Fashion’s youth fixation

When it comes to style, teenagers rule OK.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Topics Politics

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Waistlines, apparently, will rise again. Soothsayers like Vogue predicted it before now, and it didn’t stick. But the autumn 2005 fashion shows were emphatic; even for garments without waistlines, like overcoats, thick, high belts were fastened on top.

For 10 years the waistline has been slowly sinking from the belly button down. And low-riders favour the young and lithe, as they’re fitted to hug a taught abdomen, to hang on a hipbone. They allow for little guile; they lack tricks like drapes and tucks, and they hide less. Britney Spears-like hipsters are confirmation, rather than creators, of sex appeal: they look young and sexy on the young and sexy.

Youth is in fashion. Our culture has Peter Pan syndrome. We want to stay young forever, and not just in body, but in spirit, too. And these low waistlines are part of that longing. ‘It’s been really miserable for me over the past couple of years just even trying to find a pair of jeans that look so fantastic on all these teenagers’, said Mandi Moore, editor-in-chief of the US magazine SHOP Etc. The sweet spot of the sartorial range is only open to young people, or people who look like young people. The rest have been disenfranchised – at least from the in trousers.

In Italy, where I lived for two years, I noticed that middle-aged and older people had a dress style of their own. For the most part, they weren’t trying to fit into teen jeans. Years of learning about how to mix colours and dress for occasions, from christenings to funerals, came to fruition. Older, fashionable people often wear three colours per outfit (not including black and white), which sounds simple, but is difficult to master, especially for those used to wearily throwing on the fashion equalizer, black, from head to toe. Young people consulted older people on style and clothes etiquette. The loss of a blue jean figure seemed, at least, to have ample compensations. Older people had kept a niche.

But even in Italy the tone has become more casual, and adults have started to emulate youth. ‘In the past 10 years the mothers of 25-year-olds want to be similar to their children, also in the way they dress’, said Ombretta Maffei, who has been making bespoke clothing for 30 years in her atelier in Florence. ‘Everyone is less formal.’

Consider the changing status of jeans. They began as functional wear for California miners, became a cheap, casual uniform, and now, in their latest ‘premium’ incarnation, sometimes cost £400 a pair. Jeans are branded with stitching and beaten and dipped in elaborate aging and dyeing rituals worthy of their new clout. Although they don’t, of course, bestow youth, they imply a freedom to be cavalier, a flexibility. On adults they say, film director Antonioni-style, ‘I’m 18 and many, many months’.

Could a new waistline altitude herald the ebb of a youth-centred culture? If actors who wore their trousers high were mature – Katharine Hepburn, or Cary Grant, who belted almost to the ribcage – an adjusted waistline could include the excluded, and usher in bygone values. Of course, this is advertising logic (the kind that links dish detergent with love), where the superficial runs deep: maybe if the waistline is upped, the grown-ups will return to power.

My grandparents were young in the heyday of classic, high-belted Hollywood stars. Ten years ago, in the same month that one of my grandmothers had a pendant chin removed, the other one, every bit the part of a secure, happy woman, confided that looking at herself in the mirror was always a shock because she felt, under the wrinkles, still 25. The chin I understood – it was bulbous, distracting – but the sense of displacement of the other one confused me. I’d thought she saw her wrinkles the same way that I did: a sign of her knowledge and wisdom and sheer number of practical skills. But she didn’t.

Ageing is experienced as just a process of loss, rather than accumulation. ‘Who, I might ask, ever feels 50 inside?’ asks Daphne Merkin in an article, ‘Keeping the forces of decrepitude at bay’ (1). ‘Like the proverbial thin person stuck inside every fat person, inside every 50-year-old is nestled a 30- or 25-year-old.’

Hipster jeans have a structured informality, a studied insouciance. The false wear and tear implies the wearer was reckless, or wore them from an improbably young age, but give away their real age with bits of bright indigo and branded waves across the pockets. The used spots, tattered and stained, suggest the wearer picked them up from a vintage shop, where they’d been left by a circus animal trainer who’d inherited them from James Dean. They’re a strained mix of old and young, like taut facelifts on old people, or world-weary, street-smart children.

And there is also flattery, a nod to the person nestled inside. What cannot be shaped with lycra’d cotton, seams and the direction of weave on my ‘premium’, tight, hipster Blue Cult jeans, is contoured visually. The fade from light to dark, strategically located, creates a three-dimensional thinning effect, imitating the play of light on slimmer legs than mine. The sides of the lower hips, right below the pockets, are lightened, too, squaring them. These jeans superimpose a thinner, younger self.

Fiona Ingham, a senior image consultant with the House of Colour, meets with clients to determine ideal clothing colours and styles to suit body type and personality. According to Ingham, it’s usually not possible to determine a person’s type until about age 18. ‘Most people have grown into their personality by then.’ Young fashion implies a blank slate, before the body shape and lifestyle solidify, when so much is not yet determined and, as a result, seems reversible.

Aristotle described adolescents as ‘changeful, and fickle in their desires, which are as transitory as they are vehement; for their wishes are keen without being permanent, like a sick man’s fits of hunger and thirst’. As much as adolescents change, they haven’t changed much. Fashion is like that, too, probably because it’s nourished by adolescent whims. What is in seems the only way, right up to the moment it seems hopelessly dated.

Waistlines may be rising, but that does not mean that fashion’s worshipping of youth is on the way out.

Lisa Brennan-Jobs is an American writer who lives in London, and is currently working as a spiked intern.

(1) ‘Keeping the Forces of Decrepitude at Bay’, New York Times Magazine, 16 May 2004

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Topics Politics


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