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When the eminent 19th-century fashionista Oscar Wilde opined, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past,” he was clearly not sitting front and center at the Tom Ford show last spring.
With sufficient cash, any man, or woman, can indeed purchase Ford’s blinding array of 1980s-inspired acid-green leopard leggings, sequined logo sweatshirts, and silvery faux-python pantsuits—a panoply of cheerful debauchery best seen under the hazy glow of a mirror ball.
Ford, apparently dreaming of Rodeo Drive in the heyday of 90210 (one of his sweats even reads Tom Ford of Beverly Hills) was not the only designer this season mourning the halcyon days of his long-lost youth.
At Saint Laurent there were sky-high hemlines, plunging necklines, and football-player shoulders worthy of a Dynasty cast reunion; Alexander Wang could have been outfitting Tess McGill in Working Girl; and Marc Jacobs gleefully reprised the bold shapes and bright hues formerly flaunted by Thierry Mugler, Emanuel Ungaro, and Claude Montana.
It’s not only fashion that is currently soaking in a bath of ’80s nostalgia. The movies gave us a Blade Runner sequel (Harrison Ford and all). Angels in America scooped up Tonys for its recent Broadway revival, taking us back to the darker side of the decade. On TV, Dynasty did come back with a different cast, and Murphy Brown is being prepped for a reboot— with the same cast. Stranger Things and The Americans transported us to the early ’80s every week.
Why this retreat into the alleged glory days of the relatively recent past? The obvious answer might be that in these insanely fraught times, the notion of a simpler era may provide some cold comfort. (Though if you lived through those times, kids, it wasn’t all that rosy.)
Maybe it is the barrage of images of the past—photographs, movies, 600 channels’ worth of TV shows—documenting every costume we have worn over the past century, from the ridiculous to the sublime, that has seeped into our collective unconscious.
The full-throttle embrace of fashion trends from the days when you were obsessed with Pac-Man and wanted your MTV may cause your pretty eyes to well up with memories. But is it in fact a good idea to party like it’s 1989? To put it bluntly—if you are old enough to have worn these garments the first time around, should you be pulling on animal-print leggings once again? Is that Prada nylon fanny pack really ready to wrap itself once again around your inexorably expanding waistline? Or are the styles of the Reagan era best left to those too young to remember that administration?
To get a handle on this phenomenon-cum–brain drain, I ring up Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator at Manhattan’s Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Steele informs me that mining the past is not a new phenomenon: those boxy, babyish minidresses of the 1960s owed a debt to the saucy frocks of the ’20s. In the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent caused a scandal when he resurrected the short fur “chubby” jackets of the mid-’40s.
Steele believes the current situation is at least partly due to the intense pressures on designers to create at warp speed: “They’re expected to produce faster and faster,” she says tartly. “Sometimes it’s just easier to just steal images from the past.” Our current sartorial smorgasbord, where every decade is fair game, she explains, began in earnest around 40 years ago, when young women, scrambling up the professional ladder and anxious to define life on their own terms, began questioning the haughty dictates of fashion editors.
“Suddenly, you couldn’t tell people what to wear. It was no longer the grand pooh-bahs making their pronouncements from Paris—it was really the end of the empire. We broke up into different style tribes, and now you can wear pretty much anything.”
So does this mean that no matter how old you are, it’s okay to beat on in your sequined sweatshirt, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past? Brandon Maxwell, whose creations seem intended for latter-day Cindys, Christys, and Naomis, is so steeped in the mystique of the 1980s that he often moans that he was born in the wrong decade.
If only he had started life in the late ’60s or early ’70s, he would have been the perfect age for Gordon Gekko and Bananarama. Now, he says, he aims not for a literal interpretation of that decade, but to capture its wit and whimsy, its full-blown glamour. “I try to balance my hopes and fantasies with the realities of the women who actually wear my clothes,” he explains.
But it wasn’t all ’80s on the Fall 2018 runways. For Moschino, Jeremy Scott went further back, to the 1960s. When I ask him why he drew from icons of an epoch he clearly cannot recall—namely, Jackie and Marilyn manqués (pillbox hats representing the former; shimmery evening gowns signaling the latter)—he replies, “I love nostalgia!”
Scott, who at 43 is a decade older than Maxwell (he has fuzzy recollections of years Maxwell can only dream of), says he sees “memories as starting points. I’m a child of the ’80s, and the ’80s were very eclectic—a real cultural mix-up. In the post-postmodern world we live in now, everything merges and blends. It’s a mélange. Nostalgia,” he sighs, “is like a good friend telling you an old story.”