‘I do not believe that, even where it is strongest, irony has convinced us that nothing is real, true, or ours. We believe, when we let ourselves, that there are things we can trust, people we can love, words we can say in earnest,’ writes Jedediah Purdy in his just published, much discussed polemic, ‘For Common Things.’ But trudging from one desultory runway show to another last week, absent of the least shred of joy or excitement, it was easy to forget that there was once a time when the fashion flock looked at clothes with anything except irony. (Surely no one started out in this business strictly for the purpose of feeding the bloated egos and pockets of people like Tommy Hilfiger or Donatella Versace.)
Still, in such meager soil, social and aesthetic movements have been known to take root. The
repressed ’50s gave no hint that they would explode into the ’60s; perhaps another sartorial revolution is brewing just under the surface of all those eyelet pedal pushers, ruffled wrap tops, and fake rock ‘n’ roll clothes.
If a glimmer of sedition was detectable anywhere, you would think it would surface at a show like Susan Cianciolo’s, who hung her scrappy— in both senses of the word— outfits on wooden dowels in a gallery in the meatpacking district. Cianciolo’s clothes are frequently seized upon by fashion editors as fresh and charming, and, with their deliberately childlike stitching, cut-and-paste doll-clothes quality— this season some of them are decorated with detachable toy animals— they do evince a winsome charm. Alas, this is shattered the first time you see them at Barneys, with four-figure price tags, where they look embarrassing and pathetic. They would suit a very young, disheveled artist type, but this person wouldn’t be caught dead in a department store— she’d just go ahead and make the things herself.
Strangely, this was also the case with Marc Jacobs, a guy who’s reached the pinnacle of success in the fashion world: he lives in Paris, he pals around with Naomi and Kate, and he’s managed to rejuvenate the moribund house of Louis Vuitton. (He called denim “de ‘Nime’ ” in his program notes.) Unlike Cianciolo’s efforts, Jacobs’s wildly priced garments are always beautifully made, so it was peculiar that he lavished such loving care on faded jeans with derriere detail out of the Jordache school, U-neck poor-boy sweaters with multicolored horizontal stripes interpreted in cashmere, and other reworkings of old ideas. At the end of the show, his A-list models emerged in sheer, flimsy net blouses and distressed jeans, a classic thrift shop look that dates from 30 years ago, when upper-middle-class girls began shopping at the Salvation Army, and Jacobs was just discovering a wider world.
Betsey Johnson is a slightly different case: she’s older than Jacobs, far older than Cianciolo, and she hasn’t changed her mind about clothes since the early ’60s, when she burst upon the scene, practically a child prodigy. Her silhouettes and sensibilities exactly echo that decade— the cheerful sexiness, the mix of metaphors— and this season didn’t break new ground: she offered an exuberant collection of reasonably priced millefleur printed slips, tight-laced corsets, Chinese sheaths, fuzzy shrugs, kerchief tops, and glitter bikinis, styled and worn by “real people” models like transsexual-about-town Amanda Lepore, Steve Tyler’s daughters, and Johnson’s own
sister-in-law. Johnson literally kicked the show off by emerging in a minuscule lime costume and executing her trademark cartwheel— a spectacle that would surely be cause for snickers if she was the least bit sly or ironic or knowing. She is not.
Anna Sui is similarly in love with the past, though one tends to be a little less patient with her, since her clothes are more expensive than Johnson’s. Nevertheless, Sui is heavily nostalgic for roughly the same period: she trotted out peasant blouses with puffed and bell sleeves, boleros, low-slung pants secured with drawstrings, pouchy shoulder bags decorated with nail-head studs and embroidery, ruffled Victorian bed jackets, tiered gypsy skirts, and other sartorial equivalents of what Allen Ginsberg once referred to in an entirely different context as “the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit.” (The audience at the shows is roughly split between the old guard, who already wore these clothes and can have only limited enthusiasm about seeing them again, and people born after 1970, who first saw them on Nick at Nite and are unlikely to be entirely immune to their charm, so powerful was the aura they exuded the first time around.) If some of it looked like stuff you can still find at the India import stores on 8th Street, so much the better— why buy the designer version if you can get the real thing at a tenth of the price?
You might think that this tide of nostalgia did not engulf houses headed by younger designers, but you would be wrong— they were just longing for a different decade. At Bruce, (the name Daphne Guitierrez and Nicle Noselli have given to their business), the 1980s were recalled with backless satin blouses and pointy-toed stiletto heels as constricting to the wearer as the bound feet of pre-revolutionary China. This ’80s business also crept in at Rebecca Danenberg and Kitty Boots, two shows that trucked in Diane Von Furstenberg wraps, skinny belts, lounging pants, silk shirts that might as well have been made of Quiana nylon, and other Dynasty-era conceits. Still, if one spent the ’80s with fuchsia hair and a safety-pinned T-shirt and a ripped kilt and fishnet stockings, maybe these clothes looked new and exciting.
Only time will tell if the young women employed in low-paying junior staff positions at magazines who are often the first to embrace runway ideas will heed the siren song of the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s. Last week, the crowd in the back rows was showing off all kinds of jokey, ironic accessories— sequined handbags, peculiar shoes in funny colors, crocheted ponchos— along with one desperately sincere, quintessentially American item: a denim (de Nime?) jacket that by Friday seemed to be decorating every third set of shoulders in the audience. And why not? Unlike the stuff on the catwalks, jean jackets are available in sizes from infant to stevedore, they’re reasonably flattering, they look okay over anything from a pair of jogging pants to a taffeta ball gown, they go in the washing machine, and— unless you’re the kind of character who has to have one with designer buttons and a mink lining— buying one isn’t the financial decision of a lifetime.