Friday, 6 November 2009

Fashion Without a Past?

A new book by Brenda Polan and Roger Tredre (The Great Fashion Designers) has got me thinking what decides greatness in fashion, compared with other design worlds. We can nearly all appreciate a vintage car, for example, and if we aren't quite as grown-up as we should be, may actually enjoy owning and using one. People will look but they are not likely to laugh. If we buy a Bauhaus chair and place it in a room with modern — or Georgian — furniture people will love it. But if a woman wears a dress from the pre-modern period of clothing (ie, when all skirts were to the ankle), along with feather boas, huge bird-trimmed hats and long gloves, then unless it's clear that she's going to a party, people will look askance. The wearer of even the highest-level fashion from the Edwardian and earlier ages waiting for a bus, waiting in the post office or counting down the numbers at the deli counter would be at real risk of being accosted, possibly laughed at and even attacked. Why does dressing in clothing of the past cause such extreme reactions?

Of the fifty great designers in this book there are a fair few who probably weren't that great. How do we assess the shadowy Callot Soeurs, for example, if we haven't done an in-depth study of the taste and style of their times? There are, inevitably, some strange omissions, such as Hussein Chalayan or even Paco Rabanne — and many from long ago about whose greatness it is hard to have a real opinion. Nonexperts have no way of judging, except by following what was said and written about them in their time. But fashion commentary is, like art commentary, notoriously unreliable as a long-term barometer. Didn't the critics dismiss the Impressionists as bourgeois provincials – and aren't we finding it increasingly easy to agree with them as the critical wheel comes full circle? And who really thinks that contemporary commentary on today's fashion will be of any interest in even twenty years time?

Today, as in the past, there are strong voices whose approval makes others with less strong voices follow their lead. That is the only possible explanation for taking so many current designers seriously as major figures. I often wish that fashion could be like the music world, where this year's big name is forgotten as another identical big name steps up to the podium a few months later.

How can we make fashion bubbles burst as quickly?

I think I know and it is clear that the process is finally beginning. All that was needed was the technology and the understanding of its potential. What has kept fashion so static and allowed reputations to survive unquestioned has been the media, by which I mean the actual means of getting the fashion story out there. Pictures on a page. How few images survive the past. We see the same photographs of the same few clothes over and over again – and imagine they give us a sufficient picture of the age for us to understand it.

That sort of blinkered, focused approach is rapidly going. We can now be our own editors, making our own choice of clothes that we personally consider great. And we can make up our own commentary without relying on the comments of the critics. And that can be very unreliable. In a world where rules (especially of taste) no longer exist, it is a question of who shouts loudest. With it becoming clear that the seasons are rapidly disappearing along with the endless picture stories in magazines, new fashion will only be of interest for the seconds it takes to see and pass on by the device in your hand – and what that will actually be in ten years time is anyone's guess. By that time nobody will pretend to be interested in The Great Designers; they will all look instead for the thing that interests them and their friends, right here, right now. Fashion is a culture that will soon have no past at all.

In the meantime, read The Great Designers, because it is so much better written than most – and then look at the current story in Italian Vogue shot by Steven Meissel over too many pictures to bother to count, and see how magazines (all of which cling to old visual cultures) are using fashion to create a new form of visual excitement. Sadly, it is remarkably like the old visual culture of a hundred years ago, only way less exciting.

1 comment:

  1. So glad you are blogging AND that you have allowed comments! Fashion, its purpose and its consumption is changing so much before our very eyes...