Last week I gave two students a tour of the historic fashion collection I work with. We started talking about trends and how fashion is historically cyclical. By their expressions I could tell they didn’t follow what I was saying fully.
So I grabbed a 1920s shift and a 1960s paper dress. Right away they could identify that the A-line silhouettes were identical.
Next I found a bias-cut, chiffon dress from the 1930s and a chiffon dress from the 1970s. First, I explained what bias-cut meant — that most clothing is cut out of fabric in which the grains run vertically and horizontally (luckily I was wearing a dress cut on the straight-of grain whose vertical and horizontal grains were easy to see), but that bias-cut clothing meant the grains were running diagonally. I could tell they were catching on when they pointed out how the floral pattern of the 1930s dress was on an angle. I showed them that the 1970s dress had bias-cut sections as well, not to mention that both were made of flowy chiffon.
Then I choose a 1940s suit and an 1980s suit both with strong shoulders. Again they could see the similarities in silhouette and masculine influences.
However, this was where we hit a bit of a dead end. The 1950s and the 1990s don’t replicate this patten. But, I said, even though the 1950s followed Christian Dior’s “New Look,” it wasn’t actually a new silhouette. I explained that the New Look was an hourglass silhouette, which was last seen in the 1860s. Dior’s reintroduction of this look was popular because western culture was craving femininity after the clothing from the 1940s had become so masculine.
This was a perfect segue back to trends. They asked me why neon was so popular currently, so I asked them to think back to the last time it was used so abundantly. They admitted that it was awhile back. We talked about how it’s popular this season because it hasn’t been used in awhile, so it looks fresh to our eyes. Fashion is all about change, and we want something that seems “new.” But newness is a bit of an illusion, since you can find elements of most trends somewhere in a historic fashion collection.
That’s when I noticed we were standing next to neons and other loud colors from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The two students agreed with me that the colors weren’t agreeable to their eyes, but I showed them that in contrast to the colors worn in 1950s and early 1960s, these loud colors would have looked completely new and, thus, cool at the time.
It was the most fun I’ve had in awhile giving a tour. Once I started pulling garments, the young women opened up and showed curiosity and thoughtfulness. They could concretely see how fashion trends reoccured. Another strong case for historic fashion collections’ power as tools for teaching.