Hugh Pearman: Keeping track of cycles

Trends in architecture, clothes, graphic and product design are all cyclical, as Hugh Pearman points out, but some cycles are longer and more confusing than others.

Fashion. As they say, there’s no getting away from it. Leggings, anybody? Purge your expression of distaste – they’ll be back, and sooner than you might imagine. In fact, they’ve probably already returned and vanished again in the style glossies, which themselves appear and disappear with astonishing speed. But never quite die. The revival of Nova proved that fashion titles can themselves be exhumed, just as much as the clothes to be found in them.

One of the pleasures of observing fashion is the cosmic complexity of its many cycles. On the long cycle, you deal in centuries. You get designers stalking the rooms of the National Gallery or the Tate Britain, feverishly sketching the to-die-for clothes they find in the famous paintings. Irony piles upon irony, for naturally all these artists were themselves implicated in the revival of the costumes of earlier times.

Then there’s the medium-wave cycle of about 30 years. Thus you find that teenagers in 2001 are wearing clothes remarkably similar to those worn by teenagers in 1971. In other words, they wear the clothes their parents wore, although with Lycra and Tencel. In just the same way George Melly adopted 1940s zoot suits in the 1970s for his trad jazz act, a decade later Elvis Costello revived the nerdy 1950s Buddy Holly look. The more recent revival of the 1970s glam-rock look had a particular potency because its orbit coincided with the 30-year clothes cycle – hipster flares and Abba.

Finally, on the short cycle – anything from three to five years – you get, for instance, specs. No sooner had the whole of myopic Britain finally got used to peering through tiny little wire-rimmed specs, than the style pages of the nationals revived the previous generation of giant, face-covering thick frames. Fair enough, situation normal on “Planet Fashion”. Truly dedicated followers of fashion are not so much followers as leaders. But it’s a dangerous place to be. In your own small set you might be just the thing, but to the mass of the populace you will look a total prat.

Fashion deals in irony, naturally, but it is a strange kind of irony. On the one hand, the look must come with quote marks round it, on the other it has to be fresh and “new”. Because fashion trades on the willing suspension of disbelief, it achieves this tricky balancing act, three or four times a year.

As with clothes, so with architecture and other areas of design, on a slower cycle. The same 1960s buildings that are now being listed are what inspire today’s architects. A few years back my neglected local early 1960s civic library was just another eyesore. Then it started looking rather interesting. Today I learn that it has just been listed. At the very moment when – and I am not exaggerating – a new library, by a new young practice, might well come off the computer screen looking virtually identical. Only with construction’s equivalent of Lycra or Tencel.

Why am I rabbiting on about fashion? Only because some of us like to think we are immune to it, when none of us is. I have a more than sneaking regard for some unfashionable architects and designers, but that’s not the same as standing outside fashion. It’s just being ever so slightly counter-cyclical.

I remember Rem Koolhaas, a permanently modish architect, saying something similar a couple of years back. He always looked to the unregarded, preceding generation, he said. In which case, I brightly suggested, 1980s postmodernism was out there waiting for him. He balked at that, I don’t know why. But then the Dutch were originally about a decade late coming to that particular architectural look – perhaps they’re just on a different cycle to us.

Graphic styles recycle as fast as fashion. Product design is a little slower, not least because of the time taken to get a three-dimensional working object into production and the need to recoup tooling costs in a reasonably long production run. But even here, things are changing. Look at the Smart car, with its interchangeable body panels. It’s not so much like the watch it shares its name with, as with mobile phones with snap-on covers you can change.

Buildings, which until now, have tended not to change much physically at all over the years, are now getting closer to their Archigram/ JG Ballard dream, of endlessly-changing chameleon skins. I don’t know what the planners, who like visual continuity, will make of that. But a chameleon is pretty distinctive, wouldn’t you say, whatever its colour? Remember, fashion victims, no chameleon ever lost sleep worrying about what to wear in the morning.

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