Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Timeless classics"

So I'm of the opinion that the "timeless classic" - that clothing item or accessory that will never look dated - is a myth. A myth embraced by brands and consumers alike, because everyone wants to work under the impression that purchases will be worn for years. Stores want customers to think they're getting a good deal and being sensible, and that this justifies spending an extra thousand dollars on a certain brand of raincoat or whatever, while shoppers pride themselves on good taste and eschewing frivolity.

How timeless is timeless? Are we to believe that Louis XIV's Levis and Converse would totally work today? It would make sense that a "classic" would be a look meant to stay in style for the duration of a normal human lifespan, or the years of it spent at more or less the same size. But then there are those watch ads, with the father who'll pass down the watch to his insufferable looking son, styled to resemble Brighton from "The Nanny." For every item costing over, oh, $1,000, there needs to be at least the notion that it will stay in one's Fine Family (as opposed to the Fine family) for years.

There are several reasons I doubt "timeless" is a real phenomenon, beyond the marketing. For one, even if you restrict your sample population to one subculture, how that subculture dressed in 1979, 1988, and today will not offer much in the way of direct overlap. Take a subculture known for timelessness: preppies. The general idea and color scheme remains the same, but the specific brands and styles come and go. (Remember Hervé Chapelier? Once ubiquitous, now at the bottom of every closet on the Upper East Side.)

Next, there's the fact that brands and styles known as "classics" aren't so much timeless as prone to cycle in and out periodically. Keds, Doc Martens, motorcycle jackets, these will probably never leave us altogether, but they go through decades of being 'that thing I wore way back when' before returning to social acceptability.

Finally, there are the many, many, many subtle changes - i.e. "fashion" - that make clothing either look "then" or "now," but that are not always predicable at the time. The obvious example is pant-leg flare vs. taper - a bit of fabric makes the difference between looking like you've made an effort and looking like you last bought pants in high school. (Which, given that it implies a constant dress-size since high school, might be something some would want to cultivate?) There is not a single pair of jeans in this universe that will always look current. The cut of skirts presents the same issues - pleats, waist height, and overall shape, not even bringing in the issue of hemline. I mean, I can look at t-shirts I bought a few years ago and detect their few-years-ago-ness, even if they're still in decent shape. It doesn't stop me wearing those t-shirts, but the point isn't whether one can continue to wear clothing for years (one can, and the one that's typing this sure does), but whether one's closet, if properly stocked, can make one avoid looking dated.

A commenter, however, claims that "timeless" exists. I'm willing to accept the possibility, but only if specific timeless items, or better yet full outfits, are identified. So, readers, if you have any ideas, comment away.


Miss Self-Important said...

I basically agree with you, but will try anyway. For women: pencil skirts, button-down long sleeve blouses (especially white), black cardigans. The outfit would be that plus pantyhose and black pumps. I also don't recall plain v-neck wool sweaters ever being out of style in my lifetime. But none of these things can really be said to be in style at any given point either since they're so plain that they probably don't rise above "clothes" to qualify as "fashion." When they do surface as fashion, it's only in some incarnation that doesn't last more than a few seasons--like the really high-waisted pencil skirt or the super long cardigan of right now, or the poofy sleeve blouse of 1987.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm looking for examples of clothes, not "fashion." Simply, what clothes would never go out of style? By "in," in this context, I mean not-out, as opposed to trendy. So, point taken re: button-down shirts and v-neck sweaters.

I disagree, however, about even mid-waisted pencil skirts, as I can remember clearly when they stopped looking dated and became in again. (Around when I started grad school, leading me to teach in some uncomfortable outfits.) Also re: black pumps - some black pumps will always be in, but how rounded or pointy the toe is, and what shape the heel has, these come and go like jeans-flare. Same goes for that other womenswear "classic" - black leather boots.

Helen said...

The always-spectacular Sally Singer hits the nail on the head, really (emphasis mine):

"People think that if they buy classics -- a trench coat, or a V-neck sweater or a great pair of flat boots -- they're safe because they've invested in things that are gonna last 20 years. But within six months, it's the wrong V-neck or the wrong flat boot, because suddenly the line is wrong. Fashion people are stimulated by proportion shifting -- getting taller, getting thinner. Hemlines go up, hemlines go down. Shoes get wacky, shoes get clunky, shoes get skinny. The fastest things to date are those classics, cause it's just proportions laid bare. There's nothing else going on. If you had invested in a feathered chubby or an incredible crinoline, it's never going to go out of style. I think the most eccentric things are the things that last the longest."

FLG said...


Perhaps it's easier for men, but Cary Grant could pretty much walk down the street in almost anything he was ever photographed in and look good. Now, most of the time he's in a suit, and perhaps the tie or lapel is thinner/thicker, but by and large his look is pretty damn timeless.

FLG said...

Also, Alan Flusser argues that fashion is something you chase, whereas style is dictated by what looks good on you and that never changes.

FLG said...

That last link didn't work:

Flavia said...

I agree with MSI about all the items she names, but I also think it's sometimes the items that stand out in some way that manage to be "timeless" because they aren't dependent on specific proportions, lengths, etc., that are later revealed to be of a particular season. (Or maybe this is only a way of saying that an individual can own a "signature" piece--say, a striking coat--that they can wear for decades, rather than that the piece is in a more meaningful way timeless.)

Speaking for myself, though, I have one black sheath dress that I'm still wearing after 13 years (boatneck, 2-3 inches above the knee, almost no detailing), while I have two others that went out of style within a few years. And I have a Burberry trench that I bought at the Spence-Chapin thrift store that's almost as old (to me--it's probably actually from the mid-80s) and that I'm pretty sure will never go out of style.

I do think there are timeless pieces, especially for one's particular style. But I agree that one can't always know ahead of time which those will be, and which will turn out to be in some way bound to a particular year's sensibility.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, that's it exactly! Something truly outrageous will look no more or less so in a few years. But eventually, it might - I'm thinking of a pair of silver lamé leggings I still own but can't quite see wearing...


The fashion-style dichotomy is itself a classic, repeated everywhere anyone's writing about clothes. While I agree with conventional wisdom that there's a difference, I'm not convinced that this difference permits those with style to keep their clothes longer than those without. Having style means knowing, of the clothes currently not unfashionable, which will suit you personally, as opposed to randomly picking stuff off the racks at H&M.

Caveat: I haven't a clue how much this holds for male business attire. Are suits now the same as they used to be? For all I know, they are.


"But I agree that one can't always know ahead of time which those will be, and which will turn out to be in some way bound to a particular year's sensibility."

This is, in a nutshell, why I don't believe "timeless" exists. It's not that there aren't any outfits that will, in retrospect, turn out to have worked just as well in 1963 as 2003. It's that there's no way to shop with that knowledge in mind. We've all seen dusty photos from decades ago, of people dressed in a way that was normal then but would be normal or even ultra-chic now. However, when shopping in 1950 or whatever, the people in the photo could not have known that would be the case.