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Published: Sunday, 8/24/2003

Fashion looks to the past

BY VANESSA WINANS
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Bell-bottoms and hip-huggers from the 1960s, midriff-baring shirts and peasant looks from the '70s, and off-the-shoulder punk tops and ankle boots from the 1980s are somehow peacefully co-existing in the world of fashion right now.

Conspicuously absent, though, is anything new in terms of silhouette, garment construction, or, well, attitude. We may live in the new millennium, but fashion remains stuck in the old one.

“The last half of the 20th century speeded up the fashion design momentum so that we used up all the possibilities,” says David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, a fashion forecasting firm in New York City. “We went up and down and in and out so quickly from the '60s to the '90s that there was nowhere to go design-wise.”

“The beginning of the 21st century, as far as fashion is concerned, has been a non-event,” the former fashion designer adds. “The endless retro retreads are pathetic and are a symptom of a lack of interest and creativity in fashion.”

And even the lack of progress isn't new, says Noel Palomo-Lovinski, an assistant professor in Kent State University's School of fashion and merchandising.

“Its common for fashion to stall out at the beginning of the century,” she says. “After the last century's turn, nothing really happened till the '20s.”

The current embrace of various eras of the past and the resulting lack of a cohesive look for now has several causes, fashion experts say.

Post-modernism, an artistic philosophy that takes various eras of the past and combines them into something new, has influenced all the arts for several years, Ms. Palomo-Lovinski says.

“It's this power of choice: Take a little bit of '60s and '70s and let's just smoosh it all together,” she explains.

Designers also played a role.

“The fashion industry committed suicide by embracing the idea of personal style,” Mr. Wolfe says. “We gave up leadership by saying, `Do your own thing, honey.' ”

As a result, high fashion began to founder as an industry in the 1980s and '90s. When that happened, and as America's economy went through a couple of rocky recessions, mass merchandisers began to fill the void.

“In the 18th century, they used to pass around dolls and pictures. It would take years for fashion to progress,” says Ms. Palomo-Lovinski. “In the 20th century, it was, on average, 10 years. Now, you've got Old Navy looking at what is trendy and turning it over in weeks.”

Patricia Cunningham, a fashion historian at Ohio State University, agrees.

“What's also different about now is that mass fashion has really taken off,” she says. “Mass marketers, the Gap, the big companies, that's what sells and that's what people wear. Those companies can pick up on a style so fast and produce, they can have it ready in a week.

“That's why you're not seeing a cohesive look, because things change so rapidly,” Dr. Cunningham says.

Instant information, courtesy of the Internet and cable television, added even more speed to the fashion equation, and raised customers' expectations.

“With visual communications, someone in London, New York, the Midwest, and China can see the same image simultaneously,” says Dianne Taylor, former dean of the London College of Fashion in England. “It's immediate. There's this constant quest for something new.”

That quest means “a new look, a new style [comes and goes] so very quickly that one particular influence doesn't become well-established as it has done in the past,” says Ms. Taylor, who now lives in Grand Rapids, Ohio.

Which explains the bewildering speed of the fashion era mixing bowl.

“The '80s came back two years ago, and now they're back again; yesterday we saw the '70s; tomorrow it may be something else,” says Dr. Cunningham.

Then there's the bottom line. Gone, for the most part, are the days when a designer would experiment with expensive fabrics and lavish attention and time on tiny details, all of which added to the production costs of making garments. Many companies - and cash-strapped customers - now go for the cheap and easy.

“Years ago, you'd buy something of quality and it lasted,” says Ms. Taylor. “Nowadays, you buy it, you wear it, then it's not in fashion, and you discard it.”

“Fashion has become so commercial,” Ms. Palomo-Lovinski says. “It's about constantly making a buck, and saying, `That's out; you have to buy this.' People aren't willing to spend that kind of money for something that's going to go out of style.”

Meanwhile, manners and dress have become increasingly casual in the United States, and other countries, too. All of those facts have led to people wearing quickly made, cheap clothes as a matter of course in their social and professional lives. And the widespread acceptance of such clothes means the finest days of fashion may lie in the past.

“The fact that the general population no longer has self-presentation as their No. 1 priority makes fashion less interesting and less important,” Mr. Wolfe says.

It also means that those who are waiting for the look of this decade to coalesce will likely wait for a long time indeed. Times have changed, and the age of fashion eras is over, experts say.

“That's ancient history,” Mr. Wolfe says. “Fashion is going to become like opera is today, a special interest for a special group.”

He takes a perverse pleasure in witnessing the end.

“I'm really thrilled that I'm here for the decline and fall. I'm 62, and I worried that I would die and miss something good.”



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