EVENING WEAR, RETRO STYLING AND CLASSIC GOOD TASTE; HOW WE EXPERIENCE TIME THROUGH FASHION
Paper presented at the Fashion In Fiction symposium, Drexel University, Philadelphia, 2010
Father Time, 2003
With reference to my own art practice, I will discuss the way fashion helps us experience time. Time is not only associated with death but it is also confusing and difficult to define. As St Augustine said: ‘what is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I desired to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly, I do not know?’ Is it the concept of the moment, the instant, which we can never grasp or really define? That moment is in the past before we can conceive of it. And where does that leave the past and the future? Measuring time only helps so much because time can seem to vary – an hour can fly past or it can drag. So just as soon as we’ve defined an hour as sixty minutes our consciousness and memory come in to confuse us once again.
The reality of our day-to-day lives does nothing to alleviate the confusion or anxiety. We live in a world with increasingly long work hours and more and more activities with which to fill our recreation time. This means there never seems to be enough time. Further than that, in a sense now, time is all the same. The sun controlled our ancestor’s days and their activities and diets depended on the seasons. The workday was over once it was dark and long winter months were spent indoors as much as possible. Electricity means we don’t have to embrace the darkness, heating and cooling protect us from the seasons. Communication devices allow us to work all the time and be constantly in contact. Even ten years ago, unless we went into the office, the weekends were for leisure and family. Now there is rarely an interlude to stop and experience a slow form of time when there is nothing to do.
Clothing assists us in defining and experiencing time in a number of ways. We engage in days and seasons through clothes. We experience change in our lives and identities through clothes. Fashion plays out the relationship between past, present and future and also puts us into cyclical time.
Fashion in its extreme, ever changing on catwalks, gives a sense of the future. Where fashion is constantly reacting against the last season and always proposing the latest, newest and most revolutionary, it is about a sense of beating time. The past is ruthlessly discarded in favour of a new style, which will be treated with the same disdain next season. But fashion is cyclical, and while a style may have to wait patiently in bottom drawers and designer’s imaginations, it will be back. The revival of styles gives us a way to engage in cyclical time. When fashions re-occur, we are taken back to another time, perhaps only a few years past, perhaps going back many decades.
Zeitgeist is the most obvious way we experience time through fashion. In film this is a commonly used device to show the passing of time, signified by everyone being dressed in a style of a later (or earlier) era than the previous scene. We think of history in terms of changing fashions and the values they reflect. This is a public experience of time. But we also experience this on a personal level where we can identify periods in our lives with styles we wore. In this way, fashion helps us grasp a sense of the past and change.
The times of day and the week are also defined through fashion. Eveningwear allows us to mark the end of a workday and engage in the sophistication and sexiness of the night and the activities that occupy it. A variation on this relates to weekdays, where offices have ‘casual Fridays’ when one can dress in anticipation of going out in the evening and beginning the weekend of leisure time.
In a world where we can eat tomatoes year round and have constant room temperature, the seasons have limited affect on us. Not so long ago they were key to human understanding of time. Nature died during winter and we longed for spring, which inevitably arrived bringing with it food and new life. One of the main ways we now experience the seasons is through clothing. We have an emotional response to this when we long for summer dresses in winter. Clothes allow us to engage with time in a way that is no longer available to us. We are put into the present of the day, week or season and we experience how that time is different to other times.
We still mark rites of passage with fashion. Christening gowns, wedding dresses and graduation gowns mark a ritual celebrating transition. On a more personal level, we purchase special outfits to mark a birthday or friend’s wedding for example. That item of clothing will always remind us of that event.
Ideas about age appropriate fashion are endlessly debated. Whether it is the age of girls before they wear make-up or whether women over forty should wear short skirts. Beyond the rules, the process of establishing identity as a teenager is marked with fashion. Not only do teenagers rebel against the clothes their parents purchase for them but also distinguish themselves against their parent’s adult attire. In this way, fashion becomes a part of the process of maturing.
We prepare our changing identity through clothing. Going through old clothes and discarding them can be an important process of separating our selves from the past and disposing of old identities. Correspondingly we might purchase new clothes in preparation for the future. This might mark an actual change such as a new job, or be more speculative about the future such as buying clothes that are too small for when we will be slimmer. Again, fashion is central to a sense of development and change in our lives.
As mentioned, an aspect of the confusion around time is that its pace appears to vary. Some periods in our life seem to go forever while others are gone with frightening speed. We seem to have no control of this but I think fashion helps us feel in control in some way. We can engage with a slower sense of time and the values associated with it, or we can put ourselves into the brutal change of high fashion. We can access the exciting pace of youth, or alternatively the slowness of history, through what we wear. With reference to my own artwork I will discuss how this happens as well as speaking of the way specific fashions express different relationships to time.
Come As You Are, 1993
My earliest artistic interest in fashion was motivated by a fascination with the zeitgeist and a desire to make work that would date and go out of fashion. In this work, I wanted to challenge the idea of art as timeless and beyond fad. I relished the risk inherent in making work about the present, about something that did not have a neat, official history. ‘Come as you are’ is the title of the work that investigated grunge fashion as it happened. In 1993 the street fashion known as grunge was already a ruin of previous fashions. It was gleaned from thrift stores and had a 70s retro aspect. The bright colours and lack of structure were reminiscent of children’s wear and, as such, mined the pasts of its youthful wearers.
Consistent with the notion of zeitgeist, at different periods we experience different aspects of time. Entropy was the sense of time ‘grunge’ evoked. Decay was inevitable. In sharp contrast to the eighties, bodybuilding was pointless and power dressing was dust waiting to happen. I identified two tropes of the trend: woollen hats and layered sleeves, and made sculptural work from these. The work is owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and has been exhibited there on a number of occasions. Time is obviously a crucial issue in a museum and this slowness and spirit of preservation highlight the transience of fashion and the disposability of items from the thrift store.
On two occasions I have created different personifications of time. Father Time who appears particularly frequently in art and design of the 16th to 18th century, is an old man with wings who carries a timepiece and sometimes a scythe. I was struck by the way youth is used as a threat about the passing of time. We are used to the fact that older people rarely appear in advertising and I wanted to create a disjuncture between the values of business suits and the youthful models used to promote them. People who need to give a sense of reliability and eminence frequently purchase high-end suits. The type of time they represent is a sense of classic good taste. In reality suit styles are subject to fashion but still the sense is that they are beyond the flightiness of fashion and through such items we can experience an aspect of time that is about consistency and dependability.
Father time has his ancestry in Saturn or Chronos. But the Ancient Greeks and Romans also conceived of time in a way that is represented by Kairos who is a youth who represents the moment and opportunity. Also winged, he is pictured on the move and frequently stands on or holds a wheel. While making ‘Father Time’ involved long research to find the ideal model and carefully style the image, I made Kairos in the spirit of chance that he represents. While Kairos was usually a young man, I used a young woman who had the Kairos hair-do. Kairos was represented with a lock of hair longer than the rest so, as opportunity, he could be seized as he flew past. The clothes don’t relate so much to fashion as to sports wear that is made to move in, but is also quite disposable. I referred to fashion by using street culture to give a sense of trend: graffiti and skating are both used in advertising to lend an edginess to mainstream fashions. Movement and opportunity is key to both as the graffiti artist marks the ultimate wall before being intercepted and the skater skates the urban environment always on the move. Both are mainly youth cultures and it is in youth that we are most likely to participate in ever changing fashion. Kairos represents the fleetingness of regularly changing fashion and the opportunity to engage with it as it flies past.
Through fashion we can have a sense of control and understanding of time that we do not have in reality. Our lives might lack variety and excitement, and through engaging with fashion that speaks of speed and youth we can access that sense of time. Alternatively, we can place ourselves into a sense of consistency through ‘classic good taste’.
In the series ‘You’ll be a rolling stone, your shoes will be your home’ I photographed women leaving their homes with favourite shoes and bags. They were photographed on the precipe between inside and out, in transit. The images are about the start of something. It may be the beginning of a day, an adventure, a new life.
No Stop Sings, No Speed Limit – Nobody’s’ Gonna Slow Me Down, 2009
There is also nostalgia in this work so the relationship with time is not smooth. The women I have photographed use retro fashion for a sense of personal and public history to propel them into the future. By wearing 60s and 70s fashion we are not plunged back into that era of futurism, liberation and light-heartedness. Indeed the fashion of the era makes it very clear that our times are different. The titles of the images refer to songs about hope and escape from the late 60s and early 70s. They include ‘the time to hesitate is through, no time to wallow in the mire’, ‘we’ll run til we drop, baby we’ll never look back’ and ‘no stop sings, no speed limit – nobody’s’ gonna slow me down’. They’re songs about moving forward, but the songs themselves are from the past. The 60s and 70s were a time of great hope and I think we have a lot of nostalgia for that era. We long for a time when we could look forward to the future. Retro and vintage fashion have the power to express these contradictory aspects of time. It cannot resolve that contradiction but by wearing it, it challenges us to embrace and explore those complexities.
We’ll Run Til We Drop, Baby We’ll Never Look Back, 2003
Fashion is generally associated with rapid change and an exaggerated sense of time passing. But this extreme sense of time has become a part of our daily lives and paradoxically, fashion allows us to access time in ways that are more like those of our ancestors. Rather than trying to control time, fashion allows us to experience time in its various manifestations as moment, duration and cycle. Through different styles we engage with times varied pace. We can also explore contradictory aspects of time by playing with styles from different eras. The past and future can both cause anxiety but clothing is our constant companion as our lives change and it can assist us to deal with the passing of time as well as contend with the confusion about just what time is.
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