Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Lieux de Memoire

A thought hit me this morning (wham!) as I picked up my new copy of Vogue Paris. The front cover read 'New look forever', which, of course, refers to the infamous collection by christian dior which supposedly injected femininity and fun into women's wardrobes.

This got me wondering if fashion could be accurately read as a 'commemorative' act, which constantly re-works previous glories and references the past.

Pierre Nora and Maruice Hawlbachs are these french writers who proposed the idea of 'collective memory'. This refers to shared attitudes and seemingly implicit values which are held by a group of people (generally a nation). These attitudes, or 'memories' dictate how we think about the past, which in turn, plays a strong role in dictating how we think about the future. Then, when nations 'commemorate' the past, such as in big national celebrations, such as Bastille Day, they seek to shape the public's attitudes to their state and national culture.

If we apply this rule to fashion (and bear with me here), a definite fashion 'collective memory' can be exposed.If we think about fashion followers (!) as a group or collective (i mean here, Vogue readers for instance), then a collective fashion memory would sound a bit like this ('Coco Chanel- mother of the sophisticated woman's wardrobe- white/pearls/women's tailoring- mais oui! breton shirts- how chic!!' or '1960's fashion was just so liberating- mary quant- mini skirts- how sexy and fun!').

In actual fact, this is of course a very condensed and shallow opinion of what was actually (naturally) a long period of varied and diverse fashion. Fashion historians neatly categorise and thicken the narrative of fashion history into short segments, which can be easily digested and vivdly remembered among the public memory. Nietzsche and Foucault took major issues with this role of historians (though they didnt actually refer to fashion historians). They argued that the role of the historian should be to relay the truth to intellectuals and not try to interpret or simplify the past for the unintelligent pubic's digestion.

Fashion week 09/10 actually serves very well as an example to my thesis. The 80s comeback on the catwalk was relayed by fashion journalists to the public as a very defnite reference to our current economic climate etc etc. The re-invigoration of the shoulder-pad was a repetition of past fashion success applied to what seems to be a similar economic context to the 1980s. Designers seemed to be sayin- "Look how crap things were in the 80s, i mean, we all wore shoulder pads and thought that was ok, but then boom! the 90's took off and we all became rich again. Have faith. Our time will come when we will look back and laugh at these collections again, whilst sipping champagne".

Fashion historians reviewed the collections as Pierre Nora or Michel Foucault would have predicted: by making grand interpretations about what these clothes said about the recession. And some of them did it with great sincerity and no sign of irony.

Tradition would have it that the main mission of most major fashion houses is to constantly alter and adapt the winning formula they found once upon a time (yes- you Valentino!). A collection such as this can however be reviewed quite comfortably for journos. No-one likes an unpredictable designer, since they mess with the trajectory of fashion's unquenchable thirst for nostalgia. (Like, hello, Giles, what were you thinking in being so original?!)

I better stop here before I go a bit mad on this thought.

So, thought for the day: fashion is commemorative and the role of the fashion historian/journalist perpetuates this fact, since they use fashion and it's reinterpretation of past triumphs to make positive statements about the future. capiche?

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