Fashion is a paradoxical design form that is both driven by a desire for the new, and a love of nostalgia.
As a university student learning about the history of fashion years ago, one idea was constantly driven home: fashion is defined by constant change. This idea is in fact a paradox. The constant striving for something ‘new’ may indeed be at the heart of the fashion industry, but such ‘new’ ideas are more often than not old ideas brought back to life by way of a strange cultural nostalgia. While other art forms—such as music and film—are also nostalgic for their own often recent pasts, fashion seems to cannibalise itself at a much faster and more complex rate than any other design or art form.
As a teenager coming home with a new item of clothing, I distinctly remember my mother constantly proclaiming that she “had one just like that when she was young.” While this is perhaps not what a teenager wants to hear, I’ve started to find myself saying similar things after witnessing the barrage of young women getting around in grunge inspired dresses, cut-offs and Doc Martens. But do they know that their hot new item is in fact a poor copy of the 90s original? And did girls in the 90s realise they were wearing dresses that originated in the 1930s, and were then reinterpreted in the 1970s?
I started to after trips to my local op-shops, commencing when I was 12. Recently, vintage clothing has itself become a victim to the fashion system, but when I began buying and wearing vintage, I was the only person I knew who did so, particularly within the realm of late primary, and early high school. I bought my first 1950s dresses (many of which were not to wear, but simply to admire as beautiful objects) and maxi dresses from the 1970s (which I did wear, with my short 90s hair and Doc Martens). I started young and little has changed: 95% of my wardrobe is vintage, and it is a big, big wardrobe.
But now that contemporary fashion and vintage fashion so often cross paths in the mainstream fashion market, it’s impossible not to wonder if there will ever be anything ‘new’ about fashion ever again.
Many vintage loyalists use vintage fashion as a way to recreate an era, say the 1960s, that they feel was a ‘better time’ than we are living in now. This kind of nostalgia does not ring true for my own vintage obsession, rather, my quest for the perfect vintage dress has much more to do with self-expression (as it did in my high school days, too) than with a longing for times gone by. The fact that so much high street fashion is simply reproducing the styles and ideas from previous, or recent, decades seems to signal a much wider cultural nostalgia for the past. Other cultural phenomena seem to suggest a similar thing: Instagram and Hipstamatic, for instance, are attempting to reproduce the sensation of a Polaroid from 40 years ago.
A recently published interview with Simon Reynolds (whose book Retromania explores parallel arguments to those I have raised here, but in relation to music) points to similar retro obsessions within new technological platforms.
With technology providing more and more ways to engage with, reproduce and fetishises the past, is fashion design, and all other forms of design and creative expression, at risk of stagnating? While other eras have often been fascinated with those that came before them, there was also an overwhelming strive for the new. Fashion itself has perpetuated this idea. It has also betrayed it.
How can designers change the way that the past is used for inspiration?
Can designers truly create ‘new’ objects, or is this a myth created by the fashion industry?
How does nostalgia manifest itself in other design forms?