Style stagnation or just nostalgia?

by Harry Sheff

Michael Gross and Michael J. Fox in Family TiesHas style really changed much in the last 20 years? If you took me on an average day, wearing jeans, a dark corduroy sport coat, a plaid shirt and a knit tie, would I stand out if I were magically transported to 1992? Sure, my hair might look odd, and if I brandished my smartphone it’d be obvious I was from the future, but style-wise? I’d fit in just fine, dressing a lot like Michael J. Fox and Michael Gross in this still from Family Ties.

Ian McShane in Lovejoy, circa 1986Or take a more obscure example. This still shows Ian McShane in a BBC drama called Lovejoy in 1986. He plays a crooked antique dealer. Here he’s wearing a white polo shirt with a scarf. In another scene, he’s in white jeans with black Converse All-Stars. This could be yesterday.

Americana and heritage brands, jeans, boots, plaid, tweed, Converse All-Stars—what’s changed? They were all big before and they’re all big again.

“Look at people on the street and in malls—jeans and sneakers remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982,” writes Kurt Andersen in the January Vanity Fair. “I feel as if the whole culture is stoned, listening to an LP that’s been skipping for decades, playing the same groove over and over. Nobody has the wit or gumption to stand up and lift the stylus.”

Andersen argues that our culture has halted even as technology rockets ahead. His theory on all the cultural nostalgia is that with such rapid and profound technological changes, we’re worn out. We not only lack the energy to innovate and take risks in cultural matters (fashion, music, theater, art and film), we actively seek out the familiar because it gives us a tether to the past as our computers and mobile devices thrust us into a dizzying future.

I would go one step further and say that the fault lies partly in the producers of cultural products: Chrysler would rather give us an updated 70s muscle car than try a new design; television producers remake shows from the past (Hawaii Five-O, Charlie’s Angels) or shows from other countries (The Office, Homeland, Ugly Betty, the list goes on and on throughout the years); filmmakers are rehashing movies that were only recently re-done, like Batman, Spider Man and American Psycho. Why? Not for a lack of ideas but for a fear of failure. Why take a chance on something new?

Andersen again:

“Now that multi-billion-dollar enterprises have become style businesses and style businesses have become multi-billion-dollar enterprises, a massive damper has been placed on the general impetus for innovation and change.”

When so much money has been made before on something, whether it’s a 1970 Dodge Challenger or a plaid shirt from the ’90s, why not give it another shot?

Then again, is this so bad? So what if the boots I’m wearing were designed in 1905? They’re comfortable, durable and attractive. So what if I can’t tell the difference between the 30-year-old ties my dad gave me and the new ones I see at J.Crew? Maybe we’re finally realizing that constantly changing things just to make them look a little different isn’t logical. Why fix what isn’t broken? There’s something to be said for timeless style. Besides, I get all the innovation I need from the constantly updating software on my phone.