The real Zeerust is a town in South Africa, but like “derby” and being “sent to Coventry” the name now has a life of its own, although perhaps only in a select circle, being one of the words in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Meaning Of Liff’ which was adopted and given a new meaning, namely the oddly dated feel which “futuristic” style acquires after a few years. It would be retrofuturism, but unlike that it isn’t doing it on purpose. Analysing the word, clearly “rust” represents the corrosion or patina forming on something after some time, like verdigris, and “zee” has the futuristic or alien Z at the beginning, which is perhaps trying too hard or has a kind of dated element to it where it was once thought to be a good way of demonstrating the shape of things to come. Once.
During my childhood in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, Art Deco seemed absolutely dreadful. It seemed to be trying to be ultramodern, but before a time when anyone even really knew what modern was yet. It had a kind of distinctive uncoolness like the one mysteriously acquired by parents just as their children enter adolescence, and it hadn’t yet been able to make its peace with the latter days as it now has. Somehow, this has managed to reinvent itself as something which is quaint rather than irritating. This is in contrast with the products of the ’60s:
This is the SUMPAC – the Southampton University Man-Powered Craft, dating from 1961, hence the sexism. In the series of various human-powered vehicles, this was the first one which to me looked “modern”. Earlier craft looked to me like bat-waterlily hybrids, but this one, and even more so its contemporary HMPAC Puffin, whose royalty-free image I can’t find, actually looked contemporary to me. The SUMPAC suffers a little in this respect due to the wooden frame. Later still there came the Gossamer Condor and Gossamer Albatross, which to me looked beyond contemporary:
This photo doesn’t do the aircraft justice, and looking at it now, it does actually look a little old-fashioned, but I wonder if this is to do with the ageing of the materials from which it was made rather than the vehicle itself. This effect leads to a misleading impression of the past, that it looked shabby and worn out, when in fact it didn’t. The past was bright and colourful, often streamlined and, well, youthful is one word which springs to mind. Machines, buildings and other artifacts do wear out of course, so we have the grainy, scratched, dust-covered black and white cinematography now, but it hasn’t always been that way, and all of this was not only fresh in terms of technological development but also in its general appearance and performance. Even taking all this away, I can convince myself that this is in fact rather old-fashioned.
A particularly vivid personal example of how media ages intrinsically is the Tornados’ ‘Telstar’, alleged to be Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record. This is the real Telstar 1:
This was the first active communications satellite able to relay television, launched in 1962. The single, to me, had a kind of utopian, “ages of plenty” feel as satirised by Donald Fagen in his ‘I.G.Y’, and yes, even in the early 1970s and beyond it did feel futuristic to me. Then at some point my brother told me, “you were born in 1967” and I realised that the only reason I liked it was that I was past it.
James Laver, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum who died in 1975, made an interesting observation regarding this process referred to today as “Laver’s Law”. Although he applies it to fashion in clothing, it can probably be applied more widely with a bit of modification. He claimed that the process of acceptance and rejection went through the following processes over the timescale mentioned:
- Ten years before coming into fashion, something is considered indecent. One example would be the wearing of apparent underwear on top of outerwear which occurred in the 1980s but would definitely have been considered indecent in 1975 (notably before punk took off)
- One year before coming into vogue, a sartorial decision would be considered shameless. It’s attention-grabbing in a way which shocks people, though not quite enough to get you arrested. Surprisingly from our perspective, there’s a possibly aprocryphal tale that when the haberdasher John Hetherington first wore a top hat in public in 1797, he was arrested for causing a breach of the peace. If this is true it suggests that it hadn’t even reached the point of shamelessness by that stage.
- When in fashion, styles are considered smart. I’m not sure this is true because punk, for example, or the fashion of wearing denim with holes in it, isn’t supposed to look smart. I think this is either a rule of thumb or considered inaccurate. It doesn’t necessarily work even for Laver’s own area of focus because during the Restoration, for example, men’s fashion was about exuberance and to some extent shock. Nonetheless, I can see that this is often true although it often takes a while for clothing to get adopted into the formal mainstream.
- One year after being in fashion, it’s considered dowdy. This raises further questions in my mind because it isn’t clear how long something stays in fashion and why. Nonetheless this kind of makes sense, although “dowdy” doesn’t feel like quite the right word. It’s more that the cognoscenti would see someone as out of touch with the latest trends.
- A decade after, previously fashionable items become hideous. The classic example of this is of course flared trousers as considered in the ’80s, and it took a pretty long time for them to become rehabilitated. These along with wide collars, sideburns and kipper ties were absolutely iconic of hideous fashion as considered in about 1985. Likewise, the same applies to padded shoulders in the mid-1990s – they were a decade out of fashion and considered ugly. Personally I still think they’re ugly but that’s probably just me.
- Another decade later, the fashions have become ridiculous. One again I would cite kipper ties in the ’90s and shoulder pads in the ‘noughties. Presumably it also means that in the post-war period, the “flapper” silhouette would also have seemed that way, but I wasn’t there.
- A decade on from that, they become amusing, and certainly that can be seen with early 1990s trends nowadays. However, it isn’t clear whether this prevents things from coming back into vogue in an ironic way, like T-shirts with heavy metal band names on them for example.
- Two decades further still, they have become quaint. With my just over half century of life, this places what was “in” at the time of my birth into the quaintness zone, so this would mean the military jackets and miniskirts of the late ’60s. Again, I’m not clear that those are now quaint.
- At the century mark, romanticism is evoked. This would be 1920s fashions, more or less, at this point, but to me this would seem to range further, into the War years, possibly due to the separation of lovers and the danger involved giving lots of opportunities for that kind of thing.
- Finally, a century and a half after something is in style it’s considered beautiful.
That’s fashion, perhaps substantially different to other aspects of daily life such as popular culture, architectural styles, gadgets and so on. This also illustrates that there’s a link between our feelings about this stuff and events of that era, and at times our perception of those events can strike chords in contemporary experience. For instance, someone living in the ’60s or ’70s would probably find the pessimistic and cynical tone of ’30s literature, such as ‘Down And Out In Paris And London’, harder to relate to than they would a decade later, assuming they had themselves moved with the times.
Attempting to apply this to design styles of the past, Art Deco, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, ought to look romantic to us now, and it probably does, but the imagery I have in mind right now is Fritz Langs ‘Metropolis’, which in fact seems quaint, although it seems to have done so for at least four decades now.
Much of this nowadays is presumably manufactured and manipulated by capitalism and its need to get people to throw things away and buy new products all the time. Fast fashion might also be expected to accelerate that, and it clearly does apply to retro tech and the like. Here’s my current mobile phone:
(Excuse the fingernails). This is the updated Nokia 3310. Around decades ago, we owned the original 3310:
This is of course considered a design classic, and although there are similarities between the current “3310” and the original, it seems to be considered that nowadays people wouldn’t be able to put up with the lack of features on the above device. This is true to an extent even for me, although I find the inclusion of a camera very irritating because the only time I use it is accidentally when I’ve pressed the wrong button. The main point is, though, that there are only seventeen years between the announcement of the first version and the revival. This is quite concerning in view of the ongoing ecological catastrophe. It’s notable, though, that our daughter’s car and my mobile have a similar aesthetic:
This similarity, which is accidental, is nonetheless interesting because it suggests that our daughter and I have similar tastes, although commercialism circumscribes the pool of choices.
The extent to which fashion has no progressive context is another point. One criticism of Kuhnian views of scientific change is that they don’t seem to allow for the idea of advancement. A scientific theory is entrenched and then demolished when the new generation reaches a position of influence, without there having to be much to choose between the two theories, and this has been compared to the vagaries of fashion. In fact I’m not convinced they just happen, because such influences as fast fashion, for example, mean that the terribly unsustainable and environmentally hazardous polyester is currently extremely popular and the fact that so many clothes are bought online currently means that consumers don’t get to see and touch them, meaning that how they can be made to look in online images is more important than how they actually look and satisfy the other senses on being worn. Then again, because so much of our interaction is online anyway nowadays, it might matter less personally because they really do primarily have to look good in selfies and on YouTube and Facebook anyway, perhaps “appropriately” filtered. Nonetheless there is progress in fashion, for example the late nineteenth century Rational Dress Movement aiming to make clothing more practical and comfortable. And sadly, in the realm of architecture appearance can become more prized than safety and people’s lives, as the Grenfell travesty demonstrates. We may not be crushing the lives out of our viscera with corsets nowadays, but we’re still choking people with flammable cladding for aesthetic purposes.
I’m conscious of a shift in what counts as futuristic. As a child in the 1970s, my initial understanding of the futuristic included white and silver streamlining with round portholes, rather like the above Futuro house designed in the late ’60s and made of fibreglass or Cousteau’s Conshelf experimental underwater dwelling. Then I became aware of a second style of “futurism” which I thought of as “blue and silver”, with a kind of rectilinear approach similar to the illustrations of spacecraft made by Chris Foss. However, for some time I thought of these two as two visions of the futuristic rather than one being more futuristic than the other, although eventually “blue and silver” won out. This is also associated with airbrushing – precise control of quantity and direction of pigment popular in the 1980s.
I want to finish by returning to Douglas Adams. I think I’ve quoted exactly this before on here but unfortunately I don’t tag anything so I’ll just do it again. You may wish to join me in applying it to your own life:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.