstream, with the appearance of prominent shoulders, leggings and skinny jeans; and the previous summer saw a return to the Ancient Roman gladiator sandal.

Marxist political theorist, Frederic Jameson, who is best known for his analysis of contemporary cultural trends, suggests that:

‘in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles.’

Jameson implies there is a profound lack and exhaustion of progress and originality in fashion, although it could be argued that it is simply a return to the past but given a new and creative perspective.

German philosopher, sociologist and literary critic, Walter Benjamin, interpreted the modern age as a ‘time of Hell’, in which he saw fashion in constant repetition:

‘what is newest doesn’t change; that this ‘newest’ in all its pieces keeps remaining the same.’

However, once the economy starts to recuperate, new fashions will emerge. At present it is too precarious for designers to spend vast amounts of money and time on creating garments which the consumer may not purchase because they think the style is too avant-garde.

The recession has brought on a rise in second hand clothing and changes in style toward post-war fashions. Currently, fashion is witnessing a revival of the refined glamour of the wartime period – with sharp shoulder styles, demure hemlines and cinched-in womanly waists.

The forties saw dresses inspired by the Roman toga, producing a classically derived dress, and the ‘classic’ style we talk of today. It was essential that a new style of fashion developed to lift morale during such grim times and the purity of classical styles provided the inspiration.

Garments began to be referred to as ‘classic’ in the 1980’s, when the term was heavily used. The term suggests a ‘piece of outstanding design’, which is considered elegant and practical – the essence of classic style.

Forties-style fashion is considered popular due to its inherent elegance, quality of cut, sewing, colour and silhouettes of that era – a time when clothes were made by proper dressmakers and it was considered to be a true profession which was well-paid, unlike the mass produced clothing which dominates fashion retail today.

Although we have the impression that garments were constructed in a better quality, nowadays we have better technology and a superior development in textiles; therefore one would presume we now produce far improved quality garments. So is this just a romanticism of the past?

To romanticise is to:

‘deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is.’

This is true of fashion; we dwell on the past and look back with a soft focus – everything seems better back then. We find comfort in romanticising bygone eras by wearing clothes from previous decades:

‘knowing our emulation of days gone by will transport us, wardrobe-wise at least, to somewhat gentler times’

Frederic Jameson is supportive of this notion, having said that society approaches:

‘the “past” through stylistic connotation, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image, and the “1930s-ness” or “1950s-ness” by the attributes of fashion’.

Jameson is implying that we look back through rose tinted glasses with a distorted view of the past. We nostalgically recall only the positive aspects of the past and not a:

‘”representation” of historical content’

British literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, explains that these positive connotations given to the past, sells an imaginary and stereotypical ideal; which conceals or suppresses social difference:

‘obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself. Such `mystification’, as it is commonly known, frequently takes the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts, from which arises the conception of ideology as an imaginary resolution of real contradictions.’

The term ‘nostalgia’ was first used in the 1970’s in the same meaning as today. The concepts of ‘beautiful old time’, childhood and yearning can be associated with it. Similar to nostalgia, ‘romanticising’ the past it is a:

‘sentimental recollection: a mixed feeling of happiness, sadness, and longing when recalling a person, place, or event from the past, or the past in general’

A romantic notion could be considered “inspiration”, free from all connotations, or could this be deemed ignorant? To some the conscious choice to wear vintage clothing can be considered disrespectful and inconsiderate; to others it could be considered as an appreciation of positive aspects of the past and admiration of the women that managed to appear so controlled and glamorous in these harsh times.

It could be disputed that times of war and depression should not be a sartorial source of inspiration. However, it could also be argued that there should be a disconnection of clothing from context; clothing is clothing – it should be considered acceptable to be inspired by anything.

Fashion designer Louise Gray is inspired by the rave culture and ravers at their peak – on drugs, drinking alcohol and attending raves. To dress in Gray’s clothing does not necessarily mean the consumer supports or has positive associations with this culture.

Designer Karl Lagerfeld, became the inspiration for his own collection in autumn 2008, for his own handbag and luggage range. The products were created with identifiable details of the designer, such as: zips in the shape of cravats; handles inspired by his trademark sunglasses and woven ‘K’s’ on leather clutch bags.

Although the collection was inspired by himself – a man – for women to wear; the consumer does not necessarily desire to be a man. The designs are taken out of context, which is what is done with past fashions, such as those from the 1940’s, where the harsh realities and connotations of that time are forgotten.

It could be argued that these nostalgic, vintage-fashions, have emerged not only as a trend based on styles from different bygone eras, but also on an aesthetic, for a society that seeks to recapture the values and morals associated with that time.

Romanticising the past and nostalgia are terms of personal and collective feeling; it is unusual for those today to wear vintage fashions of the 1940’s, who never lived at that time and so did not experience what life was actually like:

‘By seeing images in the public sphere, it is possible for many members of society to feel nostalgia for times which they did not have any personal experiences.’

Postmodern photographer Matthew Rolsten, produces images which appear to be ‘caught in another era’. Rolsten believes by borrowing from the past and identifying pictures to images of the past, this provides his work with:

‘a lot of power today. It’s like getting into symbols that people resonate with’

By the millennium, vintage garments were – and still continue to be – very popular in fashion, this trend for vintage soon became commercialised:

‘ancient ‘frocks’ that would have cost £1 now cost thousands.’

Vintage garments are considered nostalgic items, due to the history they behold and the stories behind them of their previous ownership. Vintage clothing creates a personal attachment and feeling with the wearer.

The concept of each garment having its own history could also relate to the fact that each style has its own history and belongs to the past. Fashion today is:

‘characterised by the extent to which it exists within the shadow of its own past.’

Revolutionary, postmodern fashion designer Hussein Chalayan further explains:

‘The garment is a ghost of all the multiple lives it may have had. Nothing is shiny and new; everything has a history. . . A ’60s dress gets cut away to reveal its past as a medieval dress. A Victorian corset gets cut away to reveal a modern jersey vest. A ’30s dress gets cut away to reveal its past as an Edwardian dress. The design is a wish or a curse that casts the garment and its wearer into a time warp through historical periods, like a sudden tumble through the sediment of an archaeological dig.’

It could be argued that individuals can disconnect themselves from the meaning and context of things, such as clothes, which can be detached from their historical and political nuances and utilised in a modern setting. There is a sense of ‘hegemony’ in fashion.

The term ‘hegemony’ possesses many different connotations, which is the definitive of postmodernism – embracing all opinions and not just seeing one explanation for everything. With regards to art and design, hegemony can suggest no further progress can be made – there is exhaustion in styles and it is thought to be increasingly more difficult to invent new fashions.

The club scene of the 1980’s and underground youth style magazines such as The Face and ID, blurred the boundaries between club culture, street fashion and designer fashion. This subversive culture represented freedom of style and helped to develop hegemony. Those supportive of this underground youth culture believed that fashion should not be mainstream.

Hegemony can be considered violent, savage and uncivilised. There are no boundaries, standards or rules. There is no good, nor bad. It could be argued that there is a feeling of meaninglessness – where a sense of place and historical function is lost. It is said that designers can:

‘cherry-pick influences, with no regard to cultural strictures or historical accuracy.’

Fashion designers could therefore be described as:

‘eclectic ‘borrowers’, throwing wide their nets in search of inspiration.’

Japanese fashion designer, Kenzo Takada, who in the early seventies, was inspired by national dress and specific costume elements from various parts of the world, would mix these international influences and interpret and assimilate them into a peaceful internationalism, in a style perceived more radical than other designers. Of his work, Kenzo said:

‘It pleases me when people say I have influence. But I am influenced by the world that says I influence it. The world I live in is my influence.’

Frederic Jameson suggests that hegemony, with reference to architecture, creates a sense of excessive stimulation:

‘postmodern architecture, which randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles.’

Although referring to architecture, the same can be said with contemporary fashion, where eclectic combinations of dress have become too extreme. The diverse blend of styles ‘has become endemic’ which could be argued to be a negative aspect:

‘when everything is allowed, nothing actually seems outrageous any more’

Nothing seems to be too controversial, for a society which has seen and done it all.

Hegemony initiated the emergence of retro styles. Retro is the designation of the style of an earlier time, and is a term used to describe culturally outdated or aged trends from the overall postmodern past, but have since that time become recently fashionable again. Currently, retro style is witnessing a revival, with many new products emerging with a retro look.

Retro styling is said to regard the recent past with an ‘unsentimental nostalgia’ which is not associated with tradition, avoids historical accuracy and does not attempt to ‘reinforce social values’.

Fredric Jameson has suggested that as society has developed, new means have been found to inform itself of its own history; retro has allowed society to come to terms with the modern past:

‘in the postmodern age, we no longer tell ourselves our history in that fashion, but also because we no longer experience it that way, and, indeed, perhaps no longer experience it at all.’

A sense of place is lost and the original historical function becomes meaningless. Tradition is re-invented and garments are worn in a different social and historical context:

‘A single style can no longer dominate in the post-modern period. Instead there is a constant attempt to recreate atmosphere. In the fantasy culture of the 1980s there is no real history, no real past; it is replaced by an instant, magical nostalgia, a strangely unmotivated appropriation of the past’

However this can be perceived to some, as a form of liberation.

Consequently, hegemony can be looked at in a more positive view, as the play of: identity; body image; shape; freedom of style; and awareness of other cultures – where a sense of excitement and stimulation can be found. Society is relaxed now and therefore hierarchies and boundaries are also relaxed; as a result:

‘Everything then becomes play; nothing is serious.’

Wearing a look inspired by the past is a romantic way of dressing, a fantasy look – comparable to a costume, which is frequently observed in postmodern design. By adopting this ‘costume’, a new, other, persona is formed which creates a sense of liberation from the dreary elements of today. People turn to fashion, or other forms of entertainment, in order to escape their everyday burdens and fears, as was seen with the film industry during the Great Depression.

French literary theorist philosopher, critic and semiotician, Roland Barthes, acknowledged that a woman dreams:

‘of being at once herself and another’

Barthes’ work extended over many fields and he influenced the development of schools of theory including structuralism, semiotics, existentialism and social theory. When referring to fashion muses as a source of inspiration, he believed that they created an illusion:

‘of a quasi-infinite richness of the person’

Meaning they provide fashion with an artificial personality: this can be said of nostalgia – where dressing in past fashions is akin to a fantasy. Consumers look to the past to obtain an artificial appearance as a form of escapism.

Designer Vivienne Westwood is said to produce clothes which possess whimsical qualities. Fashion historian, Jane Mulvagh has said Westwood’s garments provide women with:

‘an ironic mask with which she can project many personae and behind which she can hide her vulnerabilities and even her ordinariness’

The ‘mask’ Mulvagh speaks of suggests Westwood’s designs allow women to escape from themselves and “become” another person, as if acting as someone else.

Like Westwood, revolutionary designer Alexander McQueen referred to historical periods for inspiration but combined them in ironic postmodern constructions. Recently deceased, McQueen, entered the fashion industry when England was in a recession during the 1980’s. McQueen said positively of periods of recession:

“I think it’s a great time for new growth.”

McQueen, who was renowned for his enchanting, fairy-tale-like catwalk shows, said in addition:

“In times of recession, I think fashion is escapism, it’s sort of a luxury sort of escapism.”

Designer Narcisso Rodriquez disagrees, having said:

‘When times get tough, people want things that are real and lasting.’

Dressing in vintage fashions, such as those associated with the 1940’s period, could be said to be a form of escapism due to their ‘costume’ connotations, but also in agreement with Rodriquez’ comment, where clothes from that period were well made, and made to last.

Experimental and innovative designer, John Galliano, also believes in fashion as a form of escapism:

‘I want fashion to be beautiful, escapist, aspirational. Fairy godmothers are hard to come by so let me tell you: you shall go to the ball! Make life more of a fantasy and more of the story you imagined.’

Galliano led the way in the mid-eighties with his historically influenced designs. His fascination for period detailing and adaptation of traditional styles into highly contemporary pieces is evident throughout his work. Past styles are often updated by contemporary designers by exaggerating traditional traits of glamour, producing looks which ‘fetishise femininity or luxury’. Galliano believes that by learning from the past, fashion can continue to progress; he draws on the past for inspiration and represents it as the future. Galliano’s creativity is:

‘born not out of the love of the modern, but of the antique.’

Although criticised by many as merely copying previous styles, and thought of as exploitation of the past by some, drawing on the past for inspiration is a common practice with countless fashion designers. Compared to other contemporary designers, John Galliano has progressed more of an historical element, with an acute eye, which is seen within his collections. Galliano, whose talent stemmed from an obsession with history, has demonstrated that historicism does not necessarily have to be channelled through the use of costume. By taking inspiration from the past, he is also creating a new vision where there is a fusion of historical aspects merged with the modern.

Innovative fashion is said to emerge during bad times, such as periods of war and recession. Regarded as one of the most influential fashion designers of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Dior dominated fashion after World War II with ‘a full blown romantic nostalgia’, through the use of the classic hourglass silhouette of his opulent ‘New Look’.

Dior’s collection was received with excitement by post-war women of that era, where society desired newness and innovative change, after so many years of war, brutality, shortages and hardship. The new fashion was a dramatic change from the wartime austerity styles where clothing was predominantly for function only.

The romantic collection was reminiscent of the ‘Belle Epoque’ ideal of long skirts, cinched-in waists and luxurious fabrics; and other traditional signs of femininity. Following the rationing of fabric, Dior’s lavish use of material was bold and shocking, as his designs would utilise many metres of fabric; this was frowned upon by both the UK and USA governments and society was discouraged from wearing such extravagant clothes which “wasted” fabric.

During WWII, women had replaced the role of men in the work place and they were sent to labour on farms and work in factories, whilst the men were away at war. Once the war had finished, women were expected to return to their previous passive housewife roles, leaving their new employment open for the returning soldiers. The approved paradigm of post-war womanhood was that of the domestic housewife, where women’s priorities were home-making and creating a perfect family life image.

The fifties was an ‘aggressively positive decade’ and the fashions of this period reflected this. The ‘New Look’ represented the beginning of a tremendous cultural shift, predominantly because it reinvented fashion after the Second World War. New fabrics, brighter colour palettes and patterns began to appear. Glorification of the female figure was an innovative development in fashion.

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