Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 6: STRANGE CHANGES:  Fashion, Retro, and Vintage 

Space Age fashion 
check out the blog  Moonage Fashion
about: "It's no secret that many of today's most prominent figures in fashion draw inspiration from sci-fi, action, mod and "retro" design. I love the unusual seaming, wild silhouettes, innovative materials and overall FUN aesthetic of these looks - no matter how campy they may be!"
Andre Courreges
 (this is from later than the period i'm talking about, but still has the mod/futuristic/space-age vibe)

 Pierre Cardin
 Paco Rabanne

 his 'Shape of Things To Come' collection, including the metal dresses and capes

 Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs

"neophilia," Booker's term for the mania for breaking with tradition that possessed the Sixties and which he considered a kind of "psychic epidemic", a consensus hallucination, a mass illusionment that inevitable caused people to come crashing back down to reality by the end of the decade - a necessary corrective, he believed, a return to health, involving readjusting and reorienting around an acceptance of limits. 


Blowup and the birth of vintage

The David Bailey-esque photographer toys with buying a bric-a-brac shop. The owner, a posh young woman, is  bored with being surrounded by old stuff and  fancies heading out on the hippie trail to Morocco or Nepal.   Leaving the store. Thomas's cold aesthete's eye spots something cool : a vintage aeroplane propeller, which he buys on a whim, perhaps aiming to use it as a surreal prop in a fashion shoot. 

historicism in fashion

not really historicism but more like a phantasmic misremembrance of Englishness and folkiness, meant to align with the Mumford & Son new rusticity maybe, or a certain conservativism creeping across the U.K. circa the Coalition /Downtown Abbey etc


Bethan Cole on "nostalgia layering"

As well Goldfrapp, Bethan also mentioned "nu rave" as an example of nostalgia layering, what with its recombinant blend of Eighties shock style (the kind associated with Leight Bowery's Taboo scene),  designers like Rachel Auburn and BodyMap, and early Nineties rave --"hooded tops, Lycra, American Apparel sportswear". 
(Talking to Bethan, as an outsider to fashion, was a bit dizzying, I must admit -- in exactly the same way as it would be for someone with just a passing interest/knowledge in music to ask a music nutter such as me about the infolded, densely referential landscape of modern sound.)


fashion retro

retro is one of the zones dealt with by Valerie Steele in this article on fashion in the Nineties for San Francisco Chronicle, 2001

"Retro is controversial. Already in the 1970s Marylou Luther, the fashion editor of the Los Angeles Times, complained that designers "seem to be as afraid to face the future as they are to let go of the past." Many people today also complain, "Why don't designers do something new?" Why do they keep recycling the fashions of past decades and centuries? But perhaps this is naive. Certainly retro styles are ubiquitous throughout popular culture - in architecture and graphic design, for example, as much as in fashion...

"Nor does retro necessarily signify a mass flight into nostalgia. Indeed, the evidence indicates that most fashion trendsetters have very little sense of history. The actual historical past is essentially irrelevant; it exists only to be cannibalized. Designers, stylists, photographers, and club kids all ransack the past for usable images, which are then ripped out of context and ruthlessly stripped of most of their original meaning.

"John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and Vivienne Westwood are three of the most inventive designers of the 1990s. If they look back at the fashions of the past, as they often do, it is not for lack of ideas. One year Galliano is inspired by the French Revolution, and another year by Jacques Fath; in each case it is not a question simply of recycling the past, still less of trying to return to an earlier era. A key principle of contemporary postmodern art has been the juxtaposition of incongruous objects, images, and materials. Avant-garde fashion designers use retro in this spirit. 

"Moreover, as Vivienne Westwood points out, "If anyone is trying to be modern, it's a cliche." In the past people thought in terms of "progress," they believed that fashion would evolve until it reached an ideal form. Some people envisioned the future of fashion as culminating in nudity, others looked backward to "timeless" classical simplicity, or forward to space-age uniforms, but all such fashion futurism now looks completely demode.Modernism is just one period style among many."

[in a curious irony Steele made some similar points, with similar phrasings, in an article at the start of the Nineties -- for Artforum in December 1990 -- where she also talked about how "elements from past styles can be resuscitated again and again every few years… the return of the mini is practically a yearly ritual". So recycling works as well in fashion criticism as it does in fashion itself. ]


Fashion's at best tangential relationship to History and the Social

Michael Carter, glossing Barthes's The Fashion System,  argues that, "History does not intervene in the Fashion process, except to hasten certain changes in a slight way, in cases of major historical upheavals."
 vintage aesthetic outside of clothing / olden days looking = anti-chav

Marketing theorist Steven Brown points to companies like Blockleys of Telford, who manufactures "heritage" bricks that look artificially aged thanks to a process of tumbling; the company also does lines of soot-stained and pock-marked bricks.  The aesthetic has filtered down to the social ladder, to the point where retro design has become "unarguably the universal language of western domesticity," according to Brown who notes the petit-bourgeois penchant for roll-topped writing desks, carriage lamps, and other reproduction antiques.


Vintage and class:  old commodities become de-commercialised, lose the stigma of mass production, become aestheticized : Margaret Kilgallen

In a documentary on the milieu of artists around the Alleged Art gallery in NYC, Beautiful Losers, I heard the late artist  Margaret Kilgallen say something very interesting. I don't have the word-for-word quote, but she was talking about her attraction to ,and use in her work of imagery inspired by, fonts and techniques associated with bygone advertising and commercial signs. She said she was interested in this kind of stuff as soon as  it wasn’t selling anything to her. Which is the hallmark of vintage: as soon as something ceases to be related to commerce in the present, it becomes more charming.

Elsewhere, Kilgallen has spoken of how "on any day in the Mission in San Francisco, you can see a hand-painted sign that is kind of funky, and maybe that person, if they had money, would prefer to have had a neon sign. But I don’t prefer that. I think it’s beautiful, what they did and that they did it themselves. That’s what I find beautiful.”

Before Alleged she was part of a milieu of artists known as the Mission School, in San Francisco, which has been described by Julia Perez as "a lowbrow art movement" that "took their inspiration from the urban, bohemian, DIY 'street' culture of the district using non-traditional artistic mediums, such as house paint, spray paint, correction fluid, ballpoint pens, scrapboard, and upcycled objects; strongly influenced by mural graffiti art, comic and cartoon art, and folk art form." Kilgallen began as a graffi artist, using the tags "Meta" and  “Matokie Slaughter”. The latter paid a homage to a folk musician of the same name, and she used that tag only for freight train graffiti (a hobo tradition that she adopted).  

Here's Holland Cotter  on Kilgallen's installation at Deitch Gallery in NYC: "Margaret Kilgallen is a young artist from San Francisco who made a promising New York debut at the Drawing Room two years ago, covering the gallery's walls with murals of figures and words. On top she hung clusters of panel paintings reminiscent of shop signs, with cartoon-simple forms and words in decorative antique typefaces. The installation at Deitch is similar but bigger and more atmospheric. The murals are billboard size. Images in the panel paintings bridge periods and styles. California surfers (Ms. Kilgallen is a surfer) and gnomic words mingle with old-time typography and a Depression-era palette, in a mix inspired in part by her work as a book conservator and her interest in tramp art, with its recycled train-yard materials and complicated symbolic language. The result feels ''American'' but also suggests a sort of out-of-time commercial art found in India and Africa, where old, imported graphic conventions are kept current in the present, inventively jazzed up but also tinged with nostalgia."

I saw some of her work (including the hobo freight car tag inspired stuff) at the great Art in the Streets mega-exhibition at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art (co-curated by Aaron Rose, who made the Beautiful Losers doc).  Overall there was quite a retro undercurrent in the street art (illustration generally seems very dependent on earlier styles of illustration) and I came out also wondering if we would ever get past Pop Art  

 I discuss the appeal of vintage aesthetics and the handmade in greater depth here, an interview with Collectors Weekly

"Things that are shiny and new are considered plebeian taste or they just look tacky. A lot of the Etsy world is based on this idea that things made new in factories now are cheap, plastic junk, and people would prefer hand-milled paper that’s silk-screened or objects made out of old things, stuff that has a real texture and grain to it. I recently went a craft fair in L.A.: They had notebooks where each cover was made from an old-school textbook or hardback novel, but inside, it’s just a blank notepad on nice hand-milled paper. They also had belts with tape-cassette shells as buckles. That salvaged and reused aesthetic is a big thing now. Then, you get the Internet version of it, which is Tumblrs just full of old images and old typography. There’s a whole online fetish for the Penguin Books of the ’60s. Penguin is famous for doing these cheap or relatively affordable paperbacks on serious topics. And they had this great grid design that was, in its own time, quite experimental and avant-garde-looking. But now, it’s quaint and charming. People collect these Penguins because they also were sold as intellectual books for the common man, the everyday reader, so they’re associated with idealism of the time. It’s something to be obsessed with, I suppose; people like to be obsessed....

"James May from BBC’s “Top Gear” had a TV show around an idea called “Man Lab,” where he explored traditional skills such as carpentry, which are becoming lost. He even wore one of those shirts spoofing the World War II slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.” His was “Get Excited and Make Things,” which was the motto of his show. There’s a sort of steampunk-y wing of this movement, too, where you’re making contraptions and inventing stuff. It’s rejecting the digital for the manual, which is funny, because obviously you can’t use anything digital without using your fingers. But when you build things, you’re not moving information around. You’re moving blocks of wood and metal around....

"Some people love cans, too. People will get obsessed with a can of something that would’ve been completely unremarkable, like a can of baked beans or an oil can, if it’s in good condition and it’s got the typography of the era. It fascinates me to see what’s considered collectible on these shows like “American Pickers.” Sometimes money can be made out of these things because they are actually cultural artifacts, whereas other things are more like tchotchkes, things you’d use for décor. It’s not rare in itself, but it’s cool enough to display in your living room.

"At the time, it never seems conceivable that a thing from everyday life will become a collectors item. For instance, I was thinking about all those garish-looking energy drinks like Monster or Red Bull. Will their cans one day have the same vibe as a lovely old Coke bottle? Will people collect those at some point? It makes you want to save these things as college funds for the kids."

Here's my piece on American Pickers type shows and mantiquing from Los Angeles Times


Vintage and the aestheticisation of the obsolete: the manual typewriter fad

From the Collectors Weekly interview, 

"A sister phenomenon is vintage chic where you are actually getting the original artifacts and decorating your house. In the ’60s or the ’70s, a hip, young couple would have a lava lamp or one of those fiber-optic lamps, design elements that felt very modern. But now you have a chipped, painted sign from a ’40s diner or an ancient manual typewriter as a decorative object. So that says something about changes in design sensibility. People seem to think old, faded, and distressed is more beautiful than shiny, new, and futuristic. "

Except that people aren't just using typewriters as decorative objects, conversation pieces for the coffee table. Some are embracing them again as as functional machines, See "Click, Clack, Ding! Sigh", a piece from 2011 in the New York Times by Jessica Bruder:

"Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude. 

They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest. ...

In more than a dozen interviews, young typewriter aficionados raised a common theme. Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine."
Some time after the book came out I had a discussion with an academic researching into vintage and retro, during which the idea that vintage is an aesthetic of consumption and retro is an aesthetic of production emerged. It seems obvious but I'm not sure that I ever spell it out so clearly in the book. 
Here's what I said on the subject, at any rate. 
"I equate ‘vintage’ with the original artifacts of an era that are currently collected and valued. Whereas retro is more like a contemporary replica or twist on old styles – so it’s made in 2012, but in the style of 1968. Vintage actually has to actually have been manufactured in 1968. 

"In music you’d use the word ‘vintage’, I think, only for things that were literally antiques – old synthesisers, amplifers made in the sixties, certain collectable guitars, or a vintage poster maybe.  A book of classic psychedelic posters though isn’t vintage because it’s reproductions of the images, not the thing itself. It’s a pictorial history book".
The blurring between vintage and retro that goes on comes about before fans of vintage are often producers of vintage-look or vintage-sound material, which is to say, retro. 

 "It’s clouded because people who do retro-y type work  (music, or fashion, or design) tend also to be great collectors – the acquisition of vintage whatever then informs their retro practice.

"You also get pseudo-vintage, like you can get reproduction antique

"People don’t tend to talk of ‘vintage records’, not sure why... perhaps because as much as one might fetishise the packaging,  it’s the music on the recordings that counts and can be heard separately from that particularly format instance...

"Whereas a vintage garment is the very thing itself, there’s no content/medium division there...

"But a retro product of the present could one day become vintage and collectable.... probably there’s examples of this already... someone might collect a vintage circa 1980 2-Tone pork pie hat, which in its own time would have be a recreation back to ska and skinhead style of the 60s"

And on the perceived superiority of vintage to retro (such that chainstore clothing companies slap the word 'vintage' on to mass manufactured garments even though they're just retro, which is to vintage-look but made yesterday in a sweatshop):
"Vintage seems to carry with it an aura of knowledge, connoisseurship, appreciation...  and of things, or practices, that have accrued value through time. Whereas retro has a connotation of trendiness and superficiality."

vintage and retro: the nexus
The emergence of vintage markets for outmoded cultural goods has both enabled and encouraged retro. As Lynn Yaeger notes, designers often "spend Sundays at the flea market" and are "notorious for sweeping through the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show…  buying like wild animals." They're not hunting just for delectable bygone artifacts; they're looking to snap up re-usable ideas before anyone else does.  
the fashion-ization of rock, and how it has resisted fashion logic for so long

Pop music was able to resist take-over by fashion logic for so long because of its inoculation by two potent countervailing value-systems:  an art-based discourse that evaluates music in terms of expression, innovation, genius, the masterpiece, and a sociopolitical discourse that believes music can be the locus of resistance, protest, critique, raised consciousness.  Either of these can invest particular pieces of rock music, or genres or eras of rock, with a permanent value that withstands the attrition of fashion. 

Pop and rock are admittedly more affected by commercial pressures than the higher arts, relatively isolated as the latter are from the market through public funding, academic tenure, and patronage systems.  Because it is an industry, the music business has a drive towards a high turnover of stars, styles and scenes that well beyond the intellectual and artistic trends you get in the higher arts.  Although its agenda is not identical with the music industry, the pop media is complicit in this turnover, thanks to the competitive struggle between magazines for market share, and between journalists who wish to make a name for themselves.  It's also the case that fans are generally looking for new names, and sometimes for new directions in music.  But even though there is a hunger for the new, the word "fashionable" still has a tang of pejorative hanging around when used in the rock context, a sort of implied "mere" or "merely' in front of it. The hunger for stylistic change in rock explains and justifies itself with reference to some kind of value-system (innovation or progression, usually) other than mere change-for-change's-sake.  
the post-postpunk frenzy of short-lived trends

In an echo of the random pillaging of the past that took place in mid-Sixties fashion, the very appetite for the Next Big Thing incited by punk almost inevitably led to an exhaustion of  the creative possibilities available to the present. To get their buzz, and just to have somewhere to go, fans and musicians alike were forced to  turn towards the past.  Postmodernism was not traditionalism but the continuation by devious means of the logic of modernism: the mania for change(s). It tried to satisfy that hunger by making the Old into the New:  through revival, adaptation, recombining different fragments of the past in a mosaic, and so forth
the triumph of fashion logic over music?

The steady encroachment of the retro-virus has been assisted by the weakening of rock's immune system--that inoculating sense I referred to earlier of  being an art form or a social movement, and thus adhering to a value-system that  transcends the commodity relation or mere cool ("costuming the ego").   

From the Teddy Boys and mod through the hippies and punks to the hip hoppers and ravers,  style was not just a consumer choice but a gesture,  it signalled a commitment to a collective project/philosphy (subcultural or countercultural). Style was a stance and  statement, not something you put on and took off.  

 Rag trade hustler Malcolm McLaren of all people captured it best with the slogan he daubed on the walls of his King's Road boutique: "Does passion end in fashion? Or does fashion end in passion?"




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