the indefinable decades

The origins of my interest in fashion were survey texts I found in the library of the small town I grew up in. Most fashion history books tend to be organized one decade per chapter, simplifying the chaos of costume history into clearly demarcated digits. Often they include cute little charts on silhouettes and hemlines like the one above. I loved the neat little rows of figures, and without a doubt that deep, early impression formed the format I would adopt as an illustrator.

As I discovered fashion at the end of the 1980s as an eight year old, the tidy division of decades was beginning to break down. The sharp-shouldered silhouette dissolved in the 1990s. I remember looking forward to the end of the century so I could see the 20th century laid out in a row of 10 clearly defined figures, but of course by the time that happened, I was old enough to realize that the 1990s didn’t fit the formula. There was no single silhouette that somehow contained the essence of the decade.

Having exhausted the survey-texts of my hometown library, in 2001 I started fashion school and began systematically working my way through the fashion, textile, sewing, art, design, illustration and photography sections of the library, as well as the periodical archives. I got my tuition’s worth out of those stacks. As I did this, fashion’s patterns began to get more and more complex.

Still, there’s something satisfying, if superficial, about summing up a decade’s definition. Silhouettes have stopped standing in for decades and now signify more abstract concepts. This post is about how I think of the last four decades, and the character of the designers that emerged in each one.

The louche 1970s silhouette of bell bottoms and blowouts does seem to suit a decade of deconstruction. There was a great relaxation of sexual signifiers – men and women both grew their hair long, abandoned structured clothing and embraced colour and pattern. Casual came of age. The last modern western youth culture drummed the postmodern death knell with punk. Exhausting modern street style, designers and rock star trendsetters alike turned to importing inspiration from the past and abroad. The frenzy of appropriation increased the momentum of the homogenization of international fashion culture.

In contrast, the designers who wove their labels in this decade are autobiographical auteurs. Giorgio Armani, Diane von Furstenberg, Betsey Johnson, Calvin Klein, Jean Paul Gaultier… and at the end of the decade, Gianni Versace.

The 1980s was the last decade that did have a stereotypical silhouette – sharp-shouldered supermen and women. It was the last time media was still monolithic enough to brand a decade with a catchphrase. There is an essential straight-forwardness  to the 1980s that we will never recapture. Rich people looked like rich people, and that’s what fashion was for. Fashion was still a small scene and mysterious at the beginning of the decade. It parlayed that glamour into the big business fashion has become.

By the end, it was celebrified, corporate, and at the peak of its power. Supermodels. Branding, a pretty straight-forward way to commoditize. Money was cheap. The many designers that established their businesses in this decade became rich and powerful and continue to dominate decades later, with huge companies. Heavy hitters from the class include Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Miuccia Prada, Yohji Yamamoto, Dolce & Gabbana, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano, and Michael Kors.

The 1990s, the decade that defies easy visualization, was fashion’s intellectual phase. It evolved from a straightforward business into something much more complex and self-aware. For the first time it was the subject of rigorous critical and academic attention, and schools became very important and influential. Thus, the dialogue between designers and media became much more sophisticated. Braindead branding was abandoned and designers began to challenge the boundaries of fashion using narrative and spectacle.

Just as the television monolith exploded into a multi-channel universe, so did fashion. The demand for increasing theatre and provocation sped up. Youth cultures were practically stillborn before they were absorbed, and the world was plundered for every available aesthetic. That’s why there’s no unifying symbol for the decade.

In retrospect, the brainy 1990s was an amazing decade for fashion and produced many diverse, compelling creators. They have not yet been able to build the massive empires of their predecessors, though. Alumni include Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Anna Sui, Isabel Marant, Jeremy Scott, Viktor & Rolf, Roland Mouret, Rick Owens, and Junya Watanabe.

The 2000s was a difficult decade to enter fashion. The success and storytelling of the last two decade’s designers inspired a lot of us to apply to fashion school. At the same time, like every industry, fashion was facing the challenges of a media transition and the consequences of an increasingly complicated world. Again, there is no way to nail down a single silhouette to tie the aughties into a neat knot.

Money has become much more expensive, just as media has become cheaper. Fashion has become more about media than the other way around. The scarcity of resources, and the division of attention has produced a very harsh environment for new names on labels. Perhaps it’s no surprise that designers of this decade now often turn to uncontroversial, technique-based design or celebrity dressing. Fashion seems like it has become more muted, or maybe we’ve all just become jaded from too much visual stimulation.

It’s hard to tell which designers from this decade will be able to establish long-term careers. My bets are on Alexander Wang, Proenza Schouler, Christopher Kane, J.W. Anderson, Gareth Pugh, and Zac Posen.

Who knows what’s in store for the 2010s? We live in interesting times. The only thing that’s certain is that I can’t draw an outline around fashion anymore.

9 thoughts on “the indefinable decades”

  1. I’ve been wondering this myself for years! There was no real defined look in the last 3 decades, but if there were to be what would they be??? The last pic I totally agree with… not so sure about the first two.

  2. Thank you for an interesting post! Fashion indeed has to grow with new media, but it does seem to create a harsh environment. Perhaps designers with a very clear and/or conceptual aesthetic will be the most succesful in this decade due to fast-pased trends and too much visual stimulation?

    Fashion currently seems to be a bit “muted”, but perhaps this is a transition phase of making peace with new media, and new possibilities. I think fashion will become less Western-cetric and more focused on emerging designers from other parts of the world with growing economies. Through this we might have a slight change of aesthetics and new iconic looks that will be considered to represent the decade.

  3. Thanks Lisa and G for the comments.

    Just a couple additions I couldn’t fit into the post:

    The modern media environment creates a lot of contradictory conversations, and when designers are worried about how they are perceived (especially as the business of launching labels has never been more precarious) this creates a problem. Perhaps that’s why fashion seems less adventurous now. For example, on one hand the public has never been more insensitive to provocation than before, but on the other hand cultural sensitivity has become a new concept and when people are offended, it becomes a strong story.

    Just as media has become more concerned with the technology that delivers it, it seems like design has become more technology-focused than ever – engineered prints, experiments in fabric. That’s why I think of the 2000s as the media decade. It’s more about the stuff used to make fashion than fashion itself.

  4. Hi Danielle,
    I am glad to have landed on this post as I have been pondering the apparent lack of definition characteristic of the last 15 years or so. One thing did cross my mind, which is that while in previous decades it was very clear what kinds of silhouettes were “in,” it was also very clear what was not. If flares were in, one would not be caught dead in skinnies etc… However, it seems that now, not only is there not a clearly defined silhouette, but it is also not clearly defined what one should *not* wear. Have we recycled silhouettes so many times that it no longer really matters? Is this perhaps why some of our star designers today are not as much masters of silhouettes as geniuses of prints and fabrics? Perhaps I lack a coherent knowledge of fashion past, but when I think of Mary Katrantzou, Jonathan Saunders and Christopher Kane I am primarily struck by the prints and play with fabrics (laser cutting, combining of unorthodox materials etc…). Even Alexander Wang seems to transgress convention by mixing leather with sweatshirt fabric. And Dries Van Noten, for whom prints have always been a theme, is now taking it a step further with digital prints. Perhaps we will no longer define an era by the silhouette, but by these other characteristics? Just a thought!

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