In pursuit of its speed demons, fashion in the 21st century has streamlined itself. Through gritted teeth, designers are competing to keep a Porsche’s stretch ahead to stay at the cutting-edge – even if it takes more mileage on the body-clock.
It cannot be avoided: fashion thrives on speed. Would the industry have otherwise avoided becoming the greedy and relentlessly capricious machine it is today? Such is the determination to conquer supply and demand – albeit at an increasing cost – that as we zip past, trends already begin to look dated after a season, or even a week.
Fashion relishes dictating consumerism. Like a cinematic joy-rider, it mangles the latter’s rush-hour traffic with its slam-bang style, the impassive aviator shades disguising the maniacal glee in its eyes. Easily bored, equally excitable, it always aims for the newest faces, the latest trends, the hottest labels at a giddy pace, the pile-ups reflected on those shades mirroring the ever-escalating planes of acceleration on which we tire of our own whims. In other words, the faster our lives get, the greater the urge for speed.
It has been said that speed is essentially a 20th century phenomenon. Certainly, in no other period prior to the introduction of the Model T-Ford in 1908 – the first mass-produced car – does velocity predominate. Indeed, as first millennial light hits us the fervour appears to have been consummated: in this day and age, we cannot but feel the pressure to gear up. Only the physical manifestations of life at speed could achieve that transitory compact quality that designers of static forms try so hard to emulate. Speed is svelte, sleek and sexy, the very action obfuscating the misshapen human form into a hum of graceful symmetry that fits the fashionable ideal.
Speed is intrinsically bonded to the world of fashion. The catwalk changes in a camera’s click, the flurry to record an idea, the frenzy of high-volume sales, the haste to translate runway trends into High Street sales…All uphold the supposition that speed equals efficiency and incessant modernity. It seems that in the hubbub nobody once pauses to contemplate the long-term prospects of a rush job.
Not even the most prolific sportswear firm can invent an advanced shoe so frequently. Fashion is a tool for superficiality, an excuse for us to reinvent ourselves without feeling the need to transform our true inner selves. The theory follows that if we appear different, it detracts the observer momentarily from those aspects of ourselves we don’t want to reveal to the rest of the world. And the quicker the changes, the better. Fashion can at least be proud that any lack of function in design can be supplanted with wit and whimsy.
Such pressure having long been acknowledged by the fashion industry, it comes as a surprise that no study exists knowingly of the correlation between fashion and its continuing fixation with speed. In this respect Giacomo Balla’s Futurist Manifesto of Anti-Neutral Clothing does not count, because today’s fashion protagonists cannot identify with that book’s heavy political overtones.
Yet history confirms that progress, even in fashion, has its blips. Fashion cannot claim true consistency in its devotion. The false starts, breakdowns and alleviations that have patterned its century echo the raised hopes and global market collapses that have been inflicted on our lives. Yet the rate at which the wheels of commerce turn escalates regardless.
Fashion’s motives for gearing-up are not necessarily insular. Over the past century World Wars I and II, a Depression, the motor-car, global market crashes, television, a Sixties boy band, sport, several art movements, contraception, feminism, the Internet, Hollywood, a couple of recessions and one terrifically hot summer of 1976 have each fuelled the incentive to live for the moment.
Of course, that is not to demean fashion‘s own far-reaching impact on our lives. The singular momentum created by London and Milan in the Sixties and Seventies respectively – and more importantly the American fashion industry in the Forties and Fifties – have done much to consolidate the accessibility of fashion. Additionally, the deconstructionist efforts of the Japanese designers (inspired by punk) and their pretenders the Antwerp Six, have upended the notion of presenting fashion as a ‘finished’ product, eliminating the conventional design process deemed necessary in favour of DIY customisation and raw seams.
From this, it takes just one step to contravene design copyright law: one short step for a designer to spray-paint a pair of Levi’s jeans and showcase them as her own. Counterfeiting provides its own unfortunate ignition spark, the threat provoking anxious designers to hasten completion of their collections.
Over time the Faustian pact between speed and fashion has created its own ironies. The advent of international travel in the early 20th century, for instance, should have motivated the concept of active clothing. Film depictions of life on ships such as the Titanic – its passengers encumbered by gargantuan boxes of luggage, in which clothes were hung, rather than folded – seems to defeat the purpose of travel as we know it today. One look at Kate Winslet in her enormous picture-hat on celluloid provokes us to think: isn’t travel about the pleasure of getting from A to B minus the hassle created by the frivolities of our own lives?
At the other end of the centenary tunnel are Jürgen Teller, David Sims, and Corinne Day, the photographers synonymous with early Nineties fashion. The models they depict are so dishevelled that they appear to have had little time to groom themselves properly. This time the irony is hidden: even these purportedly ‘unstaged’ pictures concern a team of stylists and hair and make-up artists who imaginatively tweak a hair or two out of place. Yet these ‘mishaps’ – blinking eyelids, a limp quiff, clothes a size too small – capture perfectly the sense of being in too much of a hurry, eagerly executing an idea before it trips off the edge of imagination: the very essence of Nineties style.
So what next for speed in fashion? As we near the year 2000 fashion’s rising momentum might give us cause for concern. With our relentless drive to keep the wheels turning at an accumulating pace are we not hurtling towards self-destruction?
I think not. Fashion has an in-built capacity for revival whatever the circumstances; more than any other industry, it’s tough enough to withstand a pace faster than the speed of sound. Even if the mad joy-rider explodes and the heat of his kaleidoscopic activity flips into a pip on your screen, you can be sure that fashion will find another way of rejuvenating itself.
(c) Melissa Mostyn 2001