the recycling of forms

N°32 SS19 , Gabrielle Hamilton Smith

Fashion seems to no longer invent anything, it only recycles, resurrects, remixes. Apparently it’s only capable of wandering sorrowfully – or hysterically – amongst its own archives, in the attics of its glory and its former creativity. It’s even content to simply recuperate, as they are, forms that it invented ten or twenty years ago at best…

…But is this compulsive attachment to the past really specific to our time? And does it really mean that we’ve stopped creating?

One step forward, one step back
The 00’s revival coexisting, in the middle of the decade 2010, with a 90’s revival, left more than a few puzzled: evidently to be young and cool today, you only have to backtrack a little, and return to your childhood memories. We have short memories – this is precisely what any revival counts on. If it worked yesterday, it can work today; provided we’ve already forgotten what we did yesterday. Or rather, provided that yesterday seems already very far away, and that the days just past are shrouded in a sweet aura of strangeness and nostalgia. Accordingly, any stylistic period becomes potentially a golden age, from the moment it is sufficiently distant.

The New Psychedelics. London, early 80’s, street style by Ted Polhemus. © Ted Polhemus

Hence the unexpected destiny of the 2000s and their pink gradient sunglasses, tribal patterns or too-small T-shirts, and the ghosts of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie (who are still alive, just a little less than before). And again, oversized hoop earrings, mini handbags or mega baggy pants, which take us back a few years. This is a particular vice of our times, moving forward only by the recovery of one’s own past, and even of one’s most recent past. To the point that we can wonder how we ever invented what we copy today.

we are immersed in an immediate past whose photographic traces flood social networks, `allowing the barely mature relics of yesterday to be rediscovered, to become new again

But we also have a short memory about the history of the revival itself, a gesture somewhere between dressing up and the poetics of the archive. It actually has its roots much further back than our contemporary era, in the nineteenth century, “the century of history”1 where a taste for historicism was in full swing in the visual and performance arts. History was in fashion, and fashion was also in history. Medieval styles known as “troubadour” succeed antique fashions, in parallel to Renaissance inspirations, and also to references to the more recent eighteenth century. A whimsical literary group Les Jeunes-France dramatically exemplified this taste for obsolete fashion by wearing Gothic signet rings and vests with medieval motifs and were keen even then to scour second-hand markets to find vintage treasures2 that gave their look a style from another time.

Street style in Tokyo. Extracts from Fruits, 1994-2001, by Shoichi Aoki. © Shoichi Aoki.

Fashion and its archives
At this time a particular context fostered the development of the first indisputably retro fashions, knowingly made as quasi-reproductions of the styles of yesteryear. The history of dress, which developed precisely at the beginning of the century to provide documentation for the visual arts, became more widespread. It became not only increasingly methodical in its structure, constituting itself as an autonomous field of research, but also spread via engravings, postcards and other images. In 1874, the first major Parisian exhibition of historic dress – a great popular success – completed this process of popularizing3 the construction of the remembrance of clothing that was underway, confirming the transformation of old clothes into prestigious “historical dress”4. Exhumed, listed and valued, it penetrated the collective imagination, and offered a significant source of inspiration to the first generation of artist-couturiers5.
The hypothesis that can be drawn from this contextual concordance is this: the revival of fashion can exist as soon as the memory of a prior era has the material possibility, via archives or mythological representations – most often a clever mix of the two – to rise to the surface of the present, to form a coherent and widely known imaginary landscape, whose temporal exoticism could be equivalent to a form of novelty and thus is able to “be fashion”. That is to say, retro fashion is born not only more or less at the same time as the history of fashion, but also, that the structuring and dissemination of the material collected by the latter is the very condition of the possibility of any fashion revival.

there were many years 1990-2000 in the years 1990-2000

If the threshold of revivalism seems today to be at a critical level, it is probably because our digital age has simplified and universalized access to the archives of fashion, and in particular its most recent history. We are immersed in an immediate past whose photographic traces flood social networks, allowing the barely mature relics of yesterday to be rediscovered, to become new again. Armies of amateurs, on Tumblr, Instagram or Pinterest, passionately compile the editorials, advertisements or images of catwalks of the preceding decades, whose abundance seems truly infinite, and confirms the past as raw material for fashion design, which forevermore will be a stranger to the blank page. But if it seems that, while crumbling under the relics and archives of our recent history that we can no longer escape, we are not for all that imprisoned, doomed to remain victims of an infernal mechanism of compulsive repetition.

Street style in Tokyo. Extracts from Fruits, 1994-2001, by Shoichi Aoki. © Shoichi Aoki.

“A knot of anachronisms”
Because, when looked at closely, any past decade is inexhaustible, not only in its possible uses, but also in the real resources it holds: it actually contains a thousand fashions, because at a time given, a thousand worlds, a thousand cultural and social layers, age groups, levels of audacity, inventiveness, a thousand formal and aesthetic hidden recesses coexist. Which is to say, to return to the matter in hand, that there were many years 1990-2000 in the years 1990-2000, for example. Do we remember today, to complete the retro loop, their passion for the 1970s? At the time, embroidered jeans, flares, crochet and murky colours brought bodies back to a fantasized decade, as much on the street and its countercultures as on the luxurious podiums of high fashion. Roberto Cavalli, for his Autumn-Winter 1999-2000 collection, invoked a bohemian and sensual heroine through patchwork, ponchos and long dresses; while Tom Ford dreamed, at Gucci, in Autumn-Winter 1995, of a 70s woman, this time more bourgeois and urban, all satin, velvet, and spectacular big hair. A period, a decade – the arbitrariness of the temporal division of fashion itself hints at this – is never a coherent and unequivocal totality. It is always more profound, complex, multifaceted, and possibly unknown, in proportion to the attention that we pay it, and this is also because, as we have just seen, its quality of nowness, of topicality, is never exempt from an infinity of transformed borrowings: there are not only many years 1990-2000 in the years 1990-2000, but also different 1970 years, in the 1970s reviewed by the years 1990-2000... If you lose your head a little, it’s because nothing is born of nothing, there is no self-engendering fashion, only chains of more or less successful exhumations, recoveries, transformations and interpretations, of which it would be almost impossible to trace a detailed genealogy, to return to primordial forms.

Street style in Tokyo. Extracts from Fruits, 1994-2001, by Shoichi Aoki. © Shoichi Aoki.

It seems foolish to say that having seen everything a thousand times, there is nothing left to rediscover: like the future, the past is infinite, both in its extent and in its details. But also, there is no era that is itself dependent on a quantity of other times. It is in this that the present is never anything else, as Didi-Huberman writes, than “a knot of anachronisms”6, an inextricable entanglement of living non-current nowness, strangely fresh relics, whose evidence can always prove to be, again, blindingly fresh.. 

1 according to Gabriel Monod.
2 It was also at the beginning of the nineteenth century, around 1820, that the phrase “d’occasion” (meaning “used” or “secondhand” in English) which meant a good deal, a bargain for a buyer, became “a used item offered for sale”, as Antoine Compagnon explains in Les chiffonniers de Paris, Paris, Gallimard, 2018, page 20.
3 In the 18th and even the 17th centuries there were already “costume collections” bringing together historical costumes, especially for painters, but they were not accessible to the general public. See Maude Bass Krueger “Fashion Collections, Collectors, and Exhibitions in France, 1874-1900: Historical Imagination, the Spectacular Past, and the Practice of Restoration,” Maude Bass-Krueger, Fashion Theory, Volume 22, Issue 4-5 Collectors, Practices of Collecting and Collections, Pages 405-433.
4 Ibid
5 Charles Frederick Worth, the most glorious of them, offered his customers for example “Henry VIII style” coats, evening dresses inspired by the Italian Renaissance or the Louis XVI style. See Chantal Trubert-Tollu, La maison Worth : naissance de la haute couture, 1858-1954, Lausanne, Bibliothèque des Arts, 2017.
6 Georges Didi-Huberman, L’image survivante, histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, Paris, Minuit, 2002, page 55.