Critique On Twentieth Century Global Fashion Cultural Studies Essay

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Fashion in its literal sense is a term coined for a generally adopted style or design in shoes, accessories, clothing etc. (Christopher Breward , 2003). However, today it has a much deeper, intrinsic meaning as the famous French designer, Coco Channel (1883-1971) puts it, "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." It has, since time immemorial, been the foremost form of self-expression, self-definition and a reflection of one's personality. It is a product of social, cultural and climatic forces that inhibit societies. Before the 19th century clothing was tailor made to suit the needs of each individual (Roland Barthes , 1990). However, at the advent of the 20th century, the idea of standardized clothing became more popular as sewing and stitching technologies became widespread and the world moved into the era of industrialization (Roland Barthes , 1990). It was then precisely that the fashion industry was born; henceforth the concept of fashion came into existence. A typical fashion cycle looks like the following:

The introduction marks the beginning of a new style, trend whereas the rise marks a gain in popularity and familiarity. Culmination is the highest point or peak of the trend and decline marks the end of a style or trend. The graph shows that the peak of elitist fashion was reached in 1980's marked by the influx of synthetic fibers such as Lycra, Spandex, and viscose. It was this year that fashion became highly correlated with performance and was used as a status symbol as well as a symbol of professionalism.

Chapter II- Literature Review

2.1- An insight into the 20th century global fashion:

Although, fashion has its roots since time immemorial, the history of fashion design is no older than the mid 19th century when Charles Fredrick Worth launched his first fashion house in Paris. Ever since, the concept of fashion designers has dominated the fashion world. Throughout 20th century, almost all of the high end fashion spread from Paris and London. The boundary between haute-couture and daily wear garments was not strictly defined. At the onset of this century, the concept of fashion photography emerged as did fashion magazines. The world of fashion is constantly evolving to a new state as Oscar Wilde puts it: "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." Every century and perhaps decade is marked with changes in fashion trends. A major breakthrough in women's fashion came in 1920's with the introduction of flapper styles with emphasis on slack clothes and shorter skirts with temporary revivals of long skirts (Jen Jones , 2007). A typical flapper looked like this:

The skirt length timeline relating to half of the 20th century can be seen below:

By the start of 1930's a large part of western world faced the effects of the Great Depression and haute couture became less popular. The focus shifted from the more romantic haute couture line (marked by a revival of waist lines alongwith a bust outline, longer hems, and skin-tight evening gowns) to everyday, utility wear (Linda Watson, 2004). The 1940's, being years of war, were marked by the production of uniforms, whereas the 1950's saw the return of fashion with changes in haute-couture. The end of the 20th century was characterized by globalization of the fashion industry with fashion centers emerging all over the world most notably Rome and New York.

2.2- An overview of two popular fashion movements: New Romantic versus Punk

New Romantic

The late 1970's and early 1980's were marked by the onset of the New Romantic movement characterized by new trends in fashion and music in U.K (Dave Rimmer, 2003). The movement is originally marked by the new wave music and has survived to date with few alterations. The music gained its roots in London's nightclubs and included notable bands such as Visage, Culture Club, Adam and the Ants, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Japan and Spandau Ballet with considerable role of others such as Brian Eno and Roxy Music (Rimmer, Dave, 2003). The following picture depicts clothing under the new Romantics.


Friday and Saturday nights were no longer the most celebrated with music; rather, Tuesdays also received special attention when the club "Gossips" introduced Bowie nights on this day (R Foster, 1962).


The above picture shows a pirate outfit designed by Westwood. The outfit was tailor made for Adam and the Ants. The theme was romantic, attractiveness and emphasis was on bright vivid colors.


The trendsetters in Punk fashion include Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier wardrobe worn by bands such as The Exploited (M. Surhone et al, 2009). Punk fashion was initially largely handcrafted but soon gained mass acceptance and became mass produced. Flannel shirts printed with political slogans and band names became a popular practice during the 1980's (M. Surhone et al, 2009). Leather jackets and denim vests were studded, painted and tailor made and replaced the earlier practice of tailor made blazers (M. Surhone et al, 2009). Female punks typically entailed shaving the entire head except for a strand in the front. (M. Surhone et al, 2009). Perhaps the most prominent recognition of this era was given by the onset of spiked or apparently electrified hair with flamboyant colors and streaks as shown below:

Chapter III- Analysis

The belief that the New Romantics was an entirely new movement is heavily debated. Some believe it was a natural outgrowth of the Punk era and contend that The New Romantic was infact a replacement of the Punk fashion that lost its fervor by late 1970's largely because it was believed that the latter had evolved into a political movement. After the Punk fashion reached its peak pop culture demanded limelight which was fulfilled eventually by a new wave of fashion known as the New Romantics (Dave Rimmer, 2003).The zeal and zest associated with the Punk culture was eventually lost, hence, the New Romantic was born out of the need to replace the Punk culture. Hence it is believed that there existed a time when Punk became devoid of media attention largely because the elderly journalists were unable to relate themselves to and took little interest in the prominent youth culture that was at the crux of Punk fashion during the 1970's (Ministry of Rock, 2010). Once, however, media attention was grabbed, the Punk rose to great heights with crazy bright colors and spiked hair becoming a common sight. However, as it is with any fashion, the sight became too common to appeal to the public. It was then that a need for a different style statement and trend was recognized by the people. This period witnessed the growth of cults and half punks in an attempt to establish a new fashion trend. Both genders embraced Dr Marten's shoes in 1980's and were the hallmark of the punk subcultures and other cultures that spread from U.K to the rest of the world. (Jennifer Craik, 2005). Sometimes Dr. Marten's shoes were paired with miniskirts or full, Laura Ashley- style dresses (Pauline Weston Thomas, 2010). They were the hallmark of Gothic society which was characterized by the trend of long hair lengths that were slightly raised from the back of the head, whitish skin, intense makeup and black-colored nail polish, body-piercing and dog-collars (Pauline Weston Thomas, 2010). The dress code was often black and made of woven fabric of cotton, wool, or rayon twill with lace made of fishnet material (Pauline Weston Thomas, 2010). Corsettes were often worn by girls (Dave Rimmer, 2003). Several British bands remained loyal to Gothic culture include The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, and The Cult (Dave Rimmer, 2003). At the same time, however, it was observed that ever since the start of Punk fashion there existed a niche of effervescent, energetic, flamboyant group of posers who put clubbing and good dressing at the centre rather than engaging in anarchic acts. Philip Sallon, George O'Dowd, Steve Strange and Chris Sullivan were amongst the earliest most notable posers (Steve Strange, 2002). Although initially these trendsetters and early fashion icons labeled themselves as Blitz Kids (after a famous club), the media soon started calling them the New Romantics (Steve Strange, 2002). Blitz is noted for honoring Bowie nights where 'Ashes to Ashes' symbolized the anthem (New York magazine, 1982). The Blitz Kids consisted of Tony Hadley, Gary Kemp, Steve Norman, Martin Kemp and John Keeble who eventually came together under the umbrella of the band Spandau Ballet as shown below:

The main distinction between the New Romantics and its predecessor (the Punk) then became focus on glamour and looking good in the latter, a reflection of softer, more fragile, self-conscious attitudes contrary to the violent, anarchic and crude culture portrayed by Punks. The New Romantics came to be known for their anti-Punk attitudes as they replaced sloppiness with sophistication and classiness, vulgarity with gracefulness, dressing down with dressing up. The new movement under New Romantics gained momentum in a matter of few years largely because the media was already craving for a break from the Punk fashion and wanted a new topic for publicity. The New Romantics therefore is largely credited for the fact that it bought media under substantial control which eventually led to the outbreak of a new generation of fashion magazines such as i-D which gave due popularity to club culture (John Peacock, 1998).

The trendsetters in the New Romantic group paid more attention to the sartorial aspects of fashion rather than sternness of the Punk. The entire look was personalized, themes based on fiction were chosen and Hollywood glitz and glamour was followed.

The New Romantic movement is believed to have been the product of the labor class which was also the most regular television audience (John Peacock, 1998). In an attempt to balance music with aesthetics the movement began as an attempt to enable musicians to look good along with sounding good as opposed to the radio that was the main medium during the Punk fashion.

Much in contrast to the Punks, the followers of New Romantics wanted themselves to be the centre of attention, to look attractive, luscious all the time. It is not surprising then that heavy makeup and attire marked the New Romantics (Dave Rimmer, 2003).

The Goth fashion, that was a modification of its predecessor, the punk, bears little resemblance to the new romantics fashion as far as music is concerned. The music under New Romantics was more classy, refined and aimed to make its way to the top of music charts (John Peacock, 1998). Examples of solo singers include Spandau Ballet and Duran who made their way to the music charts (Dave Rimmer, 2003). Goth on the other hand was inherently anti- chart material much in contrast to the New Romantics (Gavin Baddeley, 2002) .The New Romantic was a club-centered, and completed fashion product in contrast to the Goth which was to a large extent incomplete at this stage and revolved around live band performance (Michael Gamer , 2000). The Betcave in 1982, however, was a breakthrough in this regard, as this is when the Goth scene precisely fine tuned into a club-oriented fashion (Michael Gamer, 2000). However at this stage also the music was largely revolving around underground bands and not perfected pieces of music.

The New Romantics culture is starkly separated from its predecessor in the sense that in the former it was a common practice for bands to have their videos shot in a highly organized manner with theatrical effects alongwith careful streamlining of dressing according to theme of the music (R Foster, 1962). The pirate ceremonial dress designed by Vivienne Westwood, orange crew cut and cattle scene with suit and tie of Annie Lennox are trademarks of this fashion movement (Dave Rimmer, 2003). Furthermore, George O'Dowd's silk kimonos with ribboned dreadlocked hair and Martin Fry's frantic gold trousers and jacket were also among the fashion statements of this movement (Dave Rimmer, 2003).

In many ways the New Romantics incorporated elements from other movements wherever they were found. Although the rough pragmatism of the Punks was abandoned the agitation, frustration and trashiness associated with the Punk culture didn't seem to go away. The latter was casted into the New Romantic movement which was reflected in the splendor, gender bending practices. Most of the 1980's New Romantic followers seemed to follow the footsteps of their predecessors, the Punks, in that they were seen in pointed hair and bold eyeliner. New romanticism spread its influence to the music industry of UK in the early 1980's to counter the sternness and gravity pertaining to the Punk movement. While the Punks protested against the harsh realities of youth life in British council estates, the New Romantics rejoiced glamour and luxury at London's nightclubs (Christopher Breward, 2003). The make-up was stark and heavy. Leigh Bowery who was a the host of a designer club and known for her eccentricity in fashion design became an inspiration for performers such as Boy George and earned himself a reputed name as far as underground music performances in clubs is concerned. (Christopher Breward, 2003). One of the first designers of the New Romantic era was Vivienne Westwood who was known catered to famous bands of that time including Adam and the Ants and was known for her pirate- look designs (Christopher Breward, 2003). The pirate look included "luxurious, full-sleeved, frilled buccaneer shirts. Hussar-style jackets with gold strands were the feature of this culture with the shirts alongwith high-waisted, loose trousers which narrowed at the ankle" (Dave Rimmer, 2003). Unfolded collars , short shirt with top few buttons open was a fashion credited to this era which continued to be followed for several years.(Tom Tierney, 1998). Except for traditional societies, the fashion was accepted by both genders as part of casual clothing. Folded collars were seen as gauche except in the case of professional clothing (John Peacock, 1998). Leggings were also very popular (John Peacock, 1998). The movement's reason for existence was to display grandiosity in attitudes which manifested itself in Technicolor sleeve art and extraordinarily striking shoot locations (R Foster, 1962). Pink and reddish, pansticked face painting was adopted alongwith peroxided puffed hair and fringes drawn to one side of the face were hallmarks of this movement (Pauline Weston Thomas, 2010). The styling tended to display a fine blend of both an elitist and a commoner image. The movement also draws major features from the French eclectic revival which was seen in paisleys, brocade with extravagant use of silk, satin and velvet fabrics.


To conclude, the two movements have been starkly different than similar in that the attitudes underlying them were poles apart; the Punks denoted the careless, untidy, rebellious, frustrated and agitated youth whereas the New Romantics was a reflection of a soft, brighter, more organized, contented and civilized youth. The transition from the Punk to the New Romantics signified a revolutionary change in fashion history, a change in attitudes, values and beliefs of the people. Such changes are not new in fashion history as Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) puts it, "Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new".