Fashioning the New from the Old

Redefining modernity through material culture

by Allison Krier
 

Fashion by definition is about transformation and being of the moment. One of my favorite pieces in my wardrobe is a 1980s vintage clutch purse. A few years ago during a holiday visit with my parents, I was rummaging through some drawers in the bedroom of my childhood years; I moved to another room during my teen years. Can’t remember what I was looking for, but I fortuitously came across the clutch in a drawer, which I could vaguely remember in the hand of my mother when she was glamorously dressed for a special evening out. It still looked new, no wear at all. Without hesitation, I asked if I could take the purse.

Vintage clutch purse, 1980s. Photo by the author.

Vintage clutch purse, 1980s. Photo by the author.

Aesthetic sensibilities and the material execution determine so much. Particular design strategies and elements supersede time and resonate across eras. On both sides of the shiny, sleek clutch, there is radial sunbeam-like pattern that follows the semi-circular, rigid metal-plated shape. It is simple and chic as well as shimmering; it also comes with a detachable metal chain shoulder strap. The triangular sun ray motif was a trendy one of note. Popular in the 1980s, it references an older decade, the 1920s, when the decorative pattern became prevalent (alluding to the ancient and exotic), embellishing anything from a cosmetic case to architectural ornamentation. Bewitchingly, this petite handbag fashionably represents its decade’s fascination with the Art Deco era, and the overall looking back to previous historical styles. Beyond reproduction, the inventiveness in which the Post-Modern designers echoed ideas and elements of the past was transformative–new perspectives of a new age. Perhaps more often, the reinterpretations took the tact of parody, deliberate garishness, and exalting the banal, even melding it with haute culture. This was at the core of the 1980s’ New Wave. In Michael Grave’s Plaza Vanity (ca.1980), the almost cartoonish quotation to a Deco skyscraper is more than evident, and the lacquered woods and light blue surface decoration places the piece squarely in the 1980s. It is a look that feels 80s. Likewise, the peculiar, sometimes outlandish, furniture by the legendary Italian-based design collaborative, Memphis (1981-1987), show the brash energy of the era. They employed vibrant, often clashing, colors and pattern, and cheap slick surface materials such as laminates and plastics as shown in the Carlton bookcase (1981), designed by its leader, Ettore Sottsass. Ideals of good taste were on trial and turned upside down as they welcomed their objects to be fashionably consumed. A purpose, frivolous or not, is stated.

Room of Memphis-design furniture

Room of Memphis-design furniture

Memphis–like so much that is hip and of the zeitgeist–suddenly emerged out of nowhere, and was gone almost as quickly. It was borne out of the energy of the moment. Its visual manifestations stubbornly fixed as such making it difficult to imagine the designs as evolving with time no matter the context. Photos of more recent interiors showing Memphis furniture reveal them as fixtures alluding to a moment past, despite pristine white walls or other more contemporary objects. They conspicuously stick out as that thing from the 80s. Similarly, the vibrant and psychedelic interiors of the 1960s Pop era epitomize the shifting ideals of the decade, and flamboyantly, with a full commitment to a new lifestyle. Danish architect Verner Panton’s installation for the Visiona 2 exposition (Cologne, Germany, 1970) encapsulates the optimism and spirit of the swinging 60s and that of youthful freedom; however, its series of interiors is distinctly, exceedingly even, Pop Mod. Every element is a saturated color in a synthetic material (the exhibition was sponsored by the German chemical company Bayer). The proposition for a new lifestyle via design and aesthetics becomes almost a parody of the concept, a place for an Austin Powers romp– a sensual, tactile, phantasmagoric playground, a descent into a colorful grotto. Counterculture, it would seem, dramatically makes its point through spectacle and a distinct visual vocabulary.

Ettore Sottsass,  Carlton Bookcase , Memphis, ca. 1981

Ettore Sottsass, Carlton Bookcase, Memphis, ca. 1981

Memphis designs and Visiona 2, as well as other eccentric and fanciful interiors by Panton, invoke time and place. We experience nostalgia–whether in the form of amusement or an ideal now lost, for that moment for which they are emblematic. There is considerable satisfaction in the wistful instance of connecting to something past. Is it because they exploit the discord we may have for the current era and the labors of our present existence, personal or societal? Or do they propel us to feel more confident and content in our modernity? And does that evolve through understanding what came before? I truly relish their flashy artifice; they are time capsules, leftovers of an earlier but also significantly influential ethos–the spirit of a new way of thinking. And I speculate: does my moment of delight and appreciation in the representation of their moment in time make them surpass their brief cultural zeitgeist? There is so much value placed on things that are timeless; that they were superiorly conceived and more refined.

The Post Modern Movement was a reformation. It rejected the Modern Movement’s strict dictums of essential form and functionality, of something so rationally realized. The Modernist way became exhaustive and ever tedious to youthful vitality. It embraced the decorative as a communicative vehicle–connective tissue that enriches with meaning as well as visceral appeal. It welcomed choices, a plurality of metaphors. We participate and connect culturally by reading the many disparate expressive approaches. The universal is often successful and effectual; however the one method, a “global monotheism” can be deadening. In art and design, this was a "come to Jesus" moment.

The 20th century’s keenness for the machine resulted in geometric and metallic items across numerous commonplace and cultural streams. It represented a modern style and the charms of a new urban cosmopolitan life–prominently, the Jazz Age and its provocative gaiety. The design of my clutch induces familiarity, modernity, and novelty. The obviously machine fabricated metal–highly polished–emphasizes the plainly rendered abstract shape as well as supplies some flair. The purse alludes to a distant grand and posh period as it intertwines with contemporary notions of fashion.

Louis Ghost Chairs by Phillipe Starck, designed 2002. Manufactured by Kartell.

Louis Ghost Chairs by Phillipe Starck, designed 2002. Manufactured by Kartell.

Certain subtexts, much like my petite chic purse, are present in the instantly iconic Louis Ghost Chair by Phillipe Starck for Kartell (designed 2002). Its contour revives the archetypal style that evolved as a new refinement of comfort during the reign of Louis XVI in the 18th century. It is a motif that symbolizes aspirations of elegance and sophistication. With Starck’s we see a wink to the past distilled through shape, and a contemporary progression through material–translucent acrylic that sheds the plush, that is both droll–a ghost of a past century wittily and with irony stated in its name–but a refined, cosmopolitan and remarkably modern object. It too is sleek embracing both past and present through a citation by way of the most essential form possible while still whispering the old. The Modernist principle of fundamental form is but a choice combined with other ideals. The Bourbon monarchs: Louis XIV, XV, XVI–otherwise referred to as ancien regime–signify the French tradition and pride for their superior luxury craftsmanship as well as the furnishings of haute society. The Louis Ghost Chair devises cultural references whether purified or multi-faceted. And plastic (of all things!) is the new cultured taste.

I clutched the little 80s handbag recently for my birthday dinner out. A little bit of panache and elegance to celebrate another year lived. It drew some attention. There was no assumption of its vintage nature. It was simply part of the present moment.