November 27, 2007

Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Wear It

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Perhaps it would be surprising to read that this fashion columnist is not a Fiber Science and Apparel Design major. As a double major in History and Archaeology I am often questioned about how I could be so passionate about both ancient history and fashion. The topics seem to be completely incongruent. The ruins of Rome are a world apart from the catwalks of Milan. However, I don’t believe that one can truly appreciate fashion without an understanding of its historical undertones.
One only has to look at the logos and insignias of many designers to find mythological and historical analogies. The Gucci crest that adorns many of the Fall Winter bags this season is reminiscent of British family crests or coats of arms. Versace’s logo is an apparent image of the head of Medusa. The Athena Parthenos was way ahead of her time by sporting a similar Medusa head on her massive gold shield. Gianni would have been proud.
Books about art history or archaeology abound with modern trends that have roots in centuries and millennia past. For example, the hair “poof” that recently re-emerged can be seen in portraits of Livia from the late first century B.C. and the portraits of Flavian women from the late first century A.D.
In addition to hair styles, makeup and other beauty products also have links to the ancient past. Eye makeup and perfume were used by the ancient Egyptians. It was seriously hot in Egypt, especially without showers, antiperspirant or deodorant. All wealthy Egyptians could do was cover up that odor with lots of scented products. I am talking about some brutal B.O. along with some oily or waxy potent perfume. It was neither the finest olfactory experience nor a trend worth precisely replicating.
The pearl or beaded necklaces that have a ribbon tie instead of a clasp can be seen in Vermeer’s 1664 painting Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. These necklaces and bracelets continue to be popular as the ribbon adds additional flair to a simple pearl or beaded piece of jewelry. Claire’s was knocking off some seriously old jewelry when these necklaces came back in style a few years ago.
Snakes have been one of the world’s most enduring fashion trends. Snakes have different meanings in various cultures and time periods. Decorating with snake motifs or wearing snakes could enhance fertility, bring good luck or deter evil. Snakes were way cooler before Eve gave them a bad rep. Snakes are still popular today, as seen on the delicate wrists of Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Ritchie.
The popularity of heels in women’s shoes corresponds to ancient ideals of height indicating social status. Consider the stereotypical statues of emperors, kings or pharaohs shown on a pedestal or platform. Height is still associated with status today. It’s quite obvious that women exceed men in social status by slipping on those four-inch stilettos.
Even more recent eras have impacted our fashions. Art Nouveau elements can be seen in the vivid, vegetal inspired patterns that have become increasingly popular. Deco elements can be seen in this season’s angular jewelry. Ralph Lauren even finds concepts in Native American textiles and jewelry. Many Polo patterns are based on Navajo prints, and the use of turquoise also corresponds to Native American styles.
Our fashions today would be less diverse without their historic foundations. Fashion is often about recycling old trends so why not go back to B.C. Only by the logic of fashion could looks from millennia ago be trendier than the items of last season.
Although the same items can be found in wardrobes and depictions of wardrobes across time and space, the question remains how the meaning of these objects has remained or changed. Do women who wear Versace recognize that the logo is a Medusa head? When many women are entirely oblivious of the labels that they wear, most likely they are even more ignorant of the origins of those brands.
With a little insight and creativity, the realms of archaeology and fashion begin to merge. Being a history nerd and a fashionista are not so different after all.