Revolt through style has fallen off fashion rails

Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 00:00

Clothes once denoted the decade they were worn in. Now we dress the same as the 1990s, writes DONALD CLARKE

BEWARE. MY fashion advisers inform me that we are on the brink of a 1990s revival. The Stone Roses have stopped punching one another and signed on for a reunion tour. What else? Oh, isn’t a new Men in Black film coming our way? There’s some other stuff as well. If we follow media orders we will all soon be dressing and behaving as if it were 1994.

Here is today’s subject for discussion. Will anybody not trained in fashion nano-alteration be able to spot the difference?

Describe the style of the 1980s. You are, I’m willing to bet, thinking of puffball skirts, teased peroxide and leg-warmers. What about the 1960s? Well, it depends which end of the decade you’re considering. Slim suits and thin ties (really a relic of the 1950s) eventually gave way to velvet loons and kipper ties.

Until the turn of the century or so, when a film-maker embarked on a project set a decade earlier, he or she provided his costume designer with a delicious opportunity to indulge in short-term nostalgia. “Ha, ha!” Mr 1977 said when confronted with designs for his picture set in the Summer of Love. “How absurd we looked in those faux Edwardian doublets. Didn’t we realise that the only colour that matters is brown?”

Look at photographs of football supporters in 1960. They are still wearing hats. Nobody dares to don a garment tainted with anything more gaudy than an earth colour. Now glance at an image from the terraces snapped a decade later. Young men are overwhelmed by Thackery sideboards. The kids wear lilac shirts and argyle tank tops. It’s as if some virus of merry vulgarity has spread throughout western society.

For most of the 20th century, the developed world swung through repeated, often quite dramatic, sartorial revolutions. Interior design and architecture underwent the same surges. The 1920s don’t look much like the 1910s. The 1960s look nothing like the 1950s. In the era of Boy George and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, no sane person would consider inviting their friends round to spill fondue over a chestnut shag-pile carpet. Yet Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s key satire of the brown years, had emerged as recently as 1977. A lot has changed since, say, 2006 (just look in your wallet), but the shirts, chairs, carpets and blouses look pretty much the same.

Around the time that the Berlin Wall fell, a number of deluded intellectuals – most famously Francis Fukuyama – announced that we had reached “the end of history”. The free market had triumphed. Decades of stability loomed. Well, we know how well that worked out.

In retrospect, it does now look as if we were, however, passing through the end of style. Technology has surged forward. New threats to our safety (some real, many imagined) waxed and waned. But, for those of us in the West, the world looks weirdly similar to the way it did in 1990.

I am writing this on a train. Looking around, I see nobody wearing a garment that would have attracted any puzzled attention during the Clinton years.

Watching a repeat of an early episode of Seinfeld, one is occasionally taken aback by the absence of mobile telephones or the dearth of references to the internet. Their world looks so similar to ours, it is easy to forget that two whole decades have passed. Jerry, George or Elaine would never have felt a similar disconnect if somebody in the Mary Tyler Moore show made reference to Richard Nixon. That fine 1970s series really did, by then, look as if it were taking place in a different universe.

You could, perhaps, detect premonitions of the coming stasis in the growth of grunge fashion during the early 1990s. Forget punk. Say goodbye to the hippies. In order to shock their parents, contemporary youths now took to dressing like students or lumberjacks. Hang on. Millions of people already dressed that way entirely by accident. Away from the always irrelevant world of haute couture, ordinary people pulled on post-Gap casuals and resigned themselves to dressing that way until and beyond their dotage.

So what went wrong? You could look at the style tribulations of the 1970s and 1980s as a noisy conversation with the 1960s.

Once freed from the cloth caps and gaberdine raincoats of the post-war era, two successive generations tried on every unlikely garment in the world’s dressing-up box. Perhaps, they just ran out of silly hats and mad collars.

A more likely explanation is to do with complacency. The swinging sixties did not start in Eisenhower’s relaxed suburbia. They kicked off in downtrodden parts of England and, later, amid the turbulence of a newly angry United States.

The long period of western prosperity that began in the 1990s may have deadened certain creative tendencies. Maybe, given the current brewing crises, that is all about to change.

For now, sit back and savour the Madchester testimonial match.