Retro Fashion

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Retro Fashion

The term "retro" applied to stylistic trends in music, film, and fashion in the 1990s, that were characterized by their iconic or kitsch use of the past. Stemming from the late 1960s concept of "retrochic" developed by the Paris avant garde, retro fashion embraced the use of revival or period styles from certain counter-cultural examples of alternative consumerism. Although retrochic began as an impromptu anti-fashion, it soon blossomed into a profitable, commercial style known by fashion critics as "the nostalgia industry." Retro become associated with a playful, postmodern nostalgia where the past is used as a storehouse of fashion. But what distinguished the retro fashion of the 1990s from older forms of revivalism, was the cavalier and eclectic disregard for the past. Designs and styles were used without sentimentality or discrimination; the aura of a previous style inspired revelry more than reverence. Retro was a form of pastiche, less concerned with historical context than with the fashionable and hip qualities of "pastness." Retro can thus be defined as a process of scripting history into nostalgic narratives of the chic and trendy.

The critical and media debate concerning the larger significance of this phenomenon, of various industries marketing the past within new regimes of style, has promoted controversy. In his book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson suggests that "in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles." For critics like Jameson, retro suggests a profound lack of invention; for others, it represents an ironic return to a past given new and creative cachet.

Describing clothing, music, and films as "retro" categorized the style by time period. While certain styles have been described as "retro" because they constitute pop-cultural kitsch of some description, more concrete definitions are available. Within the vintage clothing market, for example, the difference between vintage and retro styles is one of historical era, loosely distinguishing pre-war and post-sixties fashion: retro being commonly associated with kitsch of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Within the music industry, the term "retro" was used by radio stations, journalists, and marketing managers to categorize music linked to a particular moment or musical zeitgeist, principally Disco and New Wave. While the music cognoscenti in Britain and the United States also used the term to describe the creative character of Britpop (Blur evoked the Kinks, Oasis aped the Beatles), retro is more widely associated with popularized nostalgia for music kitsch of the 1970s and 1980s, from Abba to Duran Duran. Similarly, films described as "retro" have been labeled such because of their music. Boogie Nights (1997) and The Wedding Singer (1998) both display a self-conscious use of iconic style and sound in their respective evocations of the 1970s and 1980s. Both films illustrate a tendency in postmodern culture, identified by Jameson, to understand the past through stylistic connotation: less 1970s, more 1970s-ness.

The fashion industry embraced retro perhaps more than any other industry. The popularity of stylistic nostalgia and the selling of vintage clothing and retrochic in the 1980s began, in part, as a response to the consolidation of designer fashions like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Vintage and retro clothing stores (London's American Retro opened in 1986) provided an alternative to the international offerings of the designer labels. The success of these stores influenced mainstream fashion; in the 1990s, both vintage and retro became a distinguishable "look" in Britain and the States. Mathew Rolsten's portraits for Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and in Britain GQ and Vogue, illustrate these looks to some degree. His signature is one of glossy nostalgia, using motifs of 1930s glamour photography and the style of 1940s Hollywood studio stills.

A more particular retro aesthetic was evident in mainstream fashion with the comeback in the 1990s of flares, fly collars, and platform shoes. Witness to the popularity of the trend was the 1998 premier of the Fox Television sitcom, That '70s Show, and the McDonald's advertising campaign "Get Back with Big Mac," which featured fashion and dance trends from the 1970s. In each case, the vogue was playful pastness.

—Paul Grainge

Further Reading:

Davis, Angela Y. "Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia." Critical Inquiry. Vol. 21, No. 1, 1994, 37-45.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London, Verso, 1991.

Kammen, Michael. Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture. New York, Vintage, 1993.

Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London, Verso, 1994.