Fashion has long been defined by the passing of time. The new is continuously replacing the old in the realm of popular taste, and the garment industry would like consumers to believe that our forms of dress should change with the seasons, the time of day, and from one occasion to the next. But in a year of canceled fashion weeks and bankrupt clothing brands, a year when social interactions became laced with a sense of danger, must fashion still evolve at the same pace?
I, for one, lost interest in buying new clothes this year. Initially, I assumed this was because I was no longer seeing people beyond my computer screens, or meeting new ones I would want to impress. But as I scrolled through page after page of online sales from cash-strapped stores, hoping to find things on the cheap, I realized the real problem was that I couldn’t be certain any of these garments would still hold my interest when I finally had occasion to wear them. I didn’t know what kind of time that would be—and if the garment in question would have any place in it. It was a kind of sartorial jetlag, as if fashion and time had fallen out of sync.
Both fashion and time are constructs that enable people to relate to the world at large, which is why this fissure came during a pandemic. Fashion, defined as the series of aesthetic expressions particular to a certain period, relies on interactions between people. Time, in its standardized, industrialized form, helps organize individuals within society. Both are social phenomena: They connect a person with others, including those who existed before and will exist after them.
These social demands were what compelled my younger self to cultivate my own taste, which is how I developed an interest in fashion. Distinctive garments could distract from the fact that I had migrated from a different continent. Designer goods—sometimes counterfeited—could hide the fact that I had only recently climbed in social class. Rather than be defined by the preconceptions of others, I learned to use clothing as a language to define myself. This might be why I still feel offended when a store clerk tries to sell me something: Can’t they tell that I’m someone who makes my own decisions?
In their introduction to the anthology Time in Fashion, published this summer, Caroline Evans and Alessandra Vaccari write that fashion has the ability to create an “uchronia,” an impossible and fictional time that recalls the impossible, fictional place that is utopia. Examples of this range from major fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci mythologizing their heritage to activist fashion collectives such as Bernadette Corporation using clothing, film, and publications to produce an anti-corporate message. Noting Roland Barthes’ claim that fashion is predicated on “a time that does not exist,” Evans and Vaccari suggest that the timescale of fashion—while to a certain degree arbitrary and self-referential—creates a ripe terrain for speculation and experiment, for fiction and alternative histories. While Time in Fashion doesn’t directly address the pandemic, it did lead me to wonder: In this impossible time, can fashion still be used to invent and reinvent?
So this special issue of Guernica explores what happens when the relationship between fashion and time starts to feel distanced, socially or otherwise. It begins with a contribution by Caroline Evans herself, in which she tells the story of a woman whose family business ran a subscription service selling accurate time—certified by the Greenwich Royal Observatory—to watchmakers and luxury stores around London. Set right after global time zones were standardized in 1884, the essay illustrates how the birth of standardized time enabled the rise of commodity industries, including fashion—and, in the process, transformed time into a commodity itself. In a personal essay, former model Barclay Bram reflects on how the industry not only exploited his body and his image, but manipulated his relationship to time. What made him wait in one casting line after another when he knew he wasn’t going to get the job?
Of course, time is not only industrial. It is also subjective and emotional, connected to personal histories and collective memories. Separated on different continents during the pandemic, Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo’s father sends her photos of his outfits. Is it time, Okonkwo wonders, to change the perception she’s had of him her whole life? That’s the thing about time: Even in our industrialized, standardized, and digitalized age, my use and perception of it might still not be the same as yours. And who is to say one experience of time is more valid than any other? Victoria Blanco reports on how the Rarámuri, an Indigenous community in Mexico, have fought assimilation and erasure through their dressmaking tradition. In their designs as well as their modes of production and distribution, the dresses represent the principle of circular time. But when a major designer from New York offers them a deal they cannot refuse, will Rarámuri seamstresses be able to deliver on the tight schedules of a major fashion house while still preserving the way of life they’ve fought so hard to protect?
Some writers explore the possibilities of a new time. In Elfie Tromp’s essay “How Rick Owens Taught Me to Wear Love,” we see how the arrival of a new lover inspires a new wardrobe, and perhaps a new worldview, too. Finally, historian Jonathan Michael Square describes the many ways enslaved people and their descendents have contributed to fashion trends, beyond the use of their unpaid labor to produce materials and garments. To truly achieve diversity in fashion, he argues, we need a deeper understanding of its history.
Punctuating these longer pieces are short contributions from writers proposing their own “uchronias”: K-Ming Chang, Lauren Beukes, Xiaowei Wang, and Shruti Swamy speculate on “future fashions,” suggesting that dress in 2050 might consist of anything from saris and adaptive outfits to our own skins and imaginations. Together, these writers show that how we envision the future always affects how we negotiate the present.
You’ll be able to find these pieces below, to read for free. They are best experienced, however, in a beautifully designed e-book, which you can find here in exchange for a small, tax-deductible donation to Guernica, to make possible more projects such as this. We’re very grateful for your support, through times like these and many others.
— Mary Wang
Caroline Evans: Like Clockwork
In the early 20th century, the standardization of international time transformed fashion and commerce.
Barclay Bram: Next!
A former model wonders what made him wait in one casting line after another, even when he knew he wasn’t going to get the job.
Amna Chaudhry: At All Costs
As the COVID-19 crisis brings the fast fashion juggernaut to a halt, garment workers in Pakistan find power in numbers.
Xiaowei Wang: Future Fashions: The Pår
You could walk around in your comfortable gray flannel everyday, and yet others would see an outfit tailored to their imaginings.
Keside Anosike: St. Scholastica
Inside these sounds, she’d said, people’s lives either became richer than what they usually were, like fruits ripened by good weather, or fell flat, like dry leaves.
Victoria Blanco: A Stitch in Time
For an Indigenous community in Mexico, dressmaking was a way to fight assimilation. Then a major fashion house offered a deal they couldn’t refuse.
Dafe Oboro and Innanoshe R.A.: Lagos Still Moves
Photographer Dafe Oboro reminisces about the sartorial traditions his generation of Nigerians grew up with.
Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo: Dressed Up
For my father, fashion has always been as much about seeking as about finding.
Shruti Swamy: Future Fashions: The Sari
The length of it stretches back and back, deep into the past where my mothers worked and lived.
Elfie Tromp: How Rick Owens Taught Me to Wear Love
“Even my insurance plan doesn’t feel as good as these clothes.”
Lauren Beukes: Future Fashions: The Skin
What if we were our own victimless leathers, blood-and-sweatshops?
Mahreen Sohail: Shareef
Over time and across geographies, clothes underscore a writer’s changing relationship to her appearance, her family, and her grief.
Jonathan Michael Square: How Enslaved People Helped Shape Fashion History
Their unpaid labor created countless garments, but they were also trendsetters on their own terms.
K-Ming Chang: Future Fashions: The Imagination
I spent every night lying on the lower bunk of our bunk bed, looking up at the yellowed bottom of my brother’s mattress, crafting a future self in his shadow.