For Address—Journal for Fashion Criticism, issue #2
Fashion is now. It is the mode that captures the zeitgeist. What is in fashion today, could be out of fashion tomorrow. Many trends are a repetition of past styles. Once enough time has passed, something can appear novel again. Each time a style is repeated, it returns in a slightly altered way. What if time did not run in a linear way, but span like a gyre: a rotating spiral with no fixed forward moving pattern, jumping backward and forward at random. Its only predictability: a perpetual recycling of what has already been, put into the context of a new moment.
Fashion defines a moment in time, be it different styles of clothing or hair, a particular way of wearing one’s clothes, certain silhouettes or non-vestiary matters that are part of mass culture, such as popular music, food or social phenomena. The focus will remain on the dominant style of clothing popular within the mainstream of society, even though fashions generally revolve not just around the sartorial, and many of the trend cycles exist parallel and operate at different speeds, within different parts of society. Despite common beliefs that in late capitalism any possible style of garment is readily available for purchase, fashion still responds to certain rules that are defined by a more or less natural flow of trend cycles that dictate what hits the stores. Every moment carries with it, the anticipation of the arrival of something new: the next big thing that is just around the corner. Fashion sells such a moment because it promotes newness. Once a new style has been made available, it is ultimately racing towards its own inevitable death. The more popular a style is and the more viral it goes, the less desirable it becomes. Many of the trends hailed as ‘newness’ have always, to some extent, been inspired by the past.
Time spins like a gyre. In relation to fashion, the gyre points to the cyclical movement of trends, which can be translated directly into broader aspects of culture. The concept of the gyre originates from the medieval philosopher Giambattista Vico (cited in Umberto Eco’s The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, 1989, p.8) who noted that the world was no longer ruled by a higher order but instead operated in a ‘self-containing circle or spiral’. This concept was later picked up by Yeats in the 1920s who used the gyre’s form of a spiral movement as a central motif in his writing. In its simplest form it represents the cycle of life and death or of fertility. Yeats believed the gyre to operate as two ‘interpenetrating cones representative of primary and antithetical’ (Envisioning Ireland: W.B. Yeats’s Occult Nationalism, Claire Nally, 2010, Bern: Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers) or paradox impulses. The cones wind over and around one another, as a helix, and as one cone expands, the other decreases. In relation to personality, the primary gyre represents reason and moral, whereas the antithetical gyre represents the battle between the mask (the super-ego, in psychoanalytical terms) and the will (ego and id), in a similar way to the model of yin and yang. Gyres can be found as a natural occurrence in the form of whirlpools and are also the largest form visible in space: galaxies. The theory that everything on earth and in life moves in cycles, rather than in a linear fashion, comes from a parting from the belief that a higher power establishes order in a hierarchical way. Rather than moving in one direction, from birth to death, from high to low, the gyre hints at interconnections between all stages of birth and death, high and low, revolving in cycles within itself and as a whole—time and again.
If fashion is now and it looks to the future as well as reference the past, then the present, fashion, contains all moments at once. The clothes available in stores have been designed with the future in mind, while taking elements from the past as inspiration. Scott Anderson, head of menswear at fashion retailer All Saints, explains, ‘You could take a shape from one thing, like a vintage garment from the fifties or the sixties, but then put it into a new fabric and you could completely change it. Looking back is always good inspiration but you always have to modernise it and bring it up-to-date in some way. Whether you mix it with something else, you take two vintage garments and you take elements of each one and mix them together or put it into a new fabric or a new colour.’ In order for a trend to catch on, it needs to be relevant for cultural groups within society in that particular moment: it needs to be of its time. Timing in fashion is crucial, not just because trends expire but also because a trend can be too early. Anderson states that the menswear customer ‘needs a bit of confidence to wear the trend. They need to have seen it around other places. As well as something that’s new and different to what’s been before, it also needs to be understandable within the season that they’re buying it in, so you can be too early and then something might not work. But then sometimes, if you persevere and you offer it six months later or a year later, it can be very big and very successful.’ Individuals and fashion brands sit within different sections of the trend cycle. To put it differently: within the gyre, the now is not at the same point for all. Something that is on trend for the pioneer of fashion does not appeal to the average person. The progressive, fashion-conscious individual operates on the periphery of the mainstream. His style is edgy enough to stand out from the masses, yet fashionable enough to fit in with the zeitgeist.
Time within the gyre does not spin in a two dimensional way. All future styles could not possibly be predicted, for they do not follow a strict pattern and one style of dress does not have a straightforward, opposite other. Because styles, like garments, consist of a multitude of components, each of them have a multitude of opposite others. The 20th century cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past.’ (Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, 1940) The tiger’s leap to the past is random. When it jumps back into the present, it reassembles an element from the past into something that appears new and is relevant to the present. The tiger’s infinite, random leaps are intersected with its own previous jumps in time within the gyre. A copy of a copy of a copy—with each copy created at a different moment in time and then united in the present. In order to grasp how time runs within fashion, picture the model of the gyre. Similar to a thread on a spool, time runs in a cyclical and multi-dimensional fashion. If one was to unravel time to look at it in a timeline, the points at which the tiger’s leaps (or the jumps back in time) meet are distant. If ravelled back into the gyre, all of these moments in time lie on top of each other at intersecting points where the thread touches itself on the spool. As fashion constantly re-invents itself, the tiger leaps to an infinite amount of moments in the past at any given moment in time. The visualisation of the gyre through the spool is a simplified analogy. In reality, the gyre contains an abundance of jumps in time along the timeline that intertwine simultaneously. Like the structure of the double helix of DNA and RNA whose coiled chord is further coiled within itself, the infinite random jumps within the gyre, with each of them performing cycles of their own, follow an overall larger cyclical movement, too. Time and again.
Fashion is always of its time. If fashion defines the now that is linked to a particular moment in time, then time is stitched into the garments available at that moment. Take a pair of blue jeans. The 501 by Levi’s, hailed as the original ‘timeless’, classic pair of denims, still changes with fashion over time. For example, while it had a wider, slightly tapered leg in 1978, three decades later in 2008 the 501 had a much slimmer fit with a straight leg. Stephan Wendler, Product Merchandiser at Levi’s Europe explains, ‘The consumer might not know it at first glance but the 501 will and always has been updated to fit the ‘now-part’ of the trend. So, is it using a zip fly as opposed to a button fly, is it different washes, is it maybe giving a little tapered touch? It’s not to say that you could have a 501 from thirty years ago and just carry it over. It’s something that you always need to tweak to be market relevant for that consumer.’ Because the eye gets accustomed to the fashionable style dominant and distinct to the moment in time from which it is looking at it, certain classic styles appear neutral, as if immune to time or ‘timeless’. Yet the more time has passed, the more the timely components of a garment become visible, revealing the elements that manifest a particular moment in time.
To capture the now as a continuously fleeting moment and locate the next big thing, fashion companies with faster turnover turn to trend forecasting agencies that provide the concepts for the collections that end up on the high street that appeal to the fashion-conscious mass market. Cher Potter, editor of Creative Direction and Macro Trends at WGSN, comments on trend forecasting. ‘It’s quite an interesting machine that operates in the shadows of fashion. You research one sector of fashion all day, every day, so you have a very subtle understanding of what’s new and interesting and what will probably be quite big. Newness often takes two years to hit the high street.’ Potter explains that there are three factors generating fashion: the first, a mass fashion industry heavily influenced by catwalks that are six to twelve months ahead, secondly, the styles found on the street referred to as ‘real time’, and finally, culture that feeds into the emerging aesthetic, working two years ahead.
Short-lived trends operate at much faster cycles. Fast fashion produces trends with a short life span that are usually aimed at a younger audience—because time is always felt in relation to one’s age—and that are so distinct to the moment that their appeal wears out over the course of months, rather than years. They soon have to be replaced by something new, time and again. Amanda Lawson, assistant buyer, Women’s Trend Brands at fast fashion online retailer ASOS admits, ‘Because I’m seeing so many new things, I want them straight away. So I will probably get bored of it after I’ve worn it a couple of times — so it is a cycle that keeps happening.’ Other places can be ahead of trend too. A city might be ahead of smaller towns, even though technically the same clothes are available. Naomi Thompson, a vintage personal shopper who divides her time between London and Portsmouth notes, ‘I’ve noticed with a couple of trends, it takes about five years for it to be fully embraced. But don’t forget, in London things break pretty early. But although five years almost sound like an insultingly long time to travel two hours down to the coast you’ve got to go through the cycle of something being new and exciting and novel, then entering into the mainstream, then becoming mainstream, then peaking and then disappearing again.’ There are different levels of now happening simultaneously on a global scale. Anderson states, ‘We travel a lot. I travel to Tokyo to check out what emerging trends are happening out there. They tend to be very ahead on their street style so it’s good to pick up bits that you think could be relevant and could translate. We also travel to the Rose Bowl in LA to gain a lot of vintage research which is useful, particularly for spring summer seasons.’
Past styles characteristic for a decade need the distance of time before they can be revived. Once they return, they come back in a different, updated form that fits the new moment. The gap often fits the length of a generation. To those who already experienced the style the previous time, the revived elements still seem consumed. Most people’s nostalgia is for a time that they did not fully experience, if at all. The past seems a better place. The vision of what constituted that past moment is warped, the past idealised. If the past was better, does that imply that the future is going to be worse? A past moment is relived, time and again, as new generations rediscover it and make it their own. Masoud Golsorkhi, co-founder and editor of avant garde fashion magazine TANK observes, ‘It’s like a snake that’s eating its tail permanently. We’re constantly referring back as a way of moving and pointing to the future.’ Somebody who was born in the nineties might be nostalgic for a fashion that might only in retrospect be considered as quintessentially ‘nineties’, even if the point in time it is referring to only lasted a year or was only relevant to a small niche within society. Flora McLean, fashion designer and founder of label House of Flora who present two seasons per year at Paris and London Fashion Shows contemplates, ‘I find it really hard to say that something was nineties because that seems very recent to me. I kind of get the eighties’ thing now, that’s my youth or my Mum. You can’t really see that you’re in a historical moment when you’re in it. You need that gap to have a moment to say “the nineties was that”.’ Many of the clothes that were fashionable in the nineties contain elements of seventies’ fashion within them, because that is what the era was nostalgic for at the time, as well as references to other bygone decades. Potter comments that people at WGSN have worked on trends that are called ‘referencing the sixties via the eighties’. ‘It’s become so complex and mashed up now.’ Recycled styles include recycled styles of previous styles within them, forming a mise-en-abyme-like simulacrum: a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy etc—but where is its original?—turning time in fashion into something far more complex than a straightforward line that simply leaves all the old behind and only moves towards the future. Rather, time spins like a gyre, that both follows fixed fashion cycles at the same time as referencing seemingly random moments in the past, time and again.
Fashion defines the now, manifested in clothes but not limited to them. With industrialisation a machine has been set into motion that produces a desire for the new, an abundance and a need for replacement, a need for a generation to showcase their identity. Benjamin wrote, ‘There has never been an epoch that did not feel itself to be “modern” in the sense of eccentric, and did not believe itself to be standing directly before an abyss … Every age unavoidably seems to itself a new age.’ (The Arcades Project, 1927-1940, S1a,4 p. 545) In every moment, the revolution seems just around the corner. Fashion is not just an industry that is symptomatic of society, it is the pulse of time. It shows what is now, which cultural trends are dominant in society. Fashion follows a pattern. Because people covet that which is rare and the fashion industry distributes it until it becomes available to all, the novelty of a style wears off and so those at the front of the cycle continuously seek out the fresh and familiar. Time and again.
All interviews are part of the documentary film Time & Again: the Gyre in Fashion, 2012