June 17, 2012 35

A little deeper with the classics

By in Musings


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?


Image: Teddy girls by Ken Russel, c. 1955 (source). Not going to lie, I would probably wear the outfit of the girl second from left.

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.

35 Responses to “A little deeper with the classics”

  1. Martina says:

    I feel that some concept are classic (the trenchcoat, the mariniére, the ballet flat), but the item itself will look dated after a while. I recently went through my grandparents’s wardrobe, filled with everything from Aquascutum trenches to Loro Piana knits and believe me, not everything has aged well. While we still wear trenchcoats and sweaters, there are too many wrong details that can make the fit look wrong. Uber-classic Ferragamo Vara flats have been updated to a more modern look, and the old version (wore by Audrey and the likes) looks a bit odd today.

    I love a beautiful item and try to buy the best quality I can afford, but I have the feeling that all this hype for the classics (especially in the blogosphere) is just another way to justify a splurge. Besides, what would net-á-porter do, if people actually wore their classic shirts for 20 years?

  2. petrichore says:

    Again, another thought-provoking and well-written post! So awesome!

    Has anyone read the book “A Guide to Elegance” by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux? It was written in the 1960s, and advocated small wardrobes and detailed the social codes/fashion rules of the time in relation to articles of clothing. I find it both an engaging book to read, and a puzzling glimpse into a world where (according to the author), alligator handbags were to be “retired promptly at 5 p.m.” (take that, Real Housewives of Wherever.) Also, just exactly what constitutes “sportswear” in the 1960s? So many unanswered questions.

    However, my main reason for mentioning it is that it is another resource for what defines “the classics,” this time from the lens of the 1960s French author. Keep in mind, however, that this book was reissued in the 2000s, and probably has contributed in some slight way to the present myth of the classic wardrobe.

  3. Caille says:

    Someone — I think it was Sally Singer — said that “classic” items always date the quickest, because the details change subtly but crucially. She recommended getting something completely out there, like a sequined tutu, if you wanted a piece that would really stand the test of time. Interesting viewpoint, I thought.

  4. BlueAnna says:

    Thank you very much for writing such interesting posts about the classics!

    I think lists of wardrobe items have been around for quite some time, although I’m not sure when they start to call them classics. There is one in a Swedish book from 1944 that describes how to build a wardrobe over the course of four years, for someone who can sew, detailing what new items to get and how to refashion some of the older ones. (It is the foundation of the blog Fashionable Forties and the lists for all four years can be found there for those interested: http://fortieswardrobe.blogspot.se/2011/02/it-struck-me-as-bit-unfair-that-i-know.html) It also includes something that I think is missing from the current internet discussion of classic wardrobes; clothes will be worn out if used frequently, even if they are of good quality.

    This, I guess, is good news for the classic wardrobe. If you build it small enough it will probably be time to replace most of the items before they are so out of fashion that they are unwearable for that reason. However, I find it annoying for my carefully laid plan for my wardrobe to be thwarted by favorite items being worn out or by changes in body size. I think I was under some sort of an illusion that if I just built a wardrobe of good quality items they would all be around to witness the completion of my wardrobe plan, but it seems I have to make a plan B.

    To give another example of lists of classic wardrobe items, I found the book Wardrobe by Susie Faux (printed 1988) sometime in the early 90’s. She is also a proponent of a small wardrobe of classic items of good quality. It is, however, clearly evident that her definition of ‘classic’ was strongly coloured by the esthetics of the 80’s. The examples in the book have looked quite unfashionable to varying degrees throughout the 20 years I have owned it. Interestingly enough I think most of the clothes would be wearable today (and they looked wearable when I bought the book), at least if the shoulder pads are replaced with smaller ones, but there has probably been a period of 20 years when those clothes have looked rather dated. I think the same can be said for the 1969 picture you included; sure it looks almost fashionable now, but how many years from 1969 to now would those clothes have been wearable? Not more than half, I would guess.

    I think it will be interesting to see where the classic wardrobe trend will take us; if it will last for the lifetime of these classic garments or if the concept of a classic wardrobe itself will become so unfashionable as to make such clothes impossible to wear.

    • Jess says:

      I’m sure lists of “wardrobe essentials” have been around for centuries, although varying sections of the socioeconomic strata will have been in the position to pay any heed to them! I imagine wardrobe essentials for well-to-do women in the 19th century would have involved a comprehensive collection of crinolines. :P

      That’s an interesting point about clothes getting worn out if used frequently, particularly given the desire that some people have to minimise their consumption. There are so many factors to take into account to evaluate what would be a good trade-off, but would it be better to have a slightly larger number of wardrobe items and wear them each less frequently, rather than have a slightly smaller number of wardrobe items and wear them each more frequently? Or do people just have to accept that they will need to replace their more-frequently-worn items sooner, and let that be the limiting rate of their consumption? Should we not mind too much if an item wears out after, say, 5 years, because then we can update it and therefore avoid looking dated? It seems like it’s a complicated trade-off that each individual has to make between how important all the factors (owning quality clothes that last vs owning clothes that don’t look dated vs wearing clothes more or less frequently vs consumption beliefs) are to them.

    • Jess says:

      Oh and I agree about the 1969 picture. All the photos in this post were to illustrate the point I was making about stability – if you look back at particular, discrete moments in time, it’s easy enough to find items that would look modern enough today, that wouldn’t be regarded as dated or outmoded, but it’s the stability of that regard over time that people don’t necessarily take into account when designating something as a “classic”. Like you see a million photos of people wearing Breton tops in Paris in the 50s and 60s, and from that discrete window of time you might think “Oh look, those still look good today, they certainly stand the test of time, they must be a classic” but who knows what people thought of them in, say, 1982? Maybe they looked horribly dated during the 80s. We’d need to ask the right people to find out.

      Back to the 1969 outfit, I’m pretty sure if we could see the original colours and fabric it might suddenly not look so contemporary – if they’re some horrible polyester blend and the trousers are aubergine-coloured and the shirt is mustard-coloured, then, well, we’re definitely back in 1969, haha.

    • Abby says:

      I think you hit on something that is rarely discussed in all of the building a small and durable wardrobe conversations – body changes.

      Perhaps all of the people who blog about this have remarkably stable weights, but I know from personal and social experience that a lot of women have weight fluctuations and body changes as time goes by. Plus, a fair percentage of us are likely to have children, which changes one’s body in unexpected ways – even if you get back to the same weight, your hips might be wider, etc.

      I wish people talked more about this, because I think it is a substantial barrier to buying and wearing the same clothes for years, but I don’t think it has to mean “fast fashion” is the answer.

      • Jess says:

        That’s a topic I’d certainly like to read more about. I’m not able to address it personally (my weight is very stable and I haven’t really changed a dress size since I was about 18, and there is no childbearing on my horizon any time soon) but I can understand how frustrating it could easily be to have well-considered wardrobe items that were an investment of time and money become unwearable when they were supposed to be a key wardrobe piece for years and years. I’ll keep an eye out for such discussions, but if you come across any please let me know and I’ll gladly link to them. The only relevant discussions I’ve seen have been ones by women whose body shape has changed (due to weight gain/loss, having a child, etc.) and they’ve used that as a reason to start putting together a classic wardrobe, since they have to put their wardrobe together almost from scratch and they’re hoping for some sort of guidance towards assembling a selection of items that’s versatile and practical.

  5. There are certain things that are generic classics, but go through variations through the decades. We don’t see those extremely low-rise jeans from the early 2000s “Britney Spears era” anymore. I find more menswear influenced clothing doesn’t date as drastically as womenswear did. Whenever I look at clothing through the decades, a Victorian era man with some small changes—or none at all in certain cities—could walk into today—not so much the case with the bustle wearing ladies. As long as something fits and flatters the body it will transcend time. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be very, very basic, because even innovative design transcends time. A distinctive detail will differentiate something enough that it makes a piece worth keeping and passing on. I don’t think we’ll be saving our white Gap tees to pass down to our daughters, but the Pucci shift dress yes.

  6. Ali says:

    I enjoyed both of these classics posts immensely! I have so much to say and I’ll try and cram it all into one comment. I love the classics, too, always a bit obsessed with the pared down look of the 60s and casual 70s. A few years ago, I decided I needed to reapproach my wardrobe—bursting with thrifted items, cheap crap, hand-me-downs. In the beginning, those classics lists, body shape guides, etc. helped immensely, if only to bring attention to things I’d never really considered—silhouette, color, drape. Like all things, I saw them as guides, not hard-and-fast rules. Surprisingly, a lot of them made sense, but some things will never work for me (i.e. the classic white button-down shirt). I finally started to get a handle on what works for me.

    I culled my wardrobe to about 40 items (which I know may be a lot to some and truthfully I could cull more) and it was such a relief. Having fewer choices makes me so much happier and it’s so much easier to get ready in the morning. This is possible because I have enough “essentials” that pull a lot of weight (dark denim, black capris, etc.) and because they’re “classic” I feel like I’m still stylish while wearing otherwise fairly plain clothes.

    I realized that I use cardigans and scarves for color and print and I’ve started investing in more of those. I’ve read that we should accessorize more and buy less, and I think that’s true. I also made a list of things that I felt could round out my wardrobe, and have pretty much devoted my retail shopping to the list. That’s all to say, I think there’s really something to be said about self-discovery, the wardrobe pieces that work for you, and having a small and considered wardrobe. I’d never go back.

    That said, I think the trouble is with the word “classic” — that it’s timeless and I tend to feel like everything we create/wear has a sense of time about it. And just because something is essential to my wardrobe, does that mean it has to last and be stylish forever? Or does it just have to serve me until it’s been worn out? I try to have things I’m likely to wear at least once a week in its appropriate season, and since I have fewer things, that means they’ll wear out with use. One to two years of moving and sweating and biking and what not in my favorite jeans and black flats and they’ll be beyond repair. When I replace them, I’ll likely be updating these “classic” pieces in accordance with time.

    In the book mentioned above, the author talks about owning some items for decades — but did she wear it weekly? Was she an active woman? I can see that approach to things like a great leather handbag, or a special occasion black dress, things that see less strain.

    But what I really can’t wrap my mind around is how we can negotiate our excitement over clothes with our desire to acquire less of them. Is the idea of having a classic wardrobe that we will buy less? Want less? There’s very little I truly want to add to my wardrobe, and yet I’m always dreaming of pretty things—the titillation of Pinterest and lookbooks. Where is there room for experimentation and wonder in our classic wardrobes, whether real or imagined?

    • Jess says:

      I guess it depends on where an individual’s desire to acquire fewer clothes comes from – whether they just want to assemble a functional wardrobe where everything is super-versatile because they think that’s what will suit their lifestyle (or whatever other reason), or whether they want to have that functional and super-versatile wardrobe because they want to cut down on their consumption (due to beliefs about ethical practices and environmental impacts of clothing manufacture). I personally want to reduce my consumption (and consume in more ethically/environmentally sound ways) but that’s at odds with the enjoyment I get out of beautiful clothes, whether they’re classics or not. I think personal style is such an important thing (for me, and for many others) in terms of self-expression and I enjoy having a range of interesting items that allows me to put together outfits that I find visually interesting and enjoyable. But when I started finding blogs online about classic wardrobe items and pared-back, functional, simple wardrobes, that really spoke to me in terms of my desire to reduce my consumption, which is perhaps why I’ve ended up adding more of these so-called classics to my wardrobe over the past year or two, assuming that they will stand me in good stead wardrobe-wise and I won’t have to buy as much because they’ll be so practical and versatile and whatever. I guess the lists of purported classics help as a framework to guide the potential minimisation of consumption, if that’s what a person wants to do, because it almost puts a cap on what you “need” (like you can tick everything off the list and then stop consuming – a very optimistic notion, of course!). But the extent to which it works depends on your wider beliefs and how your personal style matters to you.

      But I totally agree – many people derive great enjoyment from a bit of experimentation and wonder in their wardrobes, and perhaps classics aren’t the ideal medium for that (although of course people get their experimentation and wonder from different things, so some people might get it from the little details of their classic pieces, whereas others might get it from mixing and matching classic pieces with other things, etc).

  7. miss sophie says:

    i agree with PPP’s comments here…i think it takes a very well trained eye and a wide range of fashion history knowledge to be able to pick out details and shapes/pieces that can transcend time and seasons. at the same time though, i think the idea of ‘classic’ is much more fluid than a list. i mean there’s something about the way that the olsen twins dress these days that articulate a very interesting interpretation of mixed classics style. also, skinny/cigarette-leg jeans are classics in my book, for instance, only because they are flattering on me and are my favorite kind of jeans. i’m sure there are plenty of people who’d consider that to be a drawn-out trend. there’s always a more abstract and a deeply personal side to this, no?

    • Abby says:

      I suspect that skinny jeans are going to stick around. Not because they are classic, but because so many people say the same thing as you – it’s the fit that suits them best. In my book, fit is primary.

  8. Hippocampe says:

    Could style be stabilized with definite lists of classics or by sticking to moderate designs ? Could we thus declare the end of the fashion circus and buy our uniforms for life – if the industry, under consumers’ pressure, finally find a way to be viable selling very long-lasting garments ?
    You already know my guess is : no.
    Moreover, I understand the ecological implications, but I’m not convinced of the desirability of such a stable system. I think fashion is a democratic process that helps everybody to express oneself and define one’s place in society. Yes, we should be aware that the fashion industry cash in on the process and we should be conscious and responsible consumers, but I think fashion stems from a genuine demand and is not created out of thin air by marketing people, so it will survive intact in the future.

    And I think there was a 00’s fashion as there was a 80’s one. It will truly emerge in 20 years, when the era is reviewed by designers and they pick up the design cues of the period to end in their toolbox of references for years to come.
    Well, that will be Marc Jacobs’ job, not mine, but I will have a go at it, for fun.
    In my opinion the 00’s are defined by a very distinct silhouette, bird-like, with a very puffed-up upper-body (made of layers : t-shirt + shirt + jacket + overcoat + scarf + bangles…) and two meagre sticks for legs (dark skinny jeans, leggings) – the classic take on this silhouette would be the skinny jeans + blazer combo, the torso being made even more voluminous by the addition of a big scarf. And accessories were put at the heart of fashion : basics to blend in and accessories to show your tastes, seemed the consensus of the times.
    Bags we know by name and little birds who seem to have forgotten to put on pants or skirts…all this already feels dated, doesn’t it ?

    • Jess says:

      I don’t think absolute stabilisation is possible, no, but I think it might be possible to increase the stability of particular items in a relative sense. As for sticking to moderate designs, my thoughts were more that that might work on the individual level, but not on a larger scale. With the industry/consumer relationship as it is, it is likely there will never be a demand for moderation (unless there is a specific trend for it!).

      I still struggle to get a sense of the general look of the 00′s. As you say, there might very well be one (and I personally just can’t define it, for whatever reason, but maybe given a bit more temporal distance it will be more apparent to me) but, all the same, whatever signposts and cues there are to that era, I feel like they are fewer and less specific than they have been in the past. I agree that skinny jeans + blazer has been a prevalent look, but it just doesn’t seem to be as comprehensive and nuanced and multifaceted a look as the defining looks of previous decades. Again, maybe it’s just an issue of temporal distance for me. Maybe whatever sample of culture I’ve been exposed to hasn’t reinforced those cues as strongly as for others.

      I agree that accessories stepped further to the forefront, not least, I suppose, because of the shift within the luxury industry in making entry-level items accessible to the massive middle class in order to achieve ever-increasing profits. People might not be able to afford a wardrobe of Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen or whatever, but plenty of people were (and are) willing to save up and buy a Balenciaga bag or an Alexander McQueen scarf. And I guess we saw that hit full stride in the 2000′s, but as increasing numbers of companies capitalised on it, the effect has become diluted and so the trend’s peak will be encapsulated within the 2000′s and might therefore be somewhat of a signpost to that era.

  9. lin says:

    I think “classics” lists do have to be taken with a pinch of salt, in that things will date and it’s hard to see at that point in time what exactly is the detail that dates it…sometimes it’s as subtle as the length of a jacket.

    I made a list of things I find timeless once, which is more or less as follows: simple hairstyles – nothing too teased and processed, minimal or no make-up, clean lines, no extreme silhouettes – things that follow the natural lines of the body, hems are long, short, or knee-length, nothing in between. I think slouchy (but not too baggy) things look less dated than super fitted things. and flat shoes look more classic because heel heights and shapes change too much.

    Also, I find that clothes designed for function – parkas, fisherman sweaters, peacoats, jeans, t-shirts, trench coats, those L.L Bean canvas ice totes – tend not to date as much, so long as they’re not cut in extreme silhouettes. They will not look “current” in the sense that their proportions will look slightly different from what everyone is wearing and what in in shops, but neither they will look hopefully dated, and there’s a high chance that the way they are worn can be adjusted to somehow much the shape of the moment (eg, pushing up sleeves of a jacket, rolling up trouser hems, adding a belt).

    A bit of a digression: I don’t timelessness is an exact science, but style isn’t an exact science anyway and it’s often about the right attitude rather than the right things. I think the right personality can wear 80s’ shoulders and 40s’ pumps all the time and they will look perfect and not dated because it’s so right for their personality.

    • Jess says:

      I agree, I feel like there are items (as you said, the more functional ones like parkas and t-shirts and trench coats) that don’t date as easily as other items, but there seems to be a lot of debate and a lot of varying opinions on that topic, haha. I guess it’s just so difficult to tell without a lot of experience (i.e. decades of living through the trends oneself, along with a good memory for what was and wasn’t modern or dated at which points during those decades) so it’s all a bit hypothetical.

      And yep, I think there are plenty of items that can be worn – by the right people in the right outfit – that might be very clearly dated, but that’s just part of their charm or appeal. It can be done in such a way and mixed with the right things so it doesn’t look like a period costume or fancy dress (although I still appreciate full-on period dress too, and some people can really pull off a head-to-toe 1940s or 1960s look or whatever). If things that looked dated at all were never ever worn, then I don’t think second-hand stores and thrifting would be quite as popular as they are!

  10. Clara says:

    I agree with most people here too : “As long as something fits and flatters the body it will transcend time”. What suits you best is what makes something a classic for you. A few years ago there was a massive vogue for Breton shirts, they were everywhere in Paris, litterally. Well…. it didn’t feel right on everyone, believe me. Of course, if an item is not well made, it stands no chance whatsoever… On the other side, people who can just naturally wear an item out of a vintage shop and make it work truly baffle me ! it’s a real skill !

    Another clue to define the classics in my opinion would be : how many time have they been reinterpreted in the past ? How easily can they be combined with less classical pieces and just blend in ?

    Completely agree with Hippocampe about our generation’s style : to me, its icon is clearly Kate Moss. Skinny jeans+blazer=half the people you see in the streets (here at least). And that has been going on for more than 10 years now…

    Have a nice evening everyone !

    • Jess says:

      In terms of finding something that fits and flatters, and in terms of Breton shirts – I have to say that the more “traditional” Breton shirts look appalling on me, haha. The ones that are loosely-fitted and a bit slouchy and have a higher neckline – not right for me at all. The more recent interpretations of Breton shirts, however? More slim-fitted (although still a bit loose), a slightly lower neckline – that’s what I think looks decent on me. I guess that’s another way in which a classics list isn’t particularly useful – if I was a bit more clueless about my personal style and what suited me, I might read one of those lists, decide to go out and buy a Breton top, and then get frustrated when it turned out looking awful on me because, surprise surprise, there is a huge range of those tops out there in a million different permutations and variations. But finding something that suits you, regardless of whether it’s considered classic or trendy or whatever, is probably a wise approach!

      • Clara says:

        Don’t even get me started on this kind of frustration : I still haven’t quite got over the fact that the ‘tomboy’ look that I love doesn’t work out well on my ‘curves’ (to put it nicely). I realize only progressively that the reason this kind of outfit looks so great on, say, Anna Karina or Audrey Hepburn, is partly because they are incredibly beautiful and feminine, and could get away with pretty much anything haha !!
        I still wear Breton tops, but when you look at pictures it is clear I’m no Truffaut heroine. Sigh. I shall find something else I guess… :)

        • Jess says:

          Ah, me as well! I do love that tomboy look but a lot of the typical tomboy pieces are not right for my figure at all (e.g. I think half the clothing items on lagarconne.com would look positively awful on me!). The right menswear-inspired pieces look fine on me (my daily uniform is pretty much skinny jeans or trousers + button-up shirt + blazer) but then one day I’ll put on a fitted top and a flouncy high-waisted skirt and be like “Oh yeah… I do have a waist, maybe I shouldn’t obscure that so much”, haha. So my usual uniform probably isn’t the most objectively flattering I could wear, but I like it all the same. But then there’s a whole other topic for discussion – should people feel compelled to flatter their figure? What factors (social/societal pressure, self-image, etc.) would compel someone to flatter their figure? Is it about presenting your body in an appealing way, and if so, why and to whom? Or is flattering your figure just a way of creating visual proportions and shapes that are objectively pleasing and that aren’t necessarily meant to showcase your figure? That’s a massive sociological discussion right there and I think I would need to do a lot more reading of books and papers on the topic before I could even attempt it!

          But nothing changes the fact that high-necked T-shirts/jumpers and slouchy trousers look objectively terrible on me. ;)

        • petrichore says:

          Audrey Hepburn and Anna Karina could wear a burlap sack and make it look amazing. Perhaps we’ve been visually conditioned to think that the classics look as good as they do, when truthfully they look great because they’re photographed being worn by people like Brigitte Bardot.

  11. L.L. says:

    The 2000s may be defined by the popularity of horrendous shoes: uggs, crocs, Jeffrey Campbell Litas. Le sigh. Also the rise of metrosexuality! Young men are paying more attention to style and it’s acceptable for two straight guys to discuss different cuts of shirts. They’re also starting to feel the pressure of being thin.

    I would like to add that perhaps classics are the things women can depend on while transitioning through the stages in life. I say women because I think it takes some experimenting during high school to figure out your identity. After a certain point, due to work, relationships, kids, school, cooking, cleaning etc we become too busy to go shopping. Trying on different things at the store and finding which ones work and which ones you ahte takes time and is a frustrating process with all these choices. Magazines and salespeople present you with what’s available but the bottom line is they want you to buy as much as possible.

  12. [...] Emptor recently made a post questioning the concept of “the classics” when it comes to wardrobe pieces, as [...]

  13. Just found you today via luxcore and I’ve browsing through your (very thought-provoking) posts. As a person who sews all their own clothes, I view a classic as something that that uplifts one’s silhouette (whatever it may be) without necessarily being in fashion or on trend. Anything that presents your shape and complexion (this is important-some colours have the ability to overwhelm/ cause washout on a lot of complexions) in the best light possible. For example, I don’t own a trenchcoat (yet-I’ll be making one later in the year but it’s not going to be beige XD) or what would be considered a classic Breton (I have a modified version with perfectly aligned unbalanced stripes) but for me, my wardrobe is classic (you can see a small selection here if you’re interested). I haven’t bought ready to wear in years but if I was say, helping a friend choose wardrobe classics to shop for I’d get her to put all the things she wears most often on floor, put together complementary/ contrasting colours, have her try them on and then suggest she only buy more of what looks good on her. Classics are useless if all they do is end up adorning hangers in your closet =D

  14. Clara says:

    Hello community !
    is this blog on holiday for now ? I miss it :)

    • Jess says:

      Hey Clara! Sorry the blog has been quiet for a while – I’ve been going through the final round of assessment for my PhD, which has involved a lot of data analysis and a lot of writing up of results as various papers and documents. I’ve got to give a seminar discussing all my results next week, so life is a bit hectic for me at the moment, but hopefully once I’m done with the seminar I’ll be able to get back to some blogging! After the seminar is done, all I’ll have to left to do is write my thesis/dissertation, so I’ll probably be keen for the opportunity to write about something other than my PhD research. :)

  15. Jennifer says:

    Well….you are fabulous. Discovering your blog has just freed up tons of time for me as I will never need to start a blog to air my thoughts on style and consumption. It would only be a less-informed repetitive exercise. Fantastic. I’m so grateful! Looking forward to you getting back to it.
    101 years ago I amused myself tremendously by creating a blog called Retail Recovery (I was reminded of it during your multi-post narrative on classics/personal style, as my purpose on RR was to prompt readers to start a dialogue with themselves about their thoughts on clothing), but have long ago left the what-does-it-all-mean?-fashion blogging arena. Your blog makes me feel…grateful – grateful that I left, since I couldn’t do it this well; grateful that it’s being done this well.

  16. Sweetsy says:

    Oh gosh, I just found you and you got a great thing here! It will give me time to catch up–but are you coming back?? I hope so.

  17. [...] interesting discussion on classic fashion and the classification of a “classic” fashion [...]

  18. Freda says:

    very late in the day….SELF EXPRESSION

  19. Freda says:

    Somewhat late in the day….SELF EXPRESSION is the phrase that stands out for me in this interesting discussion. What does classic say in terms of self expression? Restrained? Tasteful? Lacking confidence? One can also see the importance of accessories with classics in terms of self expression – fascinating!

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