PRINT December 1990


Retro Fashion

BECAUSE MOST FASHION JOURNALISTS subscribe to the Hegelian philosophy that “whatever is, is right,” they take an understandably upbeat view of retro fashion, which they tend to describe in terms of inspiration and zeitgeist. If designers “look to the past . . . it’s not because they have all been looking at the same back issues of fashion magazines,” wrote Caroline Milbank in a recent issue of Vogue. “It’s because a feeling from the past is in the air.”

No doubt this is true, at least in a metaphoric sense. But, like all zeitgeist explanations, it leaves unresolved the question of why a certain style from the past should at this very moment be “in the air” (or in the clubs and on the streets). The situation is further complicated when more than one “feeling” appears at the same time. For example, the same issue of Vogue extolled the influence of Pierre Cardin’s 1960s futuristic styles, while simultaneously promoting “fifties glamour for the nineties.”

Occasionally, a fashion journalist will complain about retro, as did Marylou Luther, the fashion editor of the Los Angeles Times, back in the late ’70s, when she suggested that designers “seem to be as afraid to face the future as they are to let go of the past.” But to assume that only fashion designers have run out of things to say is to ignore the popularity of retro styles throughout contemporary culture, in architecture and graphic design, for example, as much as in fashion. Some critics have, in fact, interpreted retro styles in terms of an unhealthy “mass flight into nostalgia,” as Angela McRobbie points out in her book Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses (1988). The problem, as they see it, lies not with individual designers but with the entire society, which would seem to have lost faith in the future.

But is retro genuinely nostalgic? Admittedly, there are aspects of the 1960s (or the 1950s or any other period that has latterly been revived) that might appeal to the present generation. The ’60s, for example, are associated with a flourishing economy and a lively youth subculture (sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll), while our image of the ’50s embraces both haute couture elegance and populux kitsch. But, in fact, there is no real evidence to suggest that ’60s-inspired fashions indicate a popular longing for a return to the “spirit” of the time.

On the contrary, one of the most striking things about the retro phenomenon is the irrelevance of the actual historical past. It exists only to be cannibalized, or refashioned. Designers, editors, stylists, and photographers ransack the past for usable images, which are then ripped out of context and ruthlessly stripped of most of their original meaning. In many cases, the creators, purveyors, and wearers of retro fashion were not even born until the 1970s. They know virtually nothing about the original style—and could care less. Clothing signs become meaningless, except in purely visual terms.

Some remnant of intrinsic signification may be retained if, and only if, it can be utilized in the context of today’s fashion. Thus an individual may have a sense that ’60s retro—Pucci prints, micro-minis, catsuits, falls, etc.—evokes youth or the mod look. But even then the scrap of original meaning is transformed and mythologized, tailored to our preconceptions.

The women’s movement has been a godsend to fashion journalists, because it provides a socially acceptable modern meaning that can be superimposed on past fashions. Thus, The Avengers’ Emma Peel—in her ubiquitous catsuit—is now being promoted as a veritable ancestress of women’s liberation: sexy but powerful. Or as Carrie Donovan once wrote for the fashion supplement of the New York Times: “The women’s movement has won major battles and women are moving on to being themselves not only in their heads but in the way they dress.”

The speed with which recycled styles come and go is another important characteristic of the retro phenomenon. Since 1950, new styles have developed within a particular subculture and then more or less gradually spread into mainstream fashion. The original mods were working-class English adolescents who spent most of their wages on clothes. Within a few years, the mod look had become commercialized. “Even the peers are going ‘mod,’” declared Life International in 1966 in a piece called “Spread of the Swinging Revolution.” Today a new fashion has no sooner appeared than it is discovered, publicized, and (if there is some chance of commercial success) exploited. Even on aggressively ugly and hostile subculture style like punk was rapidly, almost instantaneously, assimilated into the fashion mainstream, where it even now functions as an instant symbol of youth rebellion without its original political or violent connotations.

Moreover, elements from past styles can be resuscitated again and again every few years. People are familiar enough with postwar popular culture that they can recognize these visual references. The return of the mini, for example, is practically a yearly ritual, occasioning the same cheerfully sexist articles in the newsweeklies (“Legs are back!”) and the same self-congratulatory editorials in the fashion pages (“Women today are free to choose whatever skirt-length they like!”—bearing in mind, of course, the subtext, “Long skirts now look old and frumpy!”). None of this, however, has much to do with the miniskirt’s original impact in an era of sexual revolution.

Yet only a few observers have questioned the possibility that retro might, as Jamie Wolf writes, “[signify] absolutely nothing at all”—beyond the fact that “fashion is based on change . . . which change, exactly, is quite unimportant.” In an article on “retro babble” published in 1980, Wolf suggested that, although the “sensibility behind the origination of retro. . .has some significance,” the popularization of the various retro styles “hardly connotes a mass participation in this sensibility.”

So who originated the retro look, and why? During the 1960s, the hippies and their epigones sifted through thrift shops and flea markets to find old military uniforms, Edwardian petticoats, and other examples of what later came to be known as “vintage fashion.” They combined these cast-off garments into what were essentially costumes, signifiers of their own individual fantasies. But the “fashionization” of old clothes had not yet become true retro. The hippies, after all, tended to be naively serious about their clothing messages. And so, in their way, were the clothing manufacturers who began to produce copies of the hippies’ vintage rags.

For true retro to be born there had to emerge a group of young people with a sophisticated and ironic sensibility vis-à-vis certain outdated modes of dress and adornment. In some ways frivolous and perverse, the retro sensibility is obviously related to camp. There is the same sense of ironic distance, of interacting on two entirely different levels. Admittedly, there is an element of nostalgia here, but it is less significant than an irrepressible optimism. For most people, out-of-date styles look vaguely wrong and ugly, but for true votaries of fashion, bad can also be good, ugly beautiful, old new. Emma Peel is a gas, because she’s so . . . dated. And her catsuit, isn’t it . . . fetishistic?

The fashion insider expects fashion to talk about itself and to quote sources from the past. But that doesn’t mean that fashion is “saying” the same old thing. In fact, the idea that there is a language of clothes is itself somewhat misleading, since fashion, like music, functions more allusively. We might better speak of fashion as a kind of “social hieroglyph” that, as Marx wrote of the commodity, demands yet defies decoding.

Valerie Steele is a writer who lives in New York. She teaches in the Graduate Division of the Fashion Institute of Technology.