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Comments About Vintage Fashion & Fashion Revival's | History of Fashion Design

Comments About Vintage Fashion & Fashion Revival's

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 and technological 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 “Renaissance” The 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, Greek and 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 Century like “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 Hors 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 most innovative core eras for fashion, and much of what it did was to remove taboos from certain clothing choices (women wearing pants, men with long hair, co-option of non-Western styles, increased acceptability of tattoos and piercings, fragmentation of styles into subgroups, etc.) one of the most significant taboo removals was against wearing old clothes.  Before the early 1970’s the whole idea of a “Vintage Clothing Store” was totally absurd.  There were used clothing places like the Salvation Army, and the poor were the only people who shopped for clothes there.  Second hand clothes were anathema to kids who had grown up in the Great Depression and were “forced” to wear second hand clothes by necessity.  As a teenager in 1976 I was taken to Castro St in San Francisco for my birthday.  I saw my first gay couple holding hands, my first view of a shop with vibrators in the window, and my first ever seen vintage clothing store.  My parents who were allowing me to select a birthday present, were reduced to near twitching by my wanting 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 French ticklers in the window of “Good Vibrations”.  My generation, raised in the affluent 1960’s had no such qualms, so vintage clothing stores drove 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 import duty.  The result however, is sellers of old stuff need to be careful not to call an item “Antique” if it is under 100 years old, since a customer 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”, since there is no legal definition?  When I was a teen and 20-something buying vintage, vintage stores stocked items from the mid 1950’s and before, now it seems to be items from about 1980 and before, and they are bought by the new teens and twenty something’s.  I was born in 1959; they were born in the early 1980’s.  Vintage is whatever was made before the buyer was born, and most vintage buyers are girls and boys around 16-22.  As a wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker (showing two middle aged women talking and looking in a vintage store window) states “We can’t wear vintage: We ARE vintage.”

Long ago James Laver the keeper of prints at the V&A (not the robes as reported at the site below) came up with a theoretical time line of styles known as Laver’s Law, which you can view at this site. The time line’s stages hold true, although the speed at which we go through the stages is now much faster than it was in the 1930’s when he first proposed the idea.  As you can see from this page, not everyone is ready to re-embrace the 1980’s ye.

so the inevitable process that styles go through is part of the story, but I think there is more to it than that.  Fashion revivals don’t fall into a neat schedule, nor are all elements of a past style adopted.   For example, while vintage stores sold items from the mid fifties and before when I was a teen, my choices tended to be 1932 and before.  I liked the unruffled deco sensibility of pre-code Hollywood, and the assertive Gibson Girl and WWI styles, I was not at all attracted to the Woman’s-place-is-in-the-home, Father Knows Best look I associated with Fifties crinolines and later 1930’s ruffles.  During the French Revolution the choice of Greek styles was chosen because of its association with democratic politics, mid 19th Century people ran amok with plaid because they were reading Walter Scott novels, and were longing for a more “romantic” less modern industrialized world, The Pre-Raphaelites, as the name implies, were fond of art produced before the Modern era began in the 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 they are adopting them partly as a very low-key passive-aggressive way of sending the message that they don’t like the Conservative agenda.  However I think asking teeny boppers why they like styles themselves would be better than asking me, we get few fashionistas here in Fairbanks, Alaska, and there is no vintage clothing store in this town (although we have good Goodwill and Value Village stores) so I don’t get to observe much of this behavior.  Our one vintage fashionista we have is 30, and she dresses in 60’s and 70’s styles based on how much color, twinkle and funk is in them, because she sees modern mainstream fashion 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, and switch the font to something other than “Webdings”.

To a person like me who grew up in a world that went from Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe as female ideals Through the whole Mod/Futurist look best exemplified by Barbarella and Twiggy, then to the Hippie look, then the “Edwardian”-Ziggy Stardust style, followed by Ali McGraw and Annie Hall, then Shaft and Disco, and then to American Gigolo, all before I was 20 and out of college, the rate of fashion change since 1980 seems like it is at a crawl.  I suspect designers in this post Reagan era are using revivals as a way to artificially stimulate change, although it isn’t really that successful, partly because after the 1970’s many people felt far more free to express themselves by wearing group identifying fashions, or fashions totally out of the mainstream like punk, preppy, fetish, Goth, retro, transgender, hip-hop, surfer, hippie, soulie, ethnic or evangelical Christian.  Thus folks who self select to wear “mainstream” fashions tend to be the middle of the road folks who don’t adopt fashion change quickly, thus putting those who wish to lead mainstream fashion, with a group that will only follow them reluctantly, and rarely to the more interesting extremes.  This is why mainstream fashion gets duller, and things like Goth and Punk and Hip-hop are the innovators.  Mainstream fashion is left to lag behind, and its leaders keep seeking ways to rouse their torpid buyers into dumping last year’s clothes, and buying new ones.  Retro revivals ironically help fuel fashion buying short-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 the last 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 look that 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 nightgowns to wear as evening dresses.  Indeed I had two myself.  However I will admit that fashion designers, most notably Gaultier, took this idea to far more significant and long lasting heights of deconstructivism in new fashions in the late 1980’s to present, so much so that the Costume Society (UK) has decided to devote next year’s symposium to underwear history in an effort to understand the movement in historical context http://www.costumesociety.org.uk/symposium04.htm

For books that might have some more useful information about why people collect vintage go here

Richard Martin (Author of Infra-apparel) also wrote a book about 1980’s fashion called The Historical Mode.
which alas is hard to get, but it addresses in the 1980’s the reasons fashion designers did so many revivals that much of the 1980’s fashions seemed hideously derivative even to people at the time.  I suspect that much of what he wrote then still applies as reasons for vintage fashion being recycled constantly.

Hope this helps.


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