Why fashion loves to go retro (+pics)

By Zoe Walker

As fashion looks back to the 60s and 70s, we ask why designers continue to be fascinated with these groundbreaking decades

British rock singer, David Bowie, poses beside his Rolls Royce in May 1973. Photo / AP
British rock singer, David Bowie, poses beside his Rolls Royce in May 1973. Photo / AP

Big hair, big eyes, youth, glamour and sex: it's easy to see why fashion continues to be fascinated by the look of the 1960s and 70s.

Check out our gallery of retro inspiration here.

Whether it is Marc Jacobs' modern day Edie Sedgwicks walking the runway in cool black and white stripes or the shiny disco divas at Jonathan Saunders, the influence of the Swinging 60s and the Me Decade refuses to end.

In London, the historic centre of the Swinging 60s universe, the glamorous side of the 1970s is proving more popular today: a David Bowie exhibition opens at the V&A Museum this month, examining his shifting style and reinvention over the decades, including 1972 Ziggy Stardust bodysuits and 1974 set designs for the Diamond Dogs tour. Expect plenty more Bowie references in fashion then.

The 1970s, too, have been favoured by young London-based designers who weren't around the first time, with disco shine and extreme glamour at Jonathan Saunders and Meadham Kirchhoff for autumn 2012.

The fun and escapism of the decade informed Saunders, who "focused on everybody that was having fun when I was born".

Meadham Kirchhoff commonly use the runway to make some kind of statement - about feminism or expectations of good taste - and their take on a disco inferno had models in rainbow-coloured sequin dresses throwing glitter in the air and dancing down the runway.

What did it all mean? Style.com wrote of the show, "Jubilation is its own kind of political stance, a way of telling all the depressed, enraged, alienated misfits out there to screw the world and come join the party." That attitude sounds somehow similar to today's, admittedly far less politically motivated party-'til-you-die mindset.

"I do see similarities in the times," says curator and fashion historian Doris de Pont, reflecting on the then and now likeness of upheaval to the status quo and people looking for new values and ways forward. In September she and the New Zealand Fashion Museum will open an exhibition examining local fashion in the 1970s, looking at how societal upheavals influenced what people wore and the impact on today's local fashion industry.

And although the exhibition will focus solely on what Tom Wolfe called "The Me Decade", de Pont believes the 1970s really began in the late 60s with the 1968 Paris protests and baby-boomers questioning the status quo. That culture of questioning permeating both decades and all aspects of society is something de Pont sees again today - the uninhibited approach to style is similar.

"They were times when the looks cultivated were individual, which we are seeing again now. There was not a fashion, but many fashions."

A focus on craft - think of the macrame and ceramics so popular in the 1970s - has returned too, in fashion and in interiors. "Most of the issues that were at the forefront of 1970s design have become more relevant today, like the concern for nature," says Emma Eagle of Auckland design showroom Mr Bigglesworthy. "Individualism in design is even stronger - people want unique and individual design with a story behind the object in order to connect to it. We are also seeing a resurgence in the craft movement in places like Frankie magazine."

It's that diversity of creativity - free love, disco, glam, the beginning of punk - that New Zealand designer Arielle Mermin believes is the appeal of the decade, several years on. Her work often references the 1970s, harking back to her childhood in San Francisco with two hippie parents who personified the bohemian nature of the decade.

"I didn't discover the style - I was raised in it."

Growing up, "I did whatever I could to escape the banality of the 1990s. The mismatch of old and new colours, silhouettes, and textures in the 70s went along with a sense of possibility and freedom at that time that doesn't seem to exist anymore."It's easy to romanticise," agrees the designer. But she certainly isn't the only one.

Singer Solange Knowles has recently been channelling a 1970s Diana Ross with big hair, Soul Train dance moves and sound that brings the funk.

Expect the styling of the music video for her song Losing You, complete with hot pants, bright suits and groovy prints, to have a ripple effect on the rest of fashion.

The look drew inspiration from photographer Daniele Tamagni's book Gentleman of Bacongo, which documents the La Sape Society (or the Society for the Advancement of People of Elegance), a sub-culture that flourished in the 1970s where Congolese men put fashion before all else, dressing as flamboyant dandies in luxury designer suits and accessories. As Sapeur comments in the book that, "a Congolese Sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body". A distinctly 1970s attitude: lose yourself and your troubles in glamour.

A retro fixation continues on screen too: next month Mad Men returns to television, with season six reportedly set in the tumultuous late 1960s. Later in the year the film Inside Llewyn Davis is released, telling the story of the early 1960s New York folk music scene (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake will play folk singers).

Stephen King's 1974 novel and the 1976 film Carrie gets an adaptation to be released this year, and a sequel to the 1970s newsroom spoof Anchorman is released this year too.

That freedom and extreme glamour of the 60s and 70s was typified by Antonio Lopez, the influential illustrator and photographer who helped shape the super glamour image of 1970s models such as Jerry Hall, Donna Jordan and Pat Cleveland. They were known as Antonio's Girls. "We were a flock of parakeets dressed in bright colours," Cleveland told the New York Times last year.

"We didn't know what we were going to be, but we were going to take our energy and fun and bring it to boring old fashion and society."

Renewed interest in Lopez's work and enduring influence is growing: a book published by Rizzoli recently showcases his body of work from the 60s through to the 80s, from illustrations and paintings to Instamatic photos and Polaroids. M.A.C. is set to release a makeup collection inspired by his illustrations and the Antonio's Girls who surrounded him - their unabashed decadence capturing the glamorous escapism of the era.

- VIVA

- NZ Herald

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