Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Fading of Fads

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On August 22, in The New York Times Ruth La Ferla asks,  “In Fashion, Are Trends Passe?” La Ferla interviews fashion industry insiders, who observe:

Trends, they are not what they used to be, said Garance Doré, the blogger and street-style photographer. Until some time in the 1970s, Ms. Doré pointed out, fashion tended to follow a single, clear direction, handed down to the faithful with the ringing authority of Moses on the mount.

 Robert Burke, a consultant for luxury brands and once the fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, amplified the point.

 As little as a decade ago, he said, we would gather at the Ritz in Paris to come up with trend stories, which would then be translated into shop windows and advertising. Forty or 50 of us held the keys to that secret information.

 Now that anyone with a passion for style and access to a television or computer screen can draw her own conclusions, the trend story is passé, Mr. Burke said.

Fashion trends are just no longer trendy.

Perhaps Ms. La Ferla was listening in on a conversation I had last week with Jenny Lantz; we were both presenting papers at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Denver. She researches fashion trend forecasters and how companies make use of their services.  After our presentations we chatted about what is truly “out” at a time when fashion retailers must cycle so many looks through stores  quickly, hoping to get young women repeatedly into stores for “the latest.” In a time when there are so many looks available, what is truly out? Jenny said that when she asks that of the retailers she interviews, they often have difficulty coming up with answers.

As the New York Times article points out, the answer to the “what’s trendy” question depends upon whether one is looking through a fashion magazine or simply looking out the window of one’s office. The fashion magazines push specific looks by the designing elites and so whatever they design supposedly represents the new trends.  But what about at the level of the street, where the looks one sees reflect what people buy?  That’s when I find myself asking, “What exactly, is not in style?”

I think that we have come to a point in western cultural fashion history when it is a challenge to dress in a way that is noticeably out of style.

How did this state of affairs come to be?

If one looks through a fashion magazine from the 1950s, the idea of what was “in” and how trends were determined was quite clear. Paris was the center of fashion. Ellen Melinkoff notes in What We Wore: An Offbeat Social History of Womens Clothing, 1950 to 1980:

We waited each year for the announcement from Paris regarding next year’s hemline. Newspapers and magazines played along, giving front-page coverage to the long-anticipated, dreaded measurement….The newsworthiness of this event heightened our impression that we were powerless to rebel. Paris would tell us what was fashionable.

But Paris’s grip on determining fashion trends was loosening. Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool argues that even in the conformist 50s, clothing manufacturers were itching for change that would shake up the slow progression of fashion trends. Their wish was granted in the 1960s when the Baby Boomer teens caused a “youthquake” in the world of fashion. U.S. teenagers had disposable income and they did not want to spend it  so they could look just like their parents.

From that point onward different routes for fashion trends developed. There was the traditional top-down route where elite fashion designers set the mode. But there was also the “bubble-up” route where streetstyles (and eventually the designers themselves) were influenced by what youth (often associated with subcultures, like punk rockers) were wearing. And those who research the “social diffusion” of trends note that it is lateral influence – what our friends are wearing – that has the biggest impact on our daily decisions of what to wear (something any middle-school girl could tell you).

I think there is another element for why trends have become less trendy. According to Sharon Zukin in Point of Purchase, Americans increasingly have used shopping guidebooks to become expert consumers. In the realm of style, this has meant innumerable guides on “dressing your best.” With the dress for social success guides, not being a “fashion victim” by blindly following the latest trends is emphasized. Instead, a sign of good fashion sense has been to develop one’s own personal style and dress in a way that flatters one’s body – after all, not everyone looks good in skinny jeans or with a wide belt cinched around the waist.

And finally, as I hinted at above, I think that trends are fundamentally decentered because the dynamics of fast fashion push so many trends simultaneously. Pussy bows, asymmetrical hemlines, full-skirt revamps of 50s looks, the 60s mod-style A-lines, capris, full-legged trousers, skinny jeans – are all in.

Which brings me back to my initial question – what is currently out of style?  Can anything truly be considered outmoded right now? And if so, how ridiculous or far back in time do we have to go? (Armor? Actually, I think I’ve seen a version of that in the fashion mags.)  I am curious to know what you consider to be out – please send ideas and photos if you have them!

Nancy L. Fischer

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Everything Old is New Again

Why do we wear the past? Or rather, why do some of us wear the past in the form of vintage clothing? I find myself asking this question frequently – what is the attraction to decades-old clothing?

One of the many possible answers to the question is that the past is very much alive and with us, everyday, in our visual culture.

The new fall fashion magazines are beginning to appear in my mailbox, thick as phone books. I page through to see what is new, employing the word “new” loosely. As in previous seasons, there is very little that seems truly novel in the realm of designer fashion.  While fashion is supposedly about now, it is quite common to spot the Ghost of Seasons Past amongst the latest looks. After all, fashion designers regularly look to old photos, patterns, vintage garments and the like for their inspiration – just Google almost any interview of Marc Jacobs and there’s sure to be mention of the vintage looks pinned to his “inspiration board.”

I know of vintage enthusiasists who specifically enjoy the challenge of finding today’s new old looks in their closets. In her autobiography, Alligators, Old Mink and New Money Alison Houtte notes that fashionistas regularly visit her Brooklyn vintage boutique Hooti Couture after window shopping in Manhattan.  Here in Minneapolis, my favorite fashion event last year was Blacklist Vintage’s “Vintage Did It First” Show. The show featured projected images of Fall 2011 designer looks on a screen while a similar vintage ensemble was modeled on the store runway. You can see the slideshow here.

Just for fun on a cloudy Sunday, I decided to take my own “Vintage Did It First” challenge with the old clothes that now look new in my closet.

Fall 2012 Ralph Lauren Ad

Ralph Lauren’s Fall 2012 collection recalls menswear from the 1920s – 1930s, with brown tweed short jackets, vests and pants, and cloche hats.

It’s not the first time this tweedy pageboy look has been recycled – I have a vintage 1970s brown tweed jacket and vest that look quite similar.

Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton also has an early 1900s vibe with the double-breasted overcoats and oversized hats that reflect 1920s fashion; his Fall 2012 silhouettes suggest that perhaps he’s a fan of the BBC television series Downton Abbey. But it’s Downton Abbey meets That Seventies Show – the prints suggest the psychedelic 70s and the hats wouldn’t be out of place at a Grateful Dead concert.

Louis Vuitton Fall 2012 Advertisement

The Louis Vuitton ad helped me recall that I have a similar fabric from the 1970s in my stash. I also retrieved my 1920s cloche from its hatbox. The round suitcase doesn’t quite match Vuitton quality, but the bar is low considering it was a $1.00 garage sale find.

Prada’s fall collection has an early 1970s feel as well with the diamond print and the long knee-length vests and coats worn over pants (in the 1970s, they would have paired the vests and coats with long flared pants rather than capris).

Photo of Prada Fall 2012 Ad

My maroon, navy and tan double-knit topper from the 1970s has a similar look and it’s warm for a Minnesota winter.

In the book Retromania, critic Simon Reynolds discusses how the past – in the realm of popular music – has come to dominate music industry catalogs. Technology has made songs from the 1950s to the 2000s instantly accessible, and there is simply more of past pop to chose from when DJs are looking to fill the airwaves.

Fashion has followed a similar dynamic since the 1970s. Images of the fashion past are available to us like never before. Does Mad Men make you curious about the 1960s? Start Googling and you’ll come up with more groovy looks. And with an industry characterized by “fast fashion,” designers have to come up with new looks on a constant basis that is often quicker than the traditional two-season cycles that might have sufficed in the past. And so drawing from the vintage looks is a quick, accessible and easy way to mine design ideas.  Which is one of the reasons why we wear the past – because the looks of the past occupy a good deal of our present.

–          Nancy L. Fischer

Photos taken by the author

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Can America Really Make the Suits that China Makes?

Team USA at Olympics opening ceremonies. Photo by Reuters.

On July 16th, the U.S. House of Representatives announced legislation which would, if passed, ensure that future U.S. Olympic team uniforms are made in the United. States. However, Li Guilian, the owner of the Chinese company that manufactured Team USA’s opening ceremonies uniforms asked in a Los Angeles Times story, “Can America really make the suits we make?”

Guilian asks a fair question. If Congress passes the bill requiring that uniforms be made here, will the United States still have enough of a viable garment industry to produce them?

I have been reading Elizabeth Cline’s excellent new book on the manufacture of contemporary fashion: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. In chapter 2, “How America Lost Its Shirts” she explains just how dire American clothing manufacture has become. In 1965, 95% of clothing worn in the United States was made here. By the 1970s, that number had fallen to 75%. Today, according to ABC News, just 2% of clothing purchased in this country is now made here. Moreover, the U.S. lost 650,000 apparel jobs between 1997-2007.

Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline

In a previous post I explored what Team USA’s uniforms might have looked like if they were made by some of the better-known clothing companies that still make clothing within U.S. borders.  It turns out that not just any clothing manufacturer can handle making structured, fitted garments like a blazer. American Apparel seldom includes fitted blazers (they do have loose-fitting ones in outerwear) in their seasonal looks. Given the proposed legislation and the Chinese owner’s question of whether America can still make a suit,  it’s worth exploring which companies could master the task of a blazer.  Karen Kane company now manufactures 80% of their garments in the U.S. and blazers (for women at least) are regularly in the line.

 

Karen Kane Indigo Linen Jacket, Made in the USA, from KarenCane.com

But since we’re talking about Ralph Lauren as the  contracted designer for 2014, where is he likely to go? Would he use the same factory as Karen Kane? One would think it is likely he will return to Dalma Dress in New York since that is where Ralph Lauren apparel that was made in the USA was once produced.  According to Elizabeth Cline, Dalma Dress is known for producing garments that require skilled labor, such as suits. And hopefully, Dalma Dress will still be a viable company if Lauren returns. Just this week, Ecouterre.com asked “Are the Days of New York City’s Historic Garment District Numbered?” in an article discussing how the Garment District is likely to be re-named since so few garment manufacturers remain there.

To have a U.S. industry that can produce uniforms (and more importantly, clothing for everyday use by Americans), we need more than just a bill which stipulates that the uniforms be made here. Members of Congress who would like to bring back U.S. clothing manufacture need to explore other types of legislation that would re-seed the industry through providing companies with tax incentives to run such businesses, training, equipment financing so that the newest technology in clothing manufacture can be purchased (see an earlier post that discusses LiaMolly’s efforts to bring a modern knitting machine to the U.S.), and other types of support. Consumer education efforts about why garments made here cost more and hopefully are worth more (reading Cline’s book Overdressed is an excellent place to start in terms of self-education about this) is also necessary part of the package.

The controversy over Team USA’s uniforms comes at what is hopefully a key moment when change is possible. In the last chapters of Overdressed, Elizabeth Cline discusses how the days of fast, cheap fashion from China may be ending – the price of Chinese-made clothing is increasing while quality from many factories is mediocre at best, leading some companies (such as Karen Kane) to bring back production to the U.S. So, perhaps we should be thanking Ralph Lauren for providing us with a chance to have a timely conversation about the current state of the U.S. garment industry and what it would take to make it viable, once more.

– Nancy L. Fischer

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