Sunday, June 30, 2013

Theorising how fashion changes over time

When I was writing the book, I did a lot of scholarly research about theories of fashion. Pretty much all that remains of that in the finished volume is my experience of sitting in the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne. I did some intensive study there at the start of last year, taking notes from academic books.

I love the Baillieu. Working in there is like stepping back into the Mad Men Time.

A librarian checks books in the newly opened Baillieu Library, 1959.

Students in the second floor study area, 1959. Check the Mitzi chairs.

The Baillieu Library today. Mitzi chairs!


The reason I was researching theories of fashion history was that I wanted to explain the mechanisms that drive our ideas of fit. We have a certain understanding – either intuitive, or explained to us by the fashion media – of how tightly or loosely our clothing should fit, and in which places on the body, in order for us to feel the most attractive and morally appropriate in our clothes. Those ideas change over time, and when we look at them in hindsight they become the 'fashion' of certain historical periods.

The cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 model early 1990s-style jeans.

Fashionable jeans during the 1980s were commonly high-waisted, tight across the torso and narrow at the ankle. They became baggier in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s they were flared at the ankle and very low-slung on the hips. Even though not everyone dressed like this, the fashion was widespread enough, and expressed often enough in pop culture, that we can guess when a photo was taken by the style of someone's jeans.

Britney Spears models early 2000s-style jeans. Tag dag!

When a style of jeans isn't currently in fashion, we call it 'frumpy', 'trashy' or 'dorky' because it becomes negatively associated with nerds who don't care what's cool, or older people clinging pathetically to the looks of their salad days. And once fashion has moved on even further, certain fits acquire a retro cachet. Tight, high-waisted jeans are cool again now – and hip twentysomethings even celebrate baggy, high-waisted, '90s-style jeans ironically, as 'mom jeans'.

Of course, not everyone wears jeans. They've also meant different things at different times to different people: utilitarian workwear; bohemian rebellion; a youthful uniform; a sexual invitation; even a litmus test of weight gained or lost.

We might grasp this multiplicity of meaning intuitively because jeans are familiar to us… but the further back we travel in time, and the more unfamiliar clothes become, the easier it is to lose sight of the ways in which fit is culturally influenced, and the more tempting it is to make broad generalisations about how and why it changes.

'Costume history', as an academic discipline, arose from art history and shares its analytic techniques. Fashion reference books in this old-school genre promise a broad survey of aesthetic change over time, explaining which sartorial motifs appeared when, and how they were devised, combined and repeated. In seeking to make the past concrete, these books can seem oddly fixed and timeless themselves. For instance, François Boucher's epic 20,000 Years of Fashion was first published in 1966, while Ruth Turner Wilcox's The Mode In Costume dates from 1942. Both have been consulted by generations of students, designers and aficionados.

But like fashion itself, this aesthetic approach to fashion history can very quickly seem dated. In my own collection is a 1974 reference book for children, Clothes in History by Angela Schofield, which I bought in a sale at my local library. In a piece of retrospective comedy, it begins with an illustration of cavemen and ends with a photograph of a bearded 1970s hippie in a shaggy shearling coat who looks, to my eyes, hilariously similar to the cavemen.

Thinking of clothes chronologically does help reconcile fashion's emphasis on the 'now' with its constant citation of past styles – but we rarely stop to ponder how weird and arbitrary it is to link fashions either with broad eras or specific decades. For instance, why do we speak so sweepingly of 'the Victorian era' when it lasted from 1837 to 1901, during which time a vast variety of distinctive clothing styles came in and out of fashion? Why must the 'Edwardian era' or 'Belle Époque' make way for the 'Twenties' through to the 'Nineties'?

In today's atomised understanding of fashion motifs, 'military' and 'nautical' conquer 'tribal' and 'boho'. It seems that the more recent the clothes, the less hindsight we have on them in order to slot them into neat epochal categories. But in any case, understanding how styles evolve over time doesn't tell us what it meant to live through history, striving to be fashionable.

Another thing I noticed during my research is the application of sociological theories to fashion changes. I'd argue that these ideas have acquired their current authority through sheer force of repetition. They're another way that we try to master the past by overlaying a grand narrative on it – this time of class, rather than of aesthetics.

For instance, it seems persuasive that rich people might wear fancy, restrictive clothes to advertise  their independence from manual labour – but that's because American economist Thorstein Veblen's theory of 'conspicuous consumption' and 'conspicuous leisure' has been parroted since 1899, snowballing in plausibility as generations of fashion historians and journalists based their work on it.

The idea that rich, powerful people innovate fashions for the plebs seems so natural now that in the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, superbitch fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) sounds unassailably authoritative as she acidly schools her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) in the market diffusion of the colour cerulean:

This 'trickle down' theory has been around since 1904, when German sociologist Georg Simmel argued that once a style becomes accessible to the lower classes, the elites abandon it and create a new fashion to distinguish themselves further. And the idea that fashion industry gatekeepers – designers and magazine editors – are now the elites dates from 1969, when Herbert Blumer wrote that someone's ability to interpret the zeitgeist – the 'spirit of the times' – and sense where modernity was heading elevated that person to elite status.

Of course, some trends are spearheaded by non-elites: marginalised ethnic, working-class and youth cultures influencing the sartorial sensibilities of dominant, bourgeois white culture. Back in 1970 marketing academic George A Field theorised this phenomenon as 'status float'. And by the time anthropologist Ted Polhemus dubbed it the 'bubble up' (as opposed to 'trickle down') effect in 1994, subcultural style had become so entrenched on couture runways that it had already been the subject of a retrospective at London's Victoria and Albert Museum!

Whether it trickles down or bubbles up, if we attribute every change in fashion to an ineffable zeitgeist it becomes, in the words of fashion historian Joanne Entwistle, "almost a supernatural hypothesis". We forget that people's clothing choices aren't shaped monolithically by social structures, but by their subjective experiences of history, society and industry.

For instance, World War I may have broadly provoked the radical changes in women's fashion between the 1910s and the 1920s, but the war didn't directly make hemlines rise, nor inspire bobbed haircuts. There was no mass consensus among newly emancipated women to "throw away their corsets", as we're so often told.

Those fashions developed gradually, chaotically, from myriad changes that spread through different aspects of Western cultural life, like the intersecting ripples from several stones thrown into a pond at once. They only seem sudden and decisive from our vantage point, a century on.

Culture, much more than aesthetics or socioeconomics, captures ephemeral social attitudes and contextualises the past, like a lens focusing our appreciation. Just as I came to appreciate the Mitzi chair after Mad Men turned me on to midcentury modern design, our associations of historical dress with artworks, novels, movies, songs and more shape our understanding of the past.

That's why my analysis of fashion history in the book is largely refracted through culture: because our subjective, emotional consumption of these texts re-injects historical clothes with the subjective agency and affect that aesthetic and sociological theories strip away.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Talkings, readings, signings

The Out of Shape publicity train is still chugging away on its journey to MOAR SAELZ. Here are some upcoming events I'm involved in:

Next Wednesday, 3 July, I'll be roaming around the bookstores of Melbourne with Affirm Press's sales and marketing manager, signing copies of my book. Starting in the city at 9:30am, here are the stores we hope to visit:

Hill of Content Bookshop, 86 Bourke St Melbourne
Embiggen Books, 197-203 Lt Lonsdale St Melbourne
Reader’s Feast, 162 Collins St Melbourne
Dymocks, 234 Collins St Melbourne
Thesaurus Books, 29 Church St Brighton
Avenue Bookstore, 127 Dundas Place Albert Park
Readings, 112 Acland St, St Kilda
Coventry Bookstore, 265 Coventry St South Melbourne
Dymocks, The Well Shopping Centre, 793 Burke Rd Camberwell
Readings, 701 Glenferrie Rd Hawthorn
Readings, 309 Lygon St Carlton

These aren't public appearances as such, but feel free to pop past and pick up a signed copy, or if you catch me, say hello! I will be wearing the bright yellow skirt I write about buying from Savers in the book. I will probably also have a coffee in one hand and an ice pack wrapped around the other.

Next Thursday, 4 July, I'll be appearing at ACMI's "Life Is A Cabaret" event, associated with the Hollywood Costume exhibition. Hosted by Kip from Joy FM’s Cabaret Room, it'll also include the director of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival (which kicks off today) speaking on the history of cabaret in Melbourne, a performance of Liza Minnelli songs, and Clementine Ford doing a dramatic reading. I'll be talking about the costumes from the film Cabaret, and Weimar fashion more generally. It starts at 6pm and it's free!

Sunday 7 July is Wizard of Oz Day at ACMI and I'll be giving a talk about the costume designer, Adrian, who was one of Hollywood's most legendary designers. I will try to avoid shouting "ADRIAAAAAAN!" in a Sylvester Stallone voice but I'm not sure if I will succeed. I'll give you some background on his Wizard of Oz costumes in particular, and how they create character and drive the narrative in the film.

On Wednesday 17 July, I'll be doing a reading and book signing as part of the City of Melbourne's Look Stop Shop cultural program, themed 'Hot Stuff'. The fashion boutiques of Curtin House will be open late, and I'll be appearing at Metropolis Bookshop, the excellent art, design and pop culture specialist booksellers on level 3. I'll be reading from the book, so if you missed my Dog's Tales or Wheeler Centre readings, please come along. And if you'd like your copy inscribed, I'll be signing copies too.

And on Thursday 18 July, I'll be repeating my Elizabeth Taylor talk at ACMI. This is richly illustrated with pics of Liz's film costumes (especially Cleopatra), her wedding dresses, her groovy outfits from what I refer to as "the Yachting Years" and, most fabulously, her jewels! It went down quite well the first time and I surprised myself by how much information about Liz's life and style I had accumulated while researching.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Who listens to the radio?

This past week I've been busily spruiking Out of Shape on radio. Last Monday I did Life Matters on ABC Radio National, which you can listen to here. On my computer, it worked best to choose the "download" option, which opened up a separate window where the audio played happily.

Thursday was another big press day. I began the day at Triple R chatting to the Breakfasters about the book. I was in there a fair bit over summer, doing "The Stupid Question" segment for The Enthusiast, so it was nice returning to familiar ground. Listen to the segment here.

Later that I chatted with Kelly Higgins-Devine for Statewide Afternoons on ABC Brisbane, and that interview is here.

Then after that I appeared on Rafael Epstein's Drive program on ABC Melbourne, as part of the regular "Culture Club" talkback segment, but I don't have any audio from that interview.

I've also chatted with Genevieve Jacobs for Mornings on ABC Canberra, Ian Henschke for Mornings on ABC Adelaide, and Kate O'Toole for Mornings on ABC Darwin, but I haven't yet found any audio from those spots online. 

I'm keeping track of all the reviews on the Out of Shape page rather than mention them all individually. So if you're interested, you can check 'em out there. If you use Goodreads, you can also link up with me there and follow what I'm reading.  

Finally, I'll be posting some of the fascinating stuff I couldn't fit into the book as blog posts over the coming weeks.