The Great Return

Every decade seems to see its own fashion flashback(s). Remember the 60s Mod flashback at the end of the 90s/beginning of the aughts? Or the briefly-lived 70s trend that came and went in a single season a couple of years ago? High-waisted bell bottoms didn’t really catch on like wildfire (there but for the grace of god go I with the short waist).  Here in the Bay Area we’re STILL in an 80s renaissance that has more than worn out its welcome, in my opinion. The 80s appear to be waning somewhat, though, in favor of a 90s flashback. That’s still well behind the curve, but at least we’re finally seeing some movement.

Fashion flashbacks don’t happen in a void. Every renaissance possesses some cultural kinship with the original sensation. When the 80s first reemerged nearly a decade ago, we (Americans) were in the middle of a grand experiment in excess and consumption. People were flush with cash (even if they weren’t, appearances begged to differ), cocaine became the drug of choice (again), and everyone’s plumage focused on the garish and/or the ironic. The 70s popped its stylish little head up around the time that gas prices were hovering around $5 per gallon. Maybe this is all coincidence, but there’s an echo there all the same.

Now here we are, in the second decade of the 21st Century and arguably at the end of the age of Western cultural dominance. Books on the coming or the already passed economic apocalypse abound, and the West, America in particular, seems to be reeling with a pervasive sense of cultural grief stemming in part from shifting power dynamics. Can you feel it in the air? The United States is rapidly slipping from its place at the top of the global power pyramid (please note, this already happened to the Imperial Colonialist big dog–England– and they’re still standing as a country). This nervousness and sadness is manifesting in a wide variety of ways, from the emergence of the Tea Party (the worst example of fear and anxiety), to the proliferation of all sorts of New Age vagaries (I recently overheard a guy in Berkeley talking to his friend about his last Shamanic appointment before going into how he thought the woman he was sleeping with was “too fat”).

Is it any coincidence, then, that fashion designers have begun taking their inspiration from periods like The Gilded Age and the quintessential Hollywood glamour era of the 1920s? Each age stands as an example of economic growth and creative experimentation and sophistication. Of course, each age also ended with its own economic decline– from the panic of 1893 that resulted in a depression, to the stock market crash in 1929 that led to the Great Depression.

Interestingly, womens wear designers who have been referencing elements of The Gilded Age have been working more with mens’ style from that period. Richard Chai Love’s Fall/Winter collection heavily utilized sturdy fabrics like wool, understated monochromatic color palates, long coats, and trim leather boot so popular for men at the time.

He also manages to invoke the spirit of exploration that helped define The Gilded Age. Can’t you see his models saddling up a polar bear as part of some ill thought out adventure through the Arctic?

Likewise, the Berlin-London magazine, QVEST just featured a spread entitled “My Gender,” by photographer Kati Lanhe Chala. The overall look is one that smacks of  Wes Anderson in mood and style, similarly calling to mind that time near the turn of the 20th Century when hotel barons, steel barons– really barons of every stripe– were building enormous, eccentric mansions anywhere and everywhere and going on seemingly endless safaris and steamship journeys. This was the heyday of the hunting hound.



The Spring 2011 collections are focusing much more on the high feminine glamour of Hollywood in the 1920s. Over the weekend, the New York Times Fashion and Style section noted that that beacon of Garbo sophistication, the turban, is making another comeback.  Of course, the turban as fashion accessory also indicated  a period of not necessarily well-informed or honorably-intentioned fascination with countries in the Middle East, as well as a general misunderstanding of the spiritual traditions of India. Truth be told, though, the turban DOES look really, really good on certain people. Myself not included.











The Spring runway previews have also been filled with breezy, silky, flowing  designs befitting Gloria Swanson (swoonworthy). I think the warm months (in other places) are going to be so, so comfortable. I’m looking forward to languidly crossing my legs and sipping a Moscow Mule with the utmost of unconcern.














It’s fascinating to me to chart where we are as a society by looking at what we want to wear. A few weeks ago when I interviewed stylist Carmel Lobello, she mentioned that she thinks what we wear tells our story. So then why not what we wear as a group? It seems only fitting that we’re drawn to clothes that tell our individual story, but that also tell our cultural story. Waxing nostalgic for fashion that hearkens back to times of decadence and opportunity speaks a little bit to where we are and what we miss. It also says a lot about what we’ve chosen to forget. The Gilded Age and the Jazz Age were wonderful times for a specific set of Western society. For those people who had influence because of their race, gender and class, those were times of exploration, accumulation, and power. For everyone else and for countries under colonialist rule at the hands of Imperialistic powers, not so much. So maybe when we don the styles of yesteryear, we betray on some level something other than a simple appreciation for the lines and the fabric.

Fashion. Getting deep since right now.






About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.

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