I recently caught up on the Apple+ series, Physical. Set in San Diego in the early 1980s, it’s about a woman who finds a solution to her problems in the burgeoning aerobics trend.
What struck me in one episode was the main character and her husband visiting friends in LA. The friends live in a midcentury modern house, designed by a notable architect. They show it off reverently, as someone would today, if they owned (for example) an Eero Saarinen house. But this house would have only been about 30 years old at the time the show is set. Which got me to thinking. I struggle to imagine anyone today showing off a house built in 1992 in the same way. We still look back to the 50s the same way people in the 80s did.
Kurt Andersen has written about this stuck-needle effect on popular culture. In Evil Geniuses, he describes how popular culture in the 70s started to dig in on the nostalgia and “retro” (the term was invented that decade), as a response to the immense postwar changes in society. So many of the most successful movies and TV shows of the 70s, from The Waltons, to Happy Days, to Animal House, The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, and The Godfather focused on fetishising the past. Since then, we’ve been so focused on looking back we stopped looking forward.
Not long ago in the newspaper, I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the *Ur-*boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards. If you passed someone who looked like any of them, you wouldn’t think twice. Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier—from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively—it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world.
It’s something I’ve noticed looking at Vogue over the years. If anyone dressed the same way today with clothes from 1997, nobody would notice. In fact, many adults are still wearing clothes from 25 years ago. And there’s no reason not to. Except in extremely niche spaces, there is no sense of a common trend that all wear, that is ubiquitous (unlike the mini skirt when it arrived in the 1960s: street photos from that time show its universality. It’s hard to think of anything today that is worn so widely, except for t-shirts and jeans).
Compare Vogue February 2002 with January 2022.
Fashion has always had some cycles but it seems in so many things we reached the last quarter of the twentieth century and stopped. Our nostalgia is for things growing further and further away.