On time, in fashion

Originally published in SSAW issue 1

What do fashion and Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov have in common? On initial inspection this question might appear absurd, these two seem as far apart as this season’s Givenchy python Pandora bag and 1950’s literature can be. But look closely and you’ll find one vital ingredient that is core to both Nabokov’s work and the function of fashion. They are both driven by chronophobia: fear of time.

Art critic and professor, Pamela Lee, describes chronophobia in her book Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s published in 2006 as ‘an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of’. Nowhere does this materialize better in Nabokov’s work than in his acclaimed novel Lolita published in 1955. It is a story about middle-aged scholar Humbert Humbert who is also the unreliable narrator of this metafiction. As a result of a loss of a childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh, Humbert is infatuated with young girls, or nymphets as he calls them. He directs this obsession towards young Lolita who is reminiscent of Annabel. The paradox of the nymphets is that they only exist for a fleeting moment and this gives the novel and the relationship between Humbert and Lolita its tension. Similarly with fashion: this shadowy character whose intentions don’t always come across as genuine, is in love with the young. However this is not going to be a ‘for or against’ case about the use of young models in the fashion industry as the analogy might initially suggest. Instead it proposes to look at a system, which is governed by craving for the new and the novel. Fashion, much like Humbert, is in love with something, which, by definition, cannot last. Thus the villain here is time, whilst newness is fashion’s Lolita.

Fashion is constantly trying to escape the constraints of time. This drives fashion to attempt to renew and to incarnate itself. The whole industry is based on productions of newness; after all, fashion is in the business of conspicuous consumption worth globally around US$ 4,395 billion. During its evolution, fashion has found various ways to innovate, challenge and change, to create new fashions. Consider the radical changes in style from the turn of the century belle époque frills to more streamlined 1920’s or full-skirted 1950’s, to the rising hemlines in the 1960’s. Whilst the changes didn’t happen overnight, the speed of fashion has gradually begun to accelerate. Clothing manufacturers like Zara declare that the time it takes for a new design to be taken from an idea to the physical product, through mass-manufacturing, to the shop floors around the world, is no longer than four to five weeks. Partly because of this, fashion has reached a speed in which trends move so fast that they seem hard to make sense of and, more often, it is difficult to detect what is actually new. Overnight transformations in silhouette from long to short, minimal to maximal, from A to H line, happen, whilst colours, detailing and proportion change as seasons come and go. For fashion, it doesn’t really matter where the ideas, designs and garments come from as long as they appear to be new.

The problem with constant creation of newness is the ability to maintain innovation. Whilst fashion history suggests that there has been a steady revolution in the way we dress, this, in fact, is not true. Dior’s New Look, for example, was radical, but it wasn’t new. An adaptation of the Belle Epoque crinoline, this style that hadn’t been seen in 50 years, looked extravagant as it was seen to waste fabric after the Second World War material rationing. The timing was therefore impeccable. However, up until the moment when hemlines stopped rising, mostly because they simply couldn’t go any higher, fashion lost its ability to introduce anything radically new. From there onwards, all garments have more or less been variations of the past forms. Now some fashion designers, with more obvious historical reference points, shamelessly steal styles, each re-appropriating them in a manner that is distinctive for them. Others try to escape the past with futuristic styles, but cannot help but to refer to it directly or indirectly. What is presented is either pastiche or bricolage, both symptoms of the post-modern design stagnation. Much like Humbert, who is projecting his love for the past, as with the lost Annabel, towards the present, as in the young Lolita, fashion that has a fear of looking old, is obsessed with the irretrievable past.

In the foreword for the book Lolita, as part of the metafictional narration, Humbert describes his death and thus there is a sense of urgency of his passion towards the young girl. Much in the same way, fashion is never content with itself. As soon as it appears on a runway or in shops, the countdown to its end begins. From the offset they both know their faith. The dilemma that both Humbert and fashion have is that youth like newness cannot be possessed, because time rips it away even as they try to capture it. What they love, they are doomed never to possess, but time has always been the villain of all lovers. It seems that fashion wants, simultaneously, to forget and to remember, to create and to recreate. But whilst fashion hunts for the new, evolution in style takes place. Perhaps it is not quite as obvious as fashion makes us think but underneath all the ideas, change is evident. Newness, however, is just a myth when it comes to fashion and there is no cure for its chronophobia.

No time, in fashion

Lolita remains widely admired, read and studied not to mention culturally relevant today, however the book wasn’t an instant success. It isn’t hard to imagine that Nabokov found it almost impossible to get his book published due to its controversial subject matter. And when it finally came out the book caused a mild scandal whilst the sales remained low in the beginning. However over the years Lolita has gained the status it now has as a 20th century classic and part of the canon of literature. One of the reasons for this is that Nabokov achieved the creation of a narrative, which whilst it was published in the 1950’s, with its storyline based in previous decades, still resonates today. The book is rooted in time but the subject is timeless, as the story allows flexibility in the interpretation, which can be culturally appropriated. But what makes something timeless like Nabokov’s Lolita is the question that remains unanswered.

Not everything can, or even should, stand the test of time. Fads in fashion, and in literature, phrase the steady flow of the evolution of the discipline and enrich the debates surrounding them. Whilst this is not an avocation for disposability, fads cater to some extent to our need for newness but more importantly they help us to further define what we mean by good and bad design through the continuous discourse they create. However some things have a mixture of virtues that outweigh the allure of the new in the long run and history of fashion is not short of classics. Ideas, shapes, silhouettes, colours, prints and materials, that stand the test of time in the fast cycles of fashion, testify this. Consider stripes for example: whether Breton or Marimekko style, they both have a combination of qualities that elevate them to that canonical status. Fabric plays a big part, as does the width of the stripes and colour of the cloth. These signifiers help us to identify the product beyond the label sewn into the garment. Pricing has enabled both of these products to remain accessible whilst endorsements by a few selected icons have no doubt helped along the way to engrave these stripes into our cultural memory with their varying connotations.

This magical combination of design characteristics that cook up a canon has been cracked plenty of times but the recipe remains unknown as it is fixed in the temporality of time. It changes as our preferences in aesthetics, codes of cultural conduct and ideas around fashion and fashionability evolve. Architect Adolf Loos in his manifesto Ornament and Crime, published in 1908, argued that ornamented object is more inclined to go out of style, which, over 100 years later, we still believe is relevant. But despite this, there is no such thing as a universal timeless aesthetic and Loos’ comment only demonstrates a shift in aesthetic preferences from the late 19th century ornamental look to what we now understand as modernist style. Today the criteria might include sustainability, a certain lack of decoration, functionality, longevity and emotional engagement, or even notoriety, as in the case of Lolita. But just this combination isn’t enough, as it is the test of time that determines the canonical status of an object.

One cannot set out to design a classic, as this status is a byproduct of creating strong design that resonates with the audience. The title might or might not come with time. Richard Sennett notes in his book The Craftsman, published in 2008, that acquiring a craft skill requires ten thousand hours of experience and practice. And this is just the starting point for acquiring the basic tools of the trade. Not every great piece of design gets the title of classic, or immortal status as part of the canon of fashion. Patience is thus perhaps the key ingredient in waiting for the timeless title to turn up. In the meantime, we could, and should, continue to evolve the discipline of fashion through critical reflection on what is happening, and create a practice that works with, through, and in, time.