13 December 2016

Nostalgia as Muse

Ever since there have been people, there have been people to say the past was better. Whether a mere reaction to change or a flat-out rejection of it, perceptions of the past vary when positive elements are selectively remembered and the negative aspects that contributed equally are forgotten. In the digital world, this becomes warped further as a stylized sense of history is obsessed over and relived through increasingly visual platforms like Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest. There's no denying that little thrill you get when you find a pic of double denim Britney and Justin from way back when, or blurry evidence of Stones and Beatles run-ins that could've easily been lost in history, or even an image of a rounder Karl Lagerfeld eating a McDonalds (check it). Popular culture has paved a silky smooth path for the rise of nostalgia in all aspects of consumerist culture, but particularly the fashion sphere.


Deriving from the Greek words “νόστος (nóstos)” and “áλγος (álgos)”, the term “nostalgia” can be defined as a “painful yearning to return home” and was even described by a Swiss physician as a medical condition suffered by soldiers who went away to war. It was seen as a disease to be avoided; an interpretation that the term has shed its skin of. Definitions and understandings of what nostalgia actually is vary from this yearning for the past, to a more extreme ideology of living present life in a state of absolute discontent. In a way, describing nostalgia as “bittersweet” encapsulates the positive and negative elements, inducing imagery of a more reflective and appreciative sense of longing as opposed to a borderline depression.

Millennials are often sitting pretty at the target of the bullseye for fashion marketers and strategists as cultural trends bring past fashion looks that these guys haven't lived through, back under the blinding spotlight. This has made way for a whole host of revivals of everything from sixties mod culture to nineties rap culture. Youth’s obsession with the past has reduced whole decades – The 60s, The 70s, The 80's, The 90s – to a visual dead-end, unintentionally stripped of their authenticity. Advertisers have exploited nostalgia as a neglected emotion type, feeding from the naivety of millennials and the discrepancies in their knowledge between the distant past, near past and the present. Millennials unpick and fluff up memories of their own in a way that parents and grandparents – who have a lot more stacked up in the memory bank – don’t consider with nearly the same intent.


A series of factors stemming across economic, political, social, ecological and cultural aspects of life can negatively contribute to the present state of affairs and create a future of uncertainty. As a result, it can look like the only direction for young brands and new designers is backwards and into the past as a form of rebellion. In branding, individuality is key to differentiation in the market, whilst establishing a niche and desire for this form of individuality is vital to ensure that there is demand and a waiting audience. Specific subcultures and groups that actively go against the flow of societal norm and mainstream trends often achieve this through the appropriation of formerly prominent movements. 

The anti-fashion approach can be interpreted as a protest, perhaps subconsciously on the subject’s part, against the notion of progression and moving into the future. Maybe it's no coincidence that nostalgia has arisen as a trend in itself considering the plethora of elements – from Brexit to climate change – that are uncertain about this world’s future. The nostalgia boom is crystal clear evidence of a search for identity against the flow of the mainstream, breaking down the barriers of social mass consumption and the control of social media.


Nostalgia is not strong enough as a sole entity to hold our attention. Examples in present day include: Chanel reinventing its iconic No. 5 fragrance and directing it at a younger market, but altering it with a lighter scent and Lily-Rose Depp's face on the ad; a complete Pokemon resurgence aided by the innovative virtual reality concept of the Pokemon Go app; everyone's posting pictures of themselves in their Calvins again like its Mossy and Marky Mark era, while their current campaigns have elements of the nineties ads with the bodies of current influencers to model the goods. Elements of the past are melded with the new to create a dialogue that is interesting and stimulating enough to form connections with new consumers.

The cyclical nature of fashion means there’s little doubt that the trends of today will be reflected on and romanticized in twenty years time, in the same way that current designers fetishize the looks of past decades. Whilst not necessarily deliberate or even conscious in our actions, nostalgia is a form of escapism. At a time when world change is prominent in everything from politics to environmental issues, it is easier to retreat to an idealized past than dissect what feels like the harsh reality of the present. It's more important than ever that the new generation of creatives move past this and build their references into original and innovative work that inspires those who follow and propels this industry into the future.