Nostalgia is a cog integral to the fashion machine. When elements from the Sixties, Eighties and Nineties can populate a single Gucci collection alone, for example, it’s clear that the past is woven into the present.
Why nostalgia persists is a complicated knot at least partly untangled in interviews with curators. Experts argue that cultural circumstances — including the speed of the industry and technology — have rendered backward glances almost unavoidable.
“A lot of contemporary designers use imagery as a source of inspiration. We are very much an image-based culture nowadays, and I think it’s inevitable that designers would be inspired by former fashion,” said Oriole Cullen, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s curator for modern fashion.
While perhaps more pervasive now, Jessica Regan, assistant curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, noted: “Nostalgia in fashion is not a new phenomenon. We can sit far back in the history of fashion — back to the early 19th century, which was a period of rapid industry and change — and see nostalgia for a preindustrial past, based on romantic notions of chivalry. They incorporated elements from the 16th century.”
Although nearly impossible to cumulatively analyze each era’s influence on modern-day design, curators concur that the 19th century is perhaps the era richest in references. From the drape of a sleeve to the placement of a specific embroidery, the 1800s, by some accounts, were the true genesis of modern fashion as we know it today — when trends began to cycle on a consistent basis.
“I think anything from the 19th century continues to be so important, so many of our modern concepts date back to that time period,” argued Patricia Mears, deputy director for the Museum at FIT.
That century witnessed the rise of private wealth alongside monarchies — laying a ripe economic foundation for the luxury market. The era gave way to an explosion of fashion and luxury commerce, with the founding of couture houses (House of Worth, Lanvin, Lucile), high jewelry maisons (Cartier, Bulgari, Piaget) and the world’s first department stores (Le Bon Marché, Harrods, Macy’s). A punishing schedule of debutante balls and high society occasions enabled the fashion industry to prosper.
Said Regan: “I think there are certain periods with really strong silhouettes — I always think back to the 19th century, when styles were changing rapid enough to serve as a popular reference.”
Regan noted that while trends today are often attributed to the Seventies or Eighties, these recent decades are rooted in design innovations that stretch back to the 19th century: “The gigot sleeves of the 1830s we again saw in the 1980s, which we are today seeing at Saint Laurent and Marc Jacobs, with these full upper sleeves,” she explained. “The 1860s are another decade of frequent reference when skirts reached a full circumference with a narrow waist — something that Dior referenced in the New Look as a nostalgia for pre-war times.
“The 1880s are another era of very strong silhouettes, where the extreme bustle has served as a reference for many designers — Schiaparelli, Yohji Yamamoto, John Galliano,” she added.
Designers’ use of historical references can be viewed as a gray scale of creative interpretation — ranging from the literal approach seen in more commercial lines to the artistic, oblique references seen on the runways of avant-garde labels in key fashion capitals.
Archival ideas can be represented with myriad techniques — ideologically, visually — or sometimes both. Regan called Vivienne Westwood a practitioner of intellectualized nostalgia, pointing to the designer’s deconstructed, provocative approach to 19th-century romance.
That said, designers also have the propensity to reference the decades during which they grew up. “Looking back to a specific decade has to do with a certain generation and what they experienced when they were younger. Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang will set up different references because of their age differences,” noted Pamela Golbin, chief curator for Paris’ Musée de la Mode et du Textile.
“We as humans are nostalgic, so it’s impossible for fashion not to be a mirror of who we are, our preoccupations or challenges. We all have a memory,” she added. “Nostalgia is a very safe place, some familiar is reassuring, particularly in times of uncertainty.”
What may have changed is the rate at which reference points are recycled, and how soon passé fashions are revived to a trendy panache.
“The last couple of years have been much more reassuring in silhouette, it’s been much less experimental,” Golbin asserted.
According to Regan, fashion’s speedy recycling may be due to its waning influence on the general population. “I think times have really changed in terms of the central dominance of the couture. Fashion is now developed more organically through street style. There is much more of a range and variation, rather than one dominant silhouette that we saw in the 19th and 20th centuries, so we are now on an even shorter cycle of recycling earlier trends. We have already seen multiple Eighties and Nineties revivals. It’s because of the extraordinary pace of fashion today,” she explained.
Mears characterized nostalgia as something of a time-saver for overloaded designers: “I think the top designers have less time to design and there is no choice but to rely on the recycling on ideas, they push out so much product. When you think about innovation — Balenciaga was a man who produced two collections a year. But then, they were not only designing, they also made the clothes — the process was very different. I think when you have such a short time frame to be innovative, what can you do?”
Cullen agreed, adding: “Fifty years ago designers had time to drape on mannequins to figure out new shapes and configurations. Now the industry is so sped up, there is so little time to work out new ideas. Certainly for retailers, nostalgia is something easy to sell as well.
“It’s very hard to launch a completely new idea, it takes a while for people to let it sink in. You don’t have time to let something sit while people come around to it. I think that’s why you find new incarnations of previous decades more and more,” she added.
Alongside shifting retailing formats have come revised consumer expectations.
According to Cullen: “I don’t think customers are concerned with being fashionable now. It’s more about style. Instagram validated that for people. Your Instagram feed of who you follow validates the world you live in, and you don’t have to think, ‘Am I fashionable, am I on-trend?’ This is an old-fashioned concern.”