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At first glance, fashion and oceanography don’t have much in common. But I’ve realised that, as a way of explaining what we wear, there are some instructive parallels. The phrase “current fashion” is what alerted me: two words so conjoined that they have almost become one. It’s fitting that the relentlessly shifting business of fashion should be permanently hitched to an adjective meaning “running, flowing”—from the old French corant, and before that from the Latin currere. It reminds us that fashion runs and flows: it is only “now” because it is passing.
Like any moving body of water, fashion contains many smaller currents. Patterns are easy examples to track: camouflage and leopard are having a moment now; last summer it was florals and checks. Motifs and emblems are part of another, slightly slower-moving tide. The once-edgy skull is now ubiquitous—it’s even on clothing in Gap Kids. Recent years have also seen birds float by, usually swallows or swifts, as well as the five-point star and various insects. Now keys seem to be bobbing up everywhere—the ornate, old-fashioned kind, not your everyday Chubb—buoyed by Dolce & Gabbana’s AW14 collection.
Fashion’s broader themes—military, nautical, neo-classical, futuristic and so on—behave like the Gulf Stream, surfacing for a while then going under, only to loop back and reappear a few years later. Colour is another revolving current: waves of blood-red or purple, electric-blue or mustard hit the shops all at once, as if trying to batter us into buying with sheer surf-power. Even neutral colours change, though on a slower cycle. Domestic interiors are a barometer of this: during the past decade walls have shifted from a cream-based palette towards a silvery-grey one.
Gradual ebb and flow reflects how our wardrobes function, too: new items of clothing have to work with existing ones, and our eye takes a while to adjust. The wholesale wardrobe clear-out is only for oligarchs’ wives or the tirelessly fashion-forward. But there are El Niño years, when a step-change occurs, the effects of which linger for years—bobbed hair in the 1920s, or body-con dressing in the 1980s. And very occasionally there is the fashion equivalent of a tsunami, which like its natural counterpart is the result of a build-up of pressure: the extravagance of the New Look after the frugal war years, or grunge as a reaction to the slick, shiny materialism of the 1980s.
The slowest of all the fashion tides, perhaps because it is the most expensive for us to buy into, is overall proportion, a shift in silhouette. That’s why a recent headline rang alarm bells, even for those who are not slaves to every passing trend. “Say hello to your waistline,” it trumpeted, “fashion changes shape.” After years in hiding under tunics and long T-shirts worn over skinny jeans and leggings, the waist is reappearing. I’ve noticed teenagers wearing crop tops for a while now. And I remember with horror where that ended up last time: the bare midriffs and pierced navels of the late 1990s, with shops full of tops that didn’t stay tucked in and a cold, draughty area around the tummy.
As the tide of proportion has risen and fallen on the body, the waist has come and gone. It featured above the wide pannier skirts of Marie Antoinette’s era, but disappeared when the under-the-bust Empire line came along in Regency times. Then it reappeared with the crinolines and, later, the bustles of the Victorians—the extreme “wasp waist” was a kind of spring tide. By the 1920s it had vanished again beneath straight up-and-down flapper dresses which focused on the hips. The reaction to that, the tailored waist of the 1940s and 1950s, was in turn supplanted by the waist-less tunics and kaftans of the 1960s and 1970s. And so it will probably go on, as long as there’s water in the sea.
As a self-conscious teenager in the 1970s, I tried to persuade my father to abandon his drainpipe jeans and wear flares instead. He said no, he would keep on wearing his drainpipes, as one day they’d be back in fashion. It’s the only sartorial wisdom he has ever imparted to me, and back then I couldn’t see the truth of it—because I’d seen the tide go only one way. But before the 1970s were out, punk had brought drainpipes back.
An unadvertised benefit of getting older, for those who love clothes, is that you can take a long view of fashion. What people have worn throughout history is as interesting as what you are going to wear tomorrow, albeit less practical. And if you think of fashion as an ocean, flowing in currents and moving in tides, while our bodies are the terra firma around which it swirls, it reminds you that—although you can be a fashion victim and get carried out to sea—you can equally stay on dry land and, when you feel like it, just dip a toe in the water.