From The Issue: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes By Colin McDowell
The need for change is the driver of that change. Someone – philosopher, scientist, political leader, whoever – sees a new and different possibility in something already present in the world and sets out to prove their new discovery. Nothing – flora, fauna, climate, civilisation or anything we can imagine – stands still.
So, it makes sense to recognise, understand, adopt and adapt whatever is part of the civilisation of our period, just as forward-looking imaginative people before have done and, by doing so, have laid the foundations of what we can do today. They are the creators of the engines of change from which 21st-century man can develop – and one of the most powerful engines today is fashion.
The world is divided into two camps when it comes to dress and fashion – and they are not exactly matched by any means. We all know the scenario and most of us have been through it. The male paterfamilias was the figure of control in previous centuries and still wields power today in many civilisations and personal scenarios. It goes something like this: daughter comes into the living room dressed for a night out. Father immediately says, “Go back and change. No daughter of mine is going out like that.” It could just as easily be a son in a similar situation – “Have you dyed your hair? Go and wash it out!” Banal examples of the fear of change, I grant you, but it is because similar situations are still commonplace occurrences across the globe.
So, without labouring the point, change is, in broad terms, initiated, encouraged and believed in much more readily by young people than those who are older. If we look at what has happened in society and how social mores have changed, certainly in the western hemisphere, we can see how, in the years since the end of the Second World War, developments in virtually all aspects of life have been more radical, frequent and permanent than in the whole of history. And there is no way of stopping it as long as we have as the engines of change the imaginative young. That is why, for many, the almost weekly developments in science or technology, are not anticipated with excitement but looked at with fear.
The results of speedy change are invigorating for the rest, although they are, in many ways, dangerous and even frightening. Think of the atom bomb! A recent survey in the UK suggested that if change continues at the same speed as it has so far this century, in 30 years’ time it is quite feasible that 90% of current jobs will be done by robots using artificial intelligence. As if that were not concerning in its own right, it raises the question of how people subjected to compulsory idleness will live and how governments will be able to pay them for being idle while ensuring that they have a decent standard of living.
But the most concerning thing of all takes us back to the youth/age question. What will eager and alert young people do with their brains? What outlet will there be for their imagination? At least one theory is that permanent world wars are the only realistic answer to population growth. In fact, we have a two-way, overlapping split between youth and age, male and female. Are some commentators correct when they suggest that, for many, it will be a case of generational conflict and tears before bedtime? I do not necessarily think so.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the First World War in 1914, promised by politicians and pundits to be “the war to end all wars”, when countries sent men to fight in order, as they thought, to save and perpetuate the status quo of a life across Europe that was largely rural and based almost entirely on artefacts made by hand. The hierarchies of king (or queen), aristocracy, professionals, church and state, country-based living, the land as the basis of wealth – in fact, the quality of life for millions, rural and urban – was remarkably similar in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Hungary and all the states across Europe. The United Kingdom and the Continent could be seen as almost a homogenous whole as far as the way lives were led. And for that reason, perhaps, few who were conscripted into the various armies were looking forward to a new future. They fought to save the world they knew. They were wanting to preserve a way of life that, although far from ideal for millions, seemed to be the only one possible. But wars shake everything up and when, like a child’s kaleidoscope, the pieces settle once more, it is only then that changes that will be permanent, and not necessarily for the better, become apparent. As every child knows, the old pattern can never be found again.
But, in the past 50 years, this pattern of life has, paradoxically, completely changed in itself as technology has taken the lead and education has come to play a major role in the West by enfranchising the very descendants of the men who went to war in 1914 and also enabling them to enjoy the education that brings the right to choose and change how and when they wish to work. Whereas their great-grandfathers trained to be forestry workers or labourers in tanneries, and that was their employment for their entire working lives, people today have the flexibility to try many jobs and the ability to move around the world to find the job they want – and even drop out of the race entirely if they wish. So, we can say that the first engine of change is the education that brings skills, and success in those skills increases the individual’s feeling of self. And the other, even greater development is the fact that women are frequently in jobs the equal of men’s (but rarely paid as such) and, in fact, are increasingly their bosses. Variety and choice have never been greater.
So, what are we talking about here? I would say it is the self-confidence of knowing one’s worth, and refusing to accept that some sections of society are superior to others. In many parts of the world, equality can be largely taken for granted, even in sections of society where it was not previously accepted. We have only to think of the gay-liberation movement, same-sex marriage, the right to abortion and the breakdown of colour prejudice to realise that the reduction of attitudes that have affected societies and individuals, to their detriment, in the past has come with the education that gives people the empowering sense of their own worth and value to their community. Most of us – but not all – can take this for granted now, but if we go back, just to the last decades the 20th century and the powerful polemics of the likes of Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan, we realise how important freedom of choice is in acceptance of change. We all know how many people of both sexes living in totalitarian regimes still feel vulnerable and afraid. Many are punished because of their courage in saying, “We are not prepared to let autocrats and dictators tell us how to live our lives.” They are the new martyrs who refuse to compromise.
Of course, the change that enables us to have freedom of choice as to how we live takes time to develop. Prejudice and the fear that creates it are not easily dislodged. But one of the greatest engines of change, especially in the West, is young people keen to create their own identity within an identikit formula that can be stimulated by sport, politics and, of course, religion. But, above all, by shared thought processes.
The strongest of all change-makers are fashions in clothes, speech, home decoration, leisure pursuits (especially sports and music) and many other things that proclaim, “Here I am, and I am an individual. Even if I abide by the rules of taste and behaviour, I still do it my way.” This attitude often infuriates parents and those in authority. But, luckily, their disapproval usually has little effect and they have to back down.
I am fascinated by the way the governance of many countries is altered, not by the beliefs of those in power, but by the determination of citizens to be their own people. And what is it that helps people to have the self-belief and right to self-determination that for centuries was a privilege for only the rich and powerful? Finally, we have come to the most powerful catalyst of all, one that was hardly considered by any but the wealthy in the past. Yes, you’ve got it, I am sure. It is, as already mentioned, fashion, which is increasingly the game everyone wants to play from childhood onwards. Even so, far too many young people adapt a thought process that acknowledges the fact that few of us actually want to stand out from our fellows. Human beings are, like most animals, ruled by herd instincts.
When I look back over my many years as a fashion commentator, I find certain disappointments, the greatest being the way so many courageous people proffering originality by their appearance, such as Isabella Blow, Anna Piaggi and even Iris Apfel, are seen far too often not as trailblazers for the rest of us but as self-indulgent exhibitionists. How many young women actually bought looks like Vivienne Westwood’s mini crini, the space-age tailoring of Courrèges or the brilliantly acclaimed and executed high fashion of Cardin, Mugler and Montana? Virtually none.
I live in the centre of London and I take a lively interest in what is being worn on the streets such as Oxford or Regent Street, or displayed in shop windows. Almost inevitably it has nothing to do with the marvellously bold and imaginative clothes that come down the runways of the four international capitals of fashion. Why is youth, which thinks itself bold and independent in thought and action, not buying new ideas – until they have become old ideas? Only they can tell us, but it highlights the fact that, as with the animal kingdom, many feel safety in numbers, which means conformity.
Finally, we have looked at the past and some of the present. So what will decide the future of fashion? Is it in the radical attitudes to dress and self that Rei Kawakubo has been showing us for decades as pointers to how we should be thinking about fashion? Will it be Miuccia Prada’s quixotic flirting with bad taste? Or the purity and cleanness of line that was first seen several decades ago on the runways of designers such as Calvin Klein and Donna Karan? The rigour of early Jil Sander or the brilliant colour and pattern of Kenzo? So many ideas have died through the timidity of fashion buyers, even for the big stores, who are afraid of taking risks. “I love it,” they say, “but it won’t sell.” My response is, “That’s because you take a defeated approach, instead of using your undoubted skills and knowledge to actively SELL them.” It is also true of journalists and, most amazingly of all, the designers who use their advertising budgets to publicise handbags, rather than the amazing clothes so many of them design simply for the runway show.
We are now currently in a technical era in which anyone with even a simple mobile phone can access the fashion shows instantly. Pioneers such as Christopher Bailey of Burberry have made buying from the runway a reality. And these are, of course, just the beginning. Technology has handed power to creators and customers in all areas and walks of life, so why is fashion approached so tentatively? Unlike people at the beginning of the last century, we are not forced to conform. But conformity is what buying patterns are showing is actually happening. We need the questioning of young, original minds in order to keep fashion looking forward rather than, as now, standing still or even going backwards.
Will game-changers of future fashion please stand up to be counted before it is too late and mediocrity becomes even more the new normal than it is already?
Text Colin McDowell
Illustration Stephen Doherty
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, ALAÏA, SHIFT, POWER, NEW, on newsstands now…