Despite a recent post critiquing the mystery of distressed jeans, I must admit a certain penchant for retro clothing. The two are not to be confused, even though they often overlap. ‘Distressed’ tends to signify the intentional staining or damaging of clothes to make them appear worn, whereas ‘retro’ does not necessarily entail such artificial scruffiness, rather focussing on the ‘vintage’ appearance of the product.
‘Retro’ is not a new conception. Throughout history many eras have looked back to their forebears for aesthetic or sartorial inspiration, and this often for ideological purposes. As Marx remarked, everything in history happens twice: ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. Take Alexander II’s fancy-dress balls just prior to the October Revolution, in which the Russian aristocracy dressed up in late medieval costumes. This was part of a whole ideological package in which Alexander was engaged. After much popular unrest throughout the nineteenth century, which exploded in the failed 1905 revolution, Alexander’s legitimacy was in tatters. By summoning up the mysterious Muscovite past, he hoped to reinforce his hegemony over the people, a hegemony that was fading so rapidly away.
So what are we to make of the current fashion for retro products? Perhaps the answer lies partly in an observation of Eric Hobsbawm’s in the introduction to his epic history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes. He notes that young people today grow up in a perpetual present, having lost all sense of history and tradition. I can personally vouch for that very feeling: my knowledge of history in general is exceedingly poor, and I doubt whether I could answer even basic questions as to how we have ended up with the systems, nations, and peoples through and in which we live today.
The consequence of this, it seems, is that we need something to fill the historical vacuum, the lack of links to a common past or heritage. What retro clothing, and retro products more generally, tend to do is to supply us with an artificial link to a past which we imagine to be rooted in something more absolute than our current groundlessness. I often wear a flat-cap, for example: half of this is simply because I like it and because a friend of mine found it on top of a bin in Leeds, and so it has about it a certain postmodern romance. But perhaps the other half of why I wear it is because of its simultaneous links to a bygone bohemian aristocracy and, their secretly linked antithesis, the working-class men of old. I take part in no communal tradition, something which suburbia prevents most successfully, so I substitute my hollow present for an imagined past of plenitude.
The same could be said of the trend for sepia-toned or black and white photographs. What we see ‘naturally’ in colour is so obviously empty and coarse that we try to give it an air of authenticity by invoking aesthetic techniques that belonged to an era which possessed – supposedly – more depth.
What we should really be doing is acting communally to bring about a state of affairs in which the creative fashions we design together possess a depth of their own because they are an outgrowth of a whole, flourishing society.