If you’re on the hunt for novelty, then the catwalk seems like the obvious place to look. Fashion is an industry that runs on the distinctive rhythm of slavering over a particular shade or cut or style for six months, before consigning it to oblivion. But the longer I spend in fashion, the more I suspect that there’s nothing new on the runway.
Designers are constantly in search of inspiration and the inequitable distribution of temporal resources naturally leads their imaginations to a historical turn. Human perception of time leaves us with a deep well of the past and a sliver of present. The most notable shows I’ve seen in this vein include John Galliano’s punked-up versions of French court dress for Dior; and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s crops, capes and rakishly tilted dressage hats for Hermès. Ralph Lauren flits from Edwardian aristo to 1920s colonialist, which makes sense for a brand worn by wannabe masters of the universe who lust for a time when power was exercised without an apologetic cringe.
It sometimes seems like the only thing that’s new are the customers. Fashion stays fresh because each new generation reacts against established canons to form its own identity. There is satisfaction to be taken in rescuing clothes that your seniors failed to appreciate.
The rise of Instagram has also had a reactionary effect. As recently as ten years ago, consumers’ desires were sparked by the taste of a few magazine editors. These have now been replaced by a network of digital influencers that grows each day. Yet a thousand flowers have not bloomed. The result is creative stagnation. The advantage of a hierarchy is that the fluid dynamics are clear. For centuries, fashion was an elite pursuit. Those with less power imitated their betters in pursuit of advancement. In the post-war era, the direction of taste-making was reversed. The sway of aristocracies waned and designers found inspiration in the street.
Now, as the middle class spreads and globalisation homogenises taste, it becomes harder to find countercultural pools bubbling with novelty. The very word “influencer” reveals the problem. These people are nodes of transmission rather than sources of creativity. Fashion brands need them to spread word of their wares. Influencers need the support of the brands to prove their continued relevance and to make a living. Each is looking to the other, asking what shall I wear?
Nostalgia fills the creative gap. It’s an essential element of a youth culture that feels short-changed by their baby-boomer parents. They love vinyl and craft beer and droning “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” at Glastonbury. What’s noticeable is that so many clothes and designers are drawn to the 1990s. This was the last decade before the world became dizzyingly interconnected. It was also the only time in living memory in which a young person could theoretically both afford to buy a house and live in it without worrying that it would be blown up in a nuclear war. No wonder they look on it fondly. Right now, I’m in the midst of London Menswear shows and, if you ignore the smartphones and Ubers, it’s like being transported back to 1991. At one show, I noticed a punchy, baggy, checked jacket that looked a lot like one I bought in 1993. I dug it out and began wearing it again. Now I’m 43, it looks a lot less cool than it once did, though it comes in handy for masking my paunch. It’s a sobering reminder of mortality when you notice a trend coming around again. Fashion keeps on churning regardless.