Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream....
When I go to shop for clothes, I could be buying an outfit that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1950s, 1970s, or 1990s (except perhaps for the amount and type of synthetics).
This is Marilyn Monroe, at a party in 1952.
I’d wear that to a party now.
Vogue had an interesting piece on Monroe’s style (and her habit of getting knockoffs made of the designer pieces she liked!).
She liked an elegant, pared down style for private wear. Very 1950s, almost Beatnik. But she was in line with the fashion of her time. If she’d worn something in fashion 70 years before her time, like this Lillie Langtrey outfit from the 1880s, she’d have looked ridiculous.
Yet the 1950s is 70 years ago today, and its fashions still seem current - or at least much of it totally wearable. I was thinking about this when reading (or rather, listening to on Audible), Kurt Andersen’s recent book, Evil Geniuses.
Amidst his takedown of the political and economic machine of the last few decades, he discusses how the wheels have come off fashion too. We’ve stopped moving. He describes a group photo of young people and realising it could have been taken at any time in the last few decades. Fashion no longer dates us.
But this is not because we’ve somehow transcended time. We’ve just run out of ideas. As Caitlin Flanagan wrote recently (in a piece about Mia Farrow, but a broader conversation about society and boundaries):
Beginning in the mid-’60s, the country started rapidly exchanging a common code of behavior—a code that was not universally followed (not by a long shot), but that was universally understood to be the prevailing social contract—with a kind of non-code. Or, more accurately, with 300 million different codes. Do your own thing, man. To the extent that the individual should be bound by morality, it should be a private morality of one’s own making. It was time to reject the tyranny of conformity and to respect the sovereignty of self, which is a demanding—but simplifying—regime of commitment and sacrifice, the hard bedrock of human survival.
Fashion once meant conformity, and obviously people wanted to break free of it. But when there is nothing to conform to (or rebel against) what are we left with? Fashion being cyclical is one thing. But we’ve largely fallen off the cycle altogether.
The NYTimes ran a beautiful piece this week on women in Greece who still wear “traditional” costumes, although as one points out to the interviewer, “they’re just my clothes”. It is he, the deracinated cosmopolitan Greek, who is “dressed as a European”.
I’ve grown up without a “traditional costume”, like most Anglo Saxons. Whatever our ancestors wore, evolved into what everyone now wears. The idea of expressing a heritage or sense of group identity through my clothing (as opposed to whatever I want to project about myself as an individual) has not been something open to me (except perhaps for the times I wore a uniform). Perhaps if there were more things to conform to, or link us with others, people wouldn’t feel so lost.
What else I’ve been up to: I reviewed Davarian Baldwin’s In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower for City Journal.