Image: Ruth von Morgen by Marianne Breslauer, c. 1930 (source).
In the tradition of lovely, insightful commenters leaving lovely, insightful comments on this blog, Hippocampe made some very interesting points in my recent post about questioning classic wardrobe items, and one point in particular has kind of stuck in my head: the notion that a classic wardrobe item is perhaps a relatively recent development, that perhaps magazine editors only recently bestowed the classification of “classic” on particular items and these lists of must-haves and basics and classics perhaps haven’t stood the test of time as comprehensively as we think they have.
I don’t think I’m old enough to be in the position to comment on how or if or when people started to designate the classics. In fact, my age is probably irrelevant anyway since I’ve never really paid attention to the content of mainstream fashion magazines, and though I’ve never been interested in trends, I also wasn’t interested in “classic” wardrobe items until maybe a couple of years ago. So there are plenty of people out there who are in a much better position to comment on this than I am (and please, do comment!). All the same, it’s a very interesting notion to consider, even if from a partially hypothetical perspective.
Those of us interested in classic wardrobes are often interested because we want a wardrobe that doesn’t have a use-by date: we want pieces that last well physically (in terms of quality) and stylistically (in terms of not looking dated and passé) and the combination of those two factors allows us to invest in things with better longevity and thereby to reduce our consumption (at least in terms of fashion, but it seems likely that we might apply that sort of consumption-minimising attitude to other areas of our lives). There are multiple other reasons any given person might have for feeling a desire to own a classic wardrobe (the connotations within a cultural and societal framework that give people a mutual understanding of what those sorts of clothes are intended to mean, the apparent concordance between the style and one’s personality, etc.) but the desire for a long-lasting wardrobe that’s as timeless as possible is definitely a persistent theme.
We might take it for granted that the wardrobe items that have been deemed “classics” have been deemed so on their merit, rather than assuming it’s all just a very good marketing tactic to encourage people who are immune to trends to still buy clothes and that the list of classics is often suspiciously nebulous (somehow Net-A-Porter currently has 72 shirts of various cuts and colours in their list of wardrobe basics, and what are the chances that a decent number of them will end up looking dated in a relatively short length of time?). There certainly seems to be sufficient photographic evidence to support the notion of the classics actually having earned the title – in fact, if you could harness the collective kinetic energy used daily by people on Tumblr to click “reblog” for pictures from the 1960s of Audrey Hepburn wearing a trench coat or Brigitte Bardot wearing a Breton top, and you used that kinetic energy to generate electricity, you could probably power Manhattan or Tokyo for several weeks.
But, as we all know, fashion is fickle. Just because something was popular at one point in the past, doesn’t mean it has proven itself to be a genuinely timeless classic. Clara pointed out in the comments on that classics post that Breton tops were actually unfashionable prior to their popularisation during the 1940s, 50s and 60s in France. Based on that I did a bit of rummaging around the intertubes and it turns out that Breton shirts were thought of as a bit of a fashion tragedy earlier on, possibly due to their cultural or status connotations I suppose. In an issue of Adam magazine from August 1934, an article accompanying a photograph of a young man wearing a Breton T-shirt had this to say: “Unfortunately, we have encountered more than one man dressed like this on the Riviera. We urgently ask our friends to see that all grotesque individuals of this type vanish immediately” (source). So is the Breton top now likely to remain a classic, since it has been officially designated as one (and people subscribing to lists of wardrobe classics might be responsible for ensuring it remains a desirable wardrobe staple), or is it likely to fall out of favour again? Or, despite the fact that times might come when the Breton top might not be considered to be particularly fashionable or to embody understated elegance or whatever, will it ever be distinctly unfashionable in a way that makes it look dated and outmoded?
Therein lies the crux of the issue, I think. Stability seems to be a major factor here. Although the general regard for a particular wardrobe item might vary greatly with time, sometimes we only look at a particular window and we decide based on that that an item might be classic, and we might ignore all the other times that the item was considered distinctly unfashionable. However, with the advent and the profusion of these lists of classics and basics and wardrobe staples, have we in fact fixed the variability of the regard for these items in place, made the regard for them more stable? Now that they are labelled classics, perhaps it doesn’t matter how much regard for them varied in the past – perhaps, if they have the right details, they can actually stand the test of time from here onwards.
Image: Naomi Sims by Associated Press, 1969 (source). Change a few little outfit details (e.g. the shirt collar) and you could have a pretty contemporary looking outfit.
Ah, but that’s another issue, isn’t it? Details. As Eudoxia mentioned in the comments of the other post, the details of an item can easily scupper its timelessness. Plain black heels frequently make it onto wardrobe essentials lists for women, but if you had been told by such a list to invest in some plain black heels in the 90s, might you not have purchased something like this? Those… those are not timeless, I would argue. And god knows how wrong you could get it when it comes to a “little black dress”. But is it even possible to detach yourself from the cultural zeitgeist and objectively assess whether one thing has more potential to be timeless than another? Do you need to find something that is, in fact, sufficiently average and moderate and benign enough in its cut and details to have an adequate chance at timelessness? Are things more timeless if they are moderate in most aspects – lapels that are neither particularly wide or narrow, collar points that aren’t too pointed or too truncated, sleeves or legs that are neither too flared nor too tapered? Does that increase the chances of something being classic and unable to be pinned down in time? And how can we possibly know which details we can change in order to personalise an item to our tastes and preferences but not accidentally create signposts that will date the item in an undesirable way?
And here’s yet another issue to take into account: where are we stylistically these days anyway? What defines current styles, and which aspects would date an item as “OMG so 2012″ in the future? We all know the historical signposts that date wardrobe items – massive shoulder pads for the 80s and early 90s, flared sleeves and legs for the 70s, those sorts of things. But, arguably, over recent years, there have been comparatively fewer signposts and cues in popular style that definitively pinpoint the era they’re from. Or maybe there are so many that their effect is diluted. Whatever the case, the result is the same – if you think back over the past decade, there seem to be fewer visual cues that are strongly and specifically associated with those years in comparison to the cues that were associated with other decades in the past century.
And I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that the time period is still too recent for us to have the insight into what characterised recent popular style – sure, popular visual style is on a continuum and usually doesn’t sharply end but rather it slowly transitions into something else as it is shaped by new trends and influences. But as this Vanity Fair article from earlier this year discusses, it seems that the U.S. (and, by extension, I guess, other countries to varying extents) is stylistically stuck on repeat at the moment, borrowing over and over from past styles but not establishing anything particularly innovative or unique that will later be considered an identifying feature of current times. I take issue with various assorted points in the VF article, yeah, but I pretty much agree with the main premise that, objectively, perhaps we’re not visually defining current times particularly clearly, at least not in fashion. As such, would that mean that we’re currently at less of a risk of buying a “classic” item that will end up looking dated? Are the classic items available for purchase at the moment less likely to have any signposts and cues that will declare “This is from 2012!” later down the line?
Even if magazine editors only decided to classify items as wardrobe classics or essentials relatively recently, I still wonder which of the items that frequently turn up on such lists actually could be genuine classics, as long as the right choices were made about enough of the details. I reckon it would be hard to get a blazer or a pair of trousers right (you would think that items that are traditionally considered menswear might date better, but looking back through archival photos you start to realise that men’s fashion isn’t as resistant to trends as you might think, since menswear trends tend to be enacted on the all-important details of otherwise basic items). I think people could have a decent amount of luck with something like plain black ballet flats or very simple T-shirts, but of course only time would tell.
So those of us seeking to assemble wardrobes of classic pieces (however we might choose to interpret that) have to accept that there’s still a fair bit of a gamble involved. It’s a rather, uh, esoteric gamble (I’m betting my satisfaction of having a long-lasting, elegant wardrobe, plus a part of my self-image and consumption beliefs, against the whims and fancies of the vastly complicated and nuanced cultural machine? What madness is this?) but hey, at least it might be possible to make some educated guesses about the odds.