RETRO fashion may be considered a relatively modern phenomenon, but its roots, appropriately enough, are actually to be found some way further back in the day, writes Charlie Cooper.
“History does not change, what we want from it does.” Voltaire
It’s now such a pervasive force in clothing, music and the arts that it feels like it’s been with us forever, but paradoxically enough, retro is quite a new concept. Anyone with even a passing interest in fashion will have some understanding of what it means, but it can be a strangely difficult term to pin down. It tends to conjure images of mid-20th century America: an idealised pre-British Invasion world of bobby socks and chrome tail fins, but it doesn’t stop there. The 1960s, 70s and 80s have also all come back, and keep on coming back. Even 90s retro has hit the high streets: we’ve had everything from Doc Marten boots to Aztec prints, and even a natty range of Nirvana T-shirts in Urban Outfitters.
It seems being influenced by the past is inevitable: this has always been the case in all walks of life, so style should be no different. Judy Berger, founder of The Affordable Vintage Fashion Fair, says: “All designers need inspiration, and what better muse than the past? Also, with times seeming increasingly hard, there’s an escapism in history, a yearning for simpler, more glamorous times.” Fashion historian and New York-based blogger Katy Werlin agrees: “The past seems to hold a sort of mystical glamour. We’re always looking back to romanticised visions of bygone ages.”
There are examples of this desire to look backwards right through the ages: the use of Classical Greek and Roman-inspired dress in the 18th and 19th centuries was a way for the great and the good to associate themselves with the gravitas of history and the ideals of enlightened times. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ iconic portrait of 1700s style icon Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, depicts her in what was the height of fashion at the time. But look closer, says Werlin, and her gown is made from the more humble fabrics associated with the Classical era, and she stands in a pastoral setting devoid of contemporary features.
Even the revolting peasants of the French Revolution took fashion tips from bygone ages whose values they wanted to recapture, according to Werlin: “One of the symbols of the revolution, worn by many revolutionaries, was a red cap called a Phrygian bonnet, which was directly taken from Ancient Greek fashion.”
She also points to a simplification in fashion design during the revolution, emulating Ancient Greek architecture. “These fashions had associations with the democracy of Ancient Greece, a key concept during this period when the masses rose against an absolute monarchy.
“Later, Charles Frederick Worth, the first couturier, spent a lot of time studying portraits, and subsequently you see a lot of historicism in his designs, and Mariano Fortuny’s famous Delphos dresses from the 1910s also looked back to Ancient Greece.”
Interesting as they are, however, these are all examples of what academics like Werlin would describe as “historicism” or “revivalism”. Retro, as we understand it today, is something quite different. It looks to the more recent past, subverting and re-imagining its fashions with irony and affection in varying combinations. Rather than ignoring modernity in favour of a perceived “golden age”, as the 18th and 19th century historicists did, retro grabs the contemporary world by the throat, taking the old and trying to, as the early 20th Century Modernists put it, “Make it new”.
As a sociological phenomenon, retro nudges us away from the self-assured progress of the modern era towards an uncertain, post-modern future. But when did all this happen? The 1950s Teddy Boys were arguably the first to adopt and manipulate a style from the past. Britain’s first recognised youth movement, their look – typified by tapered trousers, waistcoats and drape jackets – was inspired by the aesthetics of the Edwardian era.
Then, in the 1960s, the Art Nouveau movement of the early 20th century enjoyed a major revival both in museum exhibitions and in the influence that its stars, including Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, had on designs that became the decade’s icons, like those of Biba and Zandra Rhodes. Art Nouveau’s free, flowery informality offered an escape from the sharp-suited visual conventions of the post-war period which chimed with the nascent counterculture of the time. But as the optimism of the 60s evaporated amid the Vietnam war, the OPEC oil crisis and Watergate, a trend in Hollywood began to emerge which looked back fondly to the seemingly more innocent times of the 1950s with blockbuster films like Grease and American Graffiti and the hit TV show Happy Days.
But it was perhaps in 1970s France where the word “retro” really began to assume its current meaning. Mode Retro was an era when a post-war generation of critics, writers, designers and film-makers began to revisit the 1940s. Too young to remember the Nazi occupation, this diverse group felt a painful and difficult era in their country’s history had been wilfully airbrushed from the collective conscience by an understandable desire to move on. Films by firebrand directors Marcel Ophuls and Louis Malle picked at the scabs of the war years, while haute couture designers like Yves Saint Laurent recalled the occupation in collections where padded shoulders and fur wraps evoked images of female collaborators.
It was hard to dismiss all this as simple nostalgia, because it so clearly critiqued the values of an era while simultaneously reviving its fashions. This was a key difference from the simple revival mores of earlier historicism, and a defining moment in the history of retro as we now understand it: an era’s visual style became separable from its values. Far from a rose-tinted reliving of halcyon days, this was closer to a mass-cultural role-playing therapy session.
Eventually the rest of the world would catch on to this ironic and quasi-analytical way of reviving the past, but at this point back home in soggy old Britain, amid grim economic times and the three-day week, there began to stir an interest in the 1950s similar to that which had happened in the US.
Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis played to tens of thousands at the first-ever concert to be held at Wembley stadium, and 50s Teddy Boy styles started to appeal to a new generation. This revival of a revival was another key moment in the history of retro.
Superstar designer Vivienne Westwood, these days best known as the mother of punk, actually started off selling 50s rockabilly gear in Let It Rock, the shop she ran with Malcolm McLaren. Eventually she changed the name of the shop to Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, and began to adapt and change the old styles. This didn’t go down well with older Teddy Boys, but it repackaged the 50s to a young public hungry for something new after the failure of the 60s revolution to deliver on its promises. The 50s revival fed into the punk movement, with punk music itself owing a lot to the stripped-down animal-simplicity of 50s rock-and-roll artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Interest in the 60s picked up after the death of John Lennon in 1980, flares and 70s sportswear came back in the 90s, then right on cue in the early 2000s along came The Strokes with their 80s-inspired skinny jeans, and we’ve never looked back... well, you know what I mean.
• Judy’s Affordable Vintage Fair has an event at the HMV Picture House, Lothian Road on 19 August
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