There is a reason fashion designers continue invoke the spirits of decades past. This season, we saw a mix of looks from the 70s, 60s, 40s, and even a couple from the 90s. Why? Why keep looking back when we could be, and perhaps should be, looking forward?
Designers also consider the psychology of people being more comfortable with what is familiar. There is a strong reason designers such as Iris Van Herpen and Paco Rabanne have not yet reached that level of name recognition that older brands such as Chanel and Christian Dior enjoy: we don’t feel like with know them. We look at the forward-looking contemporary fabrics and styles and aren’t sure we can figure out how to actually put them on our bodies. While the new looks are interesting, we tend to treat them more like museum exhibits on our way to buying the looks that our parents or grandparents wore.
More than anything, though, I think we are in love with the fantasy of the past. We tend to forget, or are blissfully unaware, of just how much fabric and living conditions have changed over the years. That 1960s Chanel suit that looked so chic on Jackie Kennedy? Yeah, that thing was hot as hell and one tended to perspire severely wearing those things. The demonstration of grace under pressure came in finding ways to prevent the sweat stains from showing.
The polyester suits of the 70s absorbed every fragrance that passed within 70 miles of the wearer, which meant one inevitably showed up to an event smelling like a mix of cigarettes and gasoline and cheap cologne no matter what attempts you made to avoid such.
Simple cotton dresses of the 40s wore quickly with frequent laundering. Threads were demonstrably more fragile and, while the seams your great-grandmother sewed might have been sturdy, the fabric itself broke down in sunlight, and dirt and detergent, causing it to wear much sooner than a similar garment would today.
We look at pictures from the past and we see glamor, whether it actually existed or not. Even the stories that are passed down from one generation to the next fail to capture just how comparatively difficult life was a mere 50 years ago. We see a movie star smiling in her movie promo and totally gloss over the fact she was likely paid about a fifth of what her male counterpart received, and even that was likely confiscated by a chain of husbands or male managers who were certain a woman didn’t know how to manage her own finances.
Fact is, even taking the pictures of those eras was more difficult than it is now. Up until the late 1950s, there were no strobes to stop motion. That meant working with large heat-inducing lamps that required holding a pose at length until the photographer had everything perfectly set. Then, he (it was almost always a male photographer) would take several Polaroids, waiting for each of them to develop, before loading the camera with film and actually taking the picture. Between shots, makeup and hair would have to be retouched and often blotting sweat stains was a major issue. By the time that single glamor shot was achieved, the efforts of perhaps 20-30 people had been completely exhausted.
We see none of that when we look at the pictures, though. We love the fantasy of those images and longingly hope to recreate the fantasy in our own lives. So, we rush after clothes that remind us of yesterday, or with increasing frequency visit a thrift shop or vintage store in hopes of snagging the original product. After all, wasn’t life more simple and pleasant then? Wasn’t life just as beautiful as the pictures they produced?
Designers understand how much we want to relive the fantasy and modern fabrics offer us the opportunity to do so much more comfortably than did our grandparents or great-grandparents. Yesterday’s glamor will always be a significant part of every runway season, and fashion labels are happy to take that fact to the bank.