Going Retro?

Andre Zimmermann

Is it really so over? Against all odds, retro will sustain in fashion over the next years

Walking through Berlin-Mitte, the Brick Lane area in London or the SoFo-district in Stockholm, you can hardly escape retro/vintage looks. You see young guys wearing moustaches, dressed in 1980s double-breasted blazers with bow ties around their necks (at least in Stockholm) walking hand in hand with their girlfriends donned in drainpipe jeans looking at the world through massive horn specs.

Retro is undoubtedly “in” amongst the young urban generation in the metropolises around the globe, not only in Europe. Also the big fashion companies go with the flow, hardly any of the big labels which have not created a “retro”, “heritage” or “vintage” collection these days. And retro is by no means confined to fashion. German record stores raised sales of vinyls by 10% in 2011, vintage furniture stores are mushrooming in the big cities and Don Draper became the darling of the German retro loving TV audience.

This omnipresence of retro stuff might have prompted an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to a German magazine I read a few weeks ago. The article referred to the “retro mania” amongst the young urban generation and was headlined “Retro fashion – I buy myself an I”. The juvenile “hipsters”, the author stated, were looking for distinctiveness but in doing so, they are rather victims of their “weak ego”. Young urban vintage fans, the author continues, have developed an authenticity-fad that has actually lost its authenticity. The “I-am-one-of-a-kind. There is no one like me” message the author assumes to be the leitmotif of retro, can no longer call for credibility as retro has degenerated to a mass phenomenon. Reaching its point of saturation, the author concludes, retro is about to doom. Unfortunately, the article fails to answer the really important questions: why do young people around the globe just now desire authenticity? What are the roots of the retro phenomenon, and what are the socio-political implications of vintage fashion?

First, it is worth to notice that vintage and retro is anything but new.

It’s not a phenomenon of our generation. Already in the 1960s especially youths began to give old pieces a new meaning. In Germany this was most visibly in a re-interpretation of the olive Army Parka which was then worn by the hippie-generation as provocative piece of rebellion against the establishment (and is meanwhile appreciated as a style icon not only in Germany). Or think of the 1960s Mod-generation and the Punks in England. All of these subcultures redefined old clothes in order to express their identities and political opinions. However, authenticity was definitely not the philosophical programme underlying these forms of retro styles.

Anyway, authenticity in the context of retro fashion functions as a surrogate for its devotees. Postmodern identities are in a constant flux, once unifying social glues like religion, traditions and even nationalism have lost its function as prevalent identity anchors. Instead, people follow individualistic, cosmopolitan life plans. The disintegration of traditional identity systems resulted in a postmodern fragmentation of identities and the development of a consistent self-concept turned out to be an even more complex endeavor.

It is through fashion that individuals make a statement and express social orientation(s). Fashion, in essence, is about one’s individual self-concept: in choosing our dresses, we choose our identity. Assuming that postmodern identities are not static but rather constructed in manifold discourses, retro is then the construction-kit containing hundreds of different bricks. Therefore, it is only logical that our multiple identities are shaped in an eclectic way. There’s a wide range of identity options nowadays, and it’s up to each individual from which to choose. Technically speaking, everybody is his own identity-engineer.

The discursive character of identity formation implies that identities are produced and reproduced through communication. The retro style in this context serves as a cultural code, drawing a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The then emerging virtual in-group provides social cohesion as well as social distinction – both essential components in an individual’s self-concept. As retro fashion allows feeling part of a social group while pursuing individuality at the same time, it expresses the diverse spectrum of urban identities rather than a degenerated fantasy of folksiness.

But retro is not only an identity-marker. 

By wearing ‘authentic’ retro clothes individuals take a stand against all unauthentic – according to their perception.  Authenticity in this context functions as a symbol of socio-political protest: Buying in second-hand or thrift shops represents an alternative way of fashion consumption in opposition to the mass-produced goods offered by the big fashion companies (which are indeed an undeniable part of retro cultures).

Besides drawing distinctions between individual styles and high street fashion, authenticity underlines a more philosophical component of retro. As the meaning of the word authenticity is closely tied to this of authority, authenticity means a regaining of individual freedom and autonomy. By picking retro garments carefully piece by piece, people strive for independent consumption. They do want to emphasize that they are not victims of the style dictate established by the big fashion companies. This implies a certain degree of independence, a critical approach to fashion and its commercial utilization. It is the message that provides a framework for incorporating different styles from different fashion époques: Look at me, I am authentic to my life!

And, finally, authenticity also has political implications. Retro shopping means turning back to the past emphasizing the “desire to retreat from contemporary life by returning to a time in the past viewed as superior to the present”, as famous marketing Professor Barbara Stern has once put it.

Finance and Fashion 

The recent global financial turmoil has consolidated the growing level of disenchantment with politics amongst the young generation. Contemporary politics undoubtedly lack answers to urgent questions such as the financial crisis, climate change or global justice. By referring to a thoroughly imagined moral certainty and the ethos of past times, retro is another way to express discontent with recent political developments.

Last but not least, retro is about escapism. Postmodern societies are characterized by a disappearance of old certainties and finding answers to the ‘who-am-I-question’ has nowadays become a daily challenge. Large parts of daily life are determined by the effort to conform to societal expectations and roles. The abundance of information and their attempt to stay up-to-date with the changes leaves people more and more overburdened. The success of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies within the last decade is exemplary for the growing desire to jump off the 21st century hamster wheel of postmodern social and technological restraints.

Shifting to the retro mode in this context literally means standing still, indulging in daydreaming of distant worlds by the means of fashion and escape the worlds woes. This kind of urban escapism is indeed ambiguous as the retro concept oscillates between a sense of community and the growing alienation of the urban individual. However, escapism is and has always been a viable and working strategy for human beings to cope with the challenges of life and take a time-out from dreary everyday life.

Given all this, it is definitely too soon to bid farewell to retro. The present retro popularity entails a vision with regard to future fashion consumption and societal developments in general. Retro further symbolizes a, though romantic, hope for societal change and progress. But what counts is the fact that retro brings these ideas to life and literally onto the streets. And this is exactly what retro makes so appealing to many of us and thus guarantees its survival at least for the next years.