The Costumer's Manifesto: Comments About Vintage Fashion and Fashion Revivals
Dear Professor Maginnis, I'm trying to determine why people have embraced "retro" style right now and whether it's a manifestation of a larger trend or perception. I'm trying to go beyond Faith Popcorn's analysis that we are embracing anything to do with nostalgia because we are ambivalent about the political uncertainty andtechnological innovations in our world. Can you suggest some books or articles that address this topic?
I think that Popcorn is essentially correct, that the overwhelming dependency on fashion revivals that seemed to kick in during the 1980's, and which we haven't lost since, is a reflection of the backlash against change that began around that time, but I would agree with you that it is far more than that. A number of points should be noted:
Fashion revivals have been occurring quite regularly in Western fashion since the French Revolution. Obviously the 1790's saw a big wave of "retro" style in imitation of Ancient Greek and Roman styles, the 1820's and 1830's adopted lots of styles that they saw as being "Cavalier" or "RenaissanceThe 1850's went on a pre-Anglicized-Scots fest, and picked up things they saw as Medieval (though we would hardly see them as such), and the 1870's stole quite liberally from the 1770's. The Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, and the Arts and Crafts movement elsewhere, nicked bits of Medieval, Greekand Renaissance style for the whole era of 1860's-1910's, and their styles, watered down went mainstream. The Big Hats of 1905-1912 were called "Gainsborough" hats, and the severe suits with narrow hems were called "Directoire" gowns, both made fashionable by novels and plays set in the late 18th Centurylike "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Mme. Sans-Gene". The early 1910's was mainly influenced by Asian, Middle Eastern and Eastern European styles, but just around 1920 there was a fit of "pannier" dresses that are a sort of flapper version of Rococo dress. The twenties was mostly revival-free, but the 1930's was awash in "Eugenie" hats, and "Empire" evening gowns, and ruffled things they fondly imagined looked Victorian or Edwardian. By 1939 Paris designers went so far as to try reviving the corset, as shown in the famous photo by Horst
 only the war prevented the style from catching on for the duration. The snood, the wartime staple of factory girls was also a revival, spurred on by the styles worn by Olivia deHaviland as Melanie in 1939's Gone With The Wind. As soon as there was a post war recovery, corsets did get revived in the form called a "Merry Widow" again propagated by a period film, and Dior set about trying to revive the Second Empire (Read 1860's crinolines) with quite a bit of popular success. There were also attempts at 1920's revival in the later 1950's through 1960's, and a big splash in the late 1960's and early 1970's with what was called "The New Edwardians" in England. Region I of the Costume Society of America is doing their next symposium on fashion revivals through the ages
 and it will be an easy topic to find lecture fodder for. Fashion revival, pretty much is always around, ever since Western society got the Triple whammy of the Agricultural Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution all hitting us in short order. The more rapid and extreme society changes, the more rapid and extreme the fashion changes are. When one is looking to change or "reform" fashion, one looks to the past, and to other cultures for models of possible improvement, plus when change keeps happening too fast for people to assimilate, especially if it is associated with an economic downturn, nostalgia for the past makes past styles seem more comforting and stable. Boom times (1850-1870, late 1890's to 1917, 1920-28, 1960-1976) tend to have fewer revivals, and more original innovations, because people are more positive about the future.
The late 1960's and early 1970's was one of the mostinnovative core eras for fashion, and much of what it did was to remove taboosfrom certain clothing choices (women wearing pants, men with long hair,co-option of non-Western styles, increased acceptability of tattoos andpiercings, fragmentation of styles into subgroups, etc.) one of the mostsignificant taboo removals was against wearing old clothes. Before theearly 1970's the whole idea of a "Vintage Clothing Store" was totallyabsurd. There were used clothing places like the Salvation Army, and thepoor were the only people who shopped for clothes there. Second handclothes were anathema to kids who had grown up in the Great Depression and were"forced" to wear second hand clothes by necessity. As a teenagerin 1976 I was taken to Castro St in San Francisco for my birthday. I sawmy first gay couple holding hands, my first view of a shop with vibrators in thewindow, and my first ever seen vintage clothing store. My parents who wereallowing me to select a birthday present, were reduced to near twitching by mywanting to go in the latter and pick a dress from around 1932 or so to wear.They looked even less comfortable than if I'd asked for one of the Frenchticklers in the window of "Good Vibrations". My generation,raised in the affluent 1960's had no such qualms, so vintage clothing storesdrove fashion revivals to the fore ever since.
I'm often asked what is "Vintage" anyhow, and I have a theory."Antique" in the US has a legal definition based on US customs law.Anything over 100 years old is an "Antique" and not subject to importduty. The result however, is sellers of old stuff need to be careful notto call an item "Antique" if it is under 100 years old, since acustomer can sue for false advertising if an item is not as described.Most old clothing sold to be worn again is less than 100 years old, so"Vintage" got tacked to it as an alternate descriptor. However,how old does an item need to be in order to be called "Vintage", sincethere is no legal definition? When I was a teen and 20-something buyingvintage, vintage stores stocked items from the mid 1950's and before, now itseems to be items from about 1980 and before, and they are bought by the newteens and twenty-somethings. I was born in 1959; they were born in theearly 1980's. Vintage is whatever was made before the buyer was born, andmost vintage buyers are girls and boys around 16-22. As a wonderfulcartoon in the New Yorker (showing two middle aged women talking and looking ina vintage store window) states "We can't wear vintage: We AREvintage."
Long ago James Laver the keeper of prints at the V&A (not the robes asreported at the site below) came up with a theoretical timeline of styles knownas Laver's Law, which you can view at this site.
the timeline's stages hold true, although the speed at which we go throughthe stages is now much faster than it was in the 1930's when he first proposedthe idea. As you can see from this page, not everyone is ready tore-embrace the 1980's yet
so the inevitable process that styles go through is part of the story, but Ithink there is more to it than that. Fashion revivals don't fall into aneat schedule, nor are all elements of a past style adopted. Forexample, while vintage stores sold items from the mid fifties and before when Iwas a teen, my choices tended to be 1932 and before. I liked the unruffleddeco sensibility of pre-code Hollywood, and the assertive Gibson Girl and WWIstyles, I was not at all attracted to the Woman's-place-is-in-the-home, FatherKnows Best look I associated with Fifties crinolines and later 1930's ruffles.During the French Revolution the choice of Greek styles was chosen because ofits association with democratic politics, mid 19th Centurypeople ran amokwith plaid because they were reading Walter Scott novels, and were longing for amore "romantic" less modern industrialized world, The Pre-Raphaelites,as the name implies, were fond of art produced before the Modern era began inthe 16th Century, so they looked to Medieval and Ancient art for styles.So when I see hippie styles and 70's styles on teens, I tend to wonder if theyare adopting them partly as a very low-key passive-aggressive way of sending themessage that they don't like the Conservative agenda. However I thinkasking teeny boppers why they like styles themselves would be better than askingme, we get few fashionistas here in Fairbanks, Alaska, and there is no vintageclothing store in this town (although we have good Goodwill and Value Villagestores) so I don't get to observe much of this behavior. Our one vintagefashionista we have is 30, and she dresses in 60's and 70's styles based on howmuch color, twinkle and funk is in them, because she sees modern mainstreamfashion as being awfully dull colored and bland, which it certainly is.
I've found some online teen opinion on fashion revivals here:
and a college student who wrote a paper on the topic
and another in Canada who has a whole site
one page is hard to read, just copy and paste it into Word or Notepad, andswitch the font to something other than "Webdings".
To a person like me who grew up in a world that went from Jackie Kennedy andMarilyn Monroe as female ideals Through the whole Mod/Futurist look bestexemplified by Barbarella and Twiggy, then to the Hippie look, then the"Edwardian"-Ziggy Stardust style, followed by Ali McGraw and AnnieHall, then Shaft and Disco, and then to American Gigolo, all before I was 20 andout of college, the rate of fashion change since 1980 seems like it is at acrawl. I suspect designers in this post Reagan era are using revivals as away to artificially stimulate change, although it isn't really that successful,partly because after the 1970's many people felt far more free to expressthemselves by wearing group identifying fashions, or fashions totally out of themainstream like punk, preppy, fetish, Goth, retro, transgender, hip-hop, surfer,hippie, soulie, ethnic or evangelical Christian. Thus folks who selfselect to wear "mainstream" fashions tend to be the middle of the roadfolks who don't adopt fashion change quickly, thus putting those who wish tolead mainstream fashion, with a group that will only follow them reluctantly,and rarely to the more interesting extremes. This is why mainstreamfashion gets duller, and things like Goth and Punk and Hip-hop are theinnovators. Mainstream fashion is left to lag behind, and its leaders keepseeking ways to rouse their torpid buyers into dumping last years clothes,and buying new ones. Retro revivals ironically help fuel fashion buyingshort-term, but it really is a temporary cure that helps perpetuate the problem,since it encourage fashion innovators towards buying original vintage clothes.The only really significant mainstream fashion innovation I can think of in thelast 20 years that was mainly pushed forward by mainstream fashion designers,not primarily by street style or sub groups, was the whole"Infra-apparel" (1993, Richard Martin, Metropolitan Museum of Art
) underwear as outerwear, deconstructivist, structural support as design lookthat imitated the architectural style best seen in the Pompidou Center.
This too seems likely to have first hit mainstream as a vintage clothing idea,since I recall a lot of girls in the 1970's buying vintage slips and nightgownsto wear as evening dresses. Indeed I had two myself. However I willadmit that fashion designers, most notably Gaultier, took this idea to far moresignificant and long lasting heights of deconstructivism in new fashions in thelate 1980's to present, so much so that the Costume Society (UK) has decided todevote next year's symposiumto underwear history in an effort tounderstand the movement in historical context http://www.costumesociety.org.uk/symposium04.htm
For books that might have some more useful information about why people collectvintage go here
Richard Martin (Author of Infra-apparel) also wrote a book about 1980's fashioncalled The Historical Mode
which alas is hard to get, but it addresses in the 1980's the reasons fashiondesigners did so many revivals that much of the 1980's fashions seemed hideouslyderivative even to people at the time. I suspect that much of what hewrote then still applies as reasons for vintage fashion being recycledconstantly.
Hope this helps.
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