Reruns on the runway

New York's Fashion Week is once again giving us something old and something borrowed. For once, how about something new?

By Adrienne Crew

Published September 19, 2003 6:07PM (EDT)

Doesn't anyone believe in the future anymore?

Apparently not, since the Spring 2004 fashion collections, wrapping up this week in New York and moving on to Europe next month, were once again awash in nostalgic designs and accessories: Marc Jacobs gave us gold lamé trench coats and pale gauzy dresses inspired by the Cockettes' '70s-era thrift-store-lovin' acid queens; Diane von Furstenberg channeled Gatsby with her flapper dresses and head scarves; Jennifer Nicholson (daughter of Jack) peppered her collection with '60s-era pastel baby-doll dresses; and Narciso Rodriguez showcased '50s-style slim skirts and trapeze jackets. This year's fashions are played out like an oldies station: nothing but a parade of greatest hits from the '20s through the '80s. I'd complain that we've run out of decades to mine, but the Onion beat me to it, more than five years ago.

Fashion revivals have always been around, but designers have been cranking out these "classic" or "vintage-inspired" derivatives for three seasons now, and it's getting tired. The "new" mod creations of Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole and Michael Kors leave me cold. If I really wanted to wear an op art A-line jumper, I could save a load of cash and just raid my mother's closet. And while fashion magazines shout "Glamour Is Back!" you won't catch me buying these restrictive pencil skirts or tailored suits -- there's nothing glamorous about a skirt that requires a girdle.

Only a few designers seem to be forward thinking. Last year Vogue profiled Anke Loh, who makes tops and dresses that are light or heat sensitive so that handprints appear when you touch her garments. Brazilian Alexandre Herchcovitch covers his designs with plastic reflective sequins to create a shimmering effect. And avant-garde designer Junya Watanabe has developed simple and sporty glow-in-the-dark shorts, pantsuits and white shirts by treating fabric with a paste made of crushed luminescent stones.

So why don't we see these contemporary designs on the runways? Because the business and marketing arms of fashion companies don't believe consumers are ready for change and argue that innovations like luminescent fabric are too expensive to produce. But if people are willing to shell out $15,400 for a Michael Kors slate-black distressed mink-studded coat that looks like an '80s biker jacket, there must be someone, somewhere, who would purchase clothes like Ms. Watanabe's -- if they were readily available.

But that will likely never happen, not when designers must adhere to the edicts of trend watchers and consultants. Recently in the New York Times, Guy Trebay asked why fashion is no longer cool. The answer? The fun has been squeezed out of the business by bottom-line-focused corporations who want to "manage" imagination. Nothing is left to chance or intuition about what the public will or will not purchase each season. Instead, fashion houses, textile designers and home furnishing companies take their cues from trend reports, courtesy of fashion consulting firms like Promostyl, or These gurus document coming changes in public tastes and purchasing preferences up to 18 months before each buying season and translate this information into concrete suggestions for a garment's silhouette design, fabric and colors.

No wonder everything is predictable and boring. We live in a world choked with prepackaged nostalgia because at present, trend-spotter surveys, field reports and peer-review panels are all telling designers and manufacturers that people would rather look to the past than the future.

"Retro chic" -- the term coined by Raphael Samuel in his 1996 book "Theatres of Memory" -- is not just showing up at Fashion Week and at the malls. It's everywhere. Fancy mock diners like Manhattan's DB Bistro Moderne serve comfort-food classics like hamburgers (albeit topped with truffles), and Keith McNally recently launched Schillers Liquor Bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side, raiding the neighborhood's immigrant past by serving German/Austrian specials like Wiener schnitzel with spaetzle.

Advertisers have caught the retro bug too. Madonna shills GAP jeans with her 1985 single "Into the Groove" rather than something from her latest album, while Old Navy exhorts us to join the "Cargo Train" as disco dancers cavort about a funky set reminiscent of '70s-era "Soul Train." Hipsters in New York and L.A. flock to burlesque shows featuring the striptease stylings of performers like Dirty Martini or saucy dance acts such as the Potani Sisters. And one of the most popular movies this summer, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Secret of the Black Pearl," shamelessly traded on its nostalgic appeal by larding the picture with tableaux familiar to all Disneyland visitors who encountered the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride as children. Finally, if the old TV show wasn't bad enough, "Starsky and Hutch: The Movie" arrives next spring.

Even the most "futuristic" movie of the year, "Matrix Reloaded," adopted vintage styles: Neo's Tibetan monk's coat is lined with vintage fabric; Agent Smith's suit is inspired by JFK's; and the ghostly twin assassins wear outfits suitable for fundamentalist ministers. I sure hope Monica Bellucci gets a costume change in "The Matrix Revolutions," because her current ensemble, a rubber dress with a peplum, is hideous. No woman, computer program or not, should ever don a frock that looks like a used condom.

Scholars who examine nostalgia as a philosophical phenomenon, like Harvard professor Svetlana Boym, the author of "The Future of Nostalgia," and David Lowenthal, the author of "The Past Is a Foreign Country" and a professor at University College London, tend to agree with the late sociologist Fred Davis' conclusions. In his 1979 book "Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia," Davis observed that people in the postindustrial era "look backward rather than forward, for the familiar rather than the novel" to calm anxieties about the present and the future. Of course, there is a lot to escape from these days. But how is a ladylike tweed suit going to take my mind off the terrorist alerts? "Retro chic" is scary too. Relentlessly cheery images -- for example, the recent ads for Louis Vuitton that showcase a pinup girl modeling a tweed suit the color of lemon sorbet, and for Kate Spade, whose headless partygoers knock about in '50s-style footwear -- make me feel haunted by the past, as if I were an extra in a David Lynch movie, drenched with sunny dread.

It doesn't help that fashion advertising appropriates details from film noir to set the mood: Sure, heroines from Hitchcock thrillers inspired Carolina Herrera's fall collection, which was composed of full-skirted party frocks like the ones Grace Kelly modeled in "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief," but what's Valentino's excuse for that blowsy blonde transvestite in a '30s-inspired bias-cut silk gown doing her outdated best to project decadence and decay?

"Retro chic" is more than just a disappointment on the runway. It's also an unhealthy form of escapism that not only reflects the cultural mood but may also influence its direction. By focusing so much on the past, the fashion and advertising industries -- and by extension mass culture -- are suppressing innovation and new forms of self-expression. Why bother making anything new if the American public is so willing to go for recycled designs?

When fashion designers revive mod styles by copying '60s innovators like André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin, they are essentially introducing a new "vision" without taking any risks. The early 1960s was the last time fashion tried to dress for the future with optimism and flair. Now that we've finally made it to the 21st century, the most "futuristic" looks are pieces from the past. Fashion's embrace of mod designs is another form of "retro futurism" -- an aesthetic appreciation for "space age" materials and design.

But when will the future stop looking like a set from "Bladerunner," a movie that is itself more than 20 years old?

The problem is not the past -- the problem is the idealization of a past that never occurred, and an old vision of a future that has never come about. I am a huge fan of vintage stores, but "retro chic" not only hurts innovation but also dilutes the true value of vintage. I've yet to find a book that clearly articulates, in a meaningful way, the politics of collecting secondhand clothes, but surely any person who has ever shopped at a thrift store has noticed at least two benefits: One, purchasing pre-worn items is an excellent form of recycling. By encouraging people to donate or sell their cast-offs, clothing collectors keep tons of textiles out of the garbage heap. Thrift store denizens not only find new fashions on a budget but also create a market incentive that diminishes our landfills. And two, collecting old clothing generates an appreciation for the past and puts history in context. While trawling the thrift store racks as a teen, I noticed how large our bodies had become in comparison with the average sizes of the old dresses heaped in corners. My friends and I developed respect for well-made items, marveling at hand-sewn buttonholes and real horn buttons. And I had a greater sense of the progress in women's civil rights after discovering that one of my greatest finds -- a gorgeous 1915 lace blouse -- couldn't be worn without a corset.

Buying a retrofitted dress off the rack at Nordstrom just isn't the same, and it only encourages manufacturers to use new material to make old-looking items that will be discarded in the trash once the vintage trend crests.

I long for the day when I can wear truly modern street wear. Just think of the outfits that could emerge in the age of bio-engineering. I can see some wild girl, with living tentacles mixed in her hair, wearing an enviro-acoustic dress that emits strange beeps and will shriek if you stand too close. Or how about a garment impregnated with mood-altering scents or pheromones? Personally, I'd rush to buy an outfit treated with some really useful aromatherapy, say, a fragrance to instantly eliminate the fear that you look fat. That is, as long as it doesn't have a peplum.

Adrienne Crew

Adrienne Crew is Salon's Content Licensing manager and subscribes to too many fashion magazines.

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