Retromania: Dipping back to fashion's past

By Zoe Walker

Were things better 'back in the day', or is fashion's penchant for looking to the past plain lazy? Viva examines the idea of Retromania.

The 1950s are back. Sorry, I meant the 1940s. Wait, actually - it's the 60s! Or is it the roaring 20s?

Lately, you could be forgiven for wondering where all the new ideas have gone. It can feel as though every fashion designer is designing by looking backward, to the 50s, 60s, 20s; or perhaps looking at the future from the point of view of the 1950s, or examining the 1960s through the lens of the 1920s. There are the couture silhouettes from the 1950s and 1960s, explored and adapted again for spring 2012 by designers at Balenciaga, Celine, Prada and Jil Sander; and the embrace of the art deco detailing and dropped waists of the hedonistic jazz age, at Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, Marc Jacobs, and Ralph Lauren (no doubt a reference to the upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a film Lauren originally outfitted in 1974).

There's Marc Jacobs, the king of the retro pastiche, with collections for his namesake line and Louis Vuitton running the gamut of decades: a 1920s dance hall (spring 2012), the womanly 1950s (Louis Vuitton, fall 2010), the hedonistic 1970s (spring 2011), the "good old days" of 1980s New York (fall 2009) - he has even looked back to his own archives, for fall 2010.

"It's refreshing to see something that isn't trying so hard to be new," he told Style.com backstage after that nostalgia trip of a show. "There's so much striving for newness now that newness feels less new."

Then there is the never-ending 50s revival, which rears its very dainty, ladylike head every second season or so; from the 1950s prom queen to the 1950s prim housewife (given new life thanks to Mad Men) to the 1950s bombshell. Recently, there was Prada's 1950s bombshells (designer Miuccia Prada dismissed ideas of nostalgia, but it would seem obvious to anyone that the bandeau tops, retro maillots and car prints were references to the that decade; the subway grate at the head of the runway a reference to Marilyn Monroe), Jonathan Saunders' glamorous bad girl 50s housewife, Rodarte's 1950s prom dress silhouettes, and Dolce and Gabbana's sexy bella donnas living in small town Italy during the 1950s. Why the constant fascination with the Eisenhower years? A sense of hope for the future, for one, and the contrast between innocence and darker times just ahead.

Doris de Pont, curator of the New Zealand Fashion Museum, believes it is nostalgia for the "golden age" that continues to inspire fashion designers.

"For the baby boomers particularly in the new world countries of America, Australia and New Zealand, this was the golden age of plenty when everything seemed possible. The economy was growing, everyone could own their own home in the suburbs complete with a refrigerator and all the labour-saving devices, health care and education were freely available and for the first time ever there was time for leisure and the clothes were equally optimistic," she explains. "But nostalgia remembers the good times and forgets the negatives: the housewives with suburban neurosis, and society's intolerance of any form of difference, be it skin colour, sexuality or chosen lifestyle. Probably the 1950s of fashion are channelling one and not the other."

This obsession with the past isn't limited to design either: the supermodels of the 1990s have been making a "comeback" for the past five or 10 years (Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova, Cindy Crawford and Yasmin Le Bon's appearances in a recent Duran Duran video have sparked the latest "supermodels are back" headlines), everyone's favourite childhood porker Miss Piggy has made a comeback on the big screen with the new Muppets film, and in fashion with photo shoots for InStyle, clothing lines with Opening Ceremony, and makeup collections for M.A.C, and locally, there are rumours that "youth culture" magazine Pulp, which closed last year, is being relaunched.

Are there some things that should just be left in the past? Apparently not. It is a timeless complaint, and one of the most frequent that I hear (apart from clothes being so expensive, and models always looking so sad): everything is just a rehash of something that's come before. This season it's the 60s, last season it was the 40s, next up it's the 90s, two weeks ago it was the 50s.

Now though, it seems as though the past has merged into a big, blurry ball of nostalgia, with an explosion of vintage, and every decade being referenced, rehashed, and reinterpreted.

This is Retromania - a term coined by music writer Simon Reynolds, who recently released a book examining pop culture's addiction to its own past.

Reynolds looks mainly at music - reformations and reunions, the musical archive of YouTube, sampling and so on - and the idea of nostalgia at the cost of innovation.

With its penchant for looking over its shoulder, the same could said of fashion - Reynolds looks at fashion briefly in his book, and names 1965 as the pinnacle of newness and nowness.

"After that high point, postmodernist-like techniques of pastiche and recycling began to take effect in fashion many years before they would appear in pop music," he wrote. For Reynolds, the label Biba symbolised the switch from looking forward to looking back, and brought retro fashion to the mainstream - designers had often looked to history, from 1790s Greek or Roman styles, or the renaissance, but now they were referencing a not-so-distant past.

The latest throwback is the 1990s, with items like chokers, adidas sneakers, Dr. Martens, plaid, platform trainers, turtlenecks and Levis 501s all creeping back into 2011 wardrobes, and the "I Love the 90s" catch-cry appearing on the runway too - Alexander Wang is the poster boy for bringing back the 90s, the designers behind London-based label Meadham Kirchhoff are obsessed with Riot Grrrl, and Versace, the ultimate 1990s fashion label, brought the decade back to life by dipping into their archives and resurrecting iconic Versace pieces for their recent H&M collection. Designer Phillip Lim looked to Helmut Lang and Jil Sander's 1990s minimalism for his spring 2012 collection, and was open about his references: "I'm a child of the 90s. Your references are what you grew up with."

At New Zealand Fashion Week earlier this year, there were various 1990s references too - Lonely Hearts' take on The Matrix; and Celine Rita's suburban witchcraft and the supernatural, and her ode to the supermodels who defined 90s fashion.

Fifteen-year-old Tavi Gevinson's website Rookie may be aimed at teenage girls, but it also speaks directly to a slightly older generation's sense of timeless pop culture nostalgia, with 90s references littered throughout the website: films like Clueless, bands like the Spice Girls and authors like Roald Dahl.

Although funnily enough, it was also Gevinson who recently wrote a column on "why the 21st century isn't so bad", with various, more recent, pop culture references (think Mean Girls, awkward humour and Pixar). Woody Allen examines a similar idea with his latest film Midnight in Paris: the allure of nostalgia versus accepting the present.

But though it's easy to despair at this Retromania, there is an important point: new doesn't necessarily equal better.

Perhaps we're revisiting things because they work?

Even as far back as 1994, fashion's liking for looking to the past was being defended, with Vivienne Westwood telling the New York Times that, "going forward, things don't just better - they can get worse. Modern is a question we have to abandon ... Fashion might be an important indicator in the sense that there's something intuitive that people are after. Intuitively, they're going back to things in the past." Indeed, curator Doris de Pont sees this Retromania in a positive light, "as the past can give context and relevance to the concerns of today. Fashion design is not some frivolous pursuit without meaning, but is a form of creative expression that is engaged with real life. Styles from the past may capture a mood that is relevant today and so a designer will reinterpret them in their collection".

Whether this Retromania will lead to a lack of newness remains to be seen: what will Noughties fashion be remembered for? It's difficult to define now, without the distance needed to see these things clearly. The marketing of fashion is one of the biggest modern innovations, as is development of technology (although balancing technological innovation with wearability is the difficulty for designers).

De Pont believes the new idea is green. "Values are starting to influence fashion choices. Today it is the fashion avant garde who are looking to embrace sustainability without sacrificing aesthetics. The trend is away from 'disposable' fashion to 'durable' fashion, recognising that good design remains good beyond the fashion moment that created it."

- NZ Herald

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