At the heart of every Romantic is the conviction that all human progress isn’t invariably an improvement on what has come before. They lament the fact that in certain areas of our civilization we have actually devolved, degraded, whether in the values, principles or tastes we hold. And the Romantic, or anyone with a sense of nostalgia, is sensitive to this sullying. This sensitivity tends to be parodied as a quixotic idealism blind – or at least indifferent – to the contemporary glories of the arts and sciences. But the cocky bullies making fun of the dreamers are idealists themselves. For them, culture and technology in their latest forms are necessarily superior to any predecessors.
Champions of all things current are civilizational Darwinists. After all, they trumpet, the latest incarnation of anything represents the fittest example of its kind, be it the most advanced widget or most sophisticated cultural product. Where inferior forebears have died out, the strongest have survived and will inevitably be superceded by ‘the next best thing’. The human history of values is an inexorably linear affair, and always towards something ‘better’. But the Romantic believes, quite correctly, that in hurtling down history’s highway towards the future, not a few beautiful byways and worthy stopovers have been passed in a whirl of dust.
But worse than mocking old-fashioned values is the insidious tactic of commercial parties in co-opting the undeniable appeal of the ‘old but true’ in their quest for profits. These opportunists take a pragmatic view of nostalgia and by-gone aesthetics. They recognise the money-making potential of these cultural deposits lying buried under the sands of time. All they need to do is dig up these artifacts, get the marketing department to give them a contemporising polish and then sell them to consumers who, for all the desensitisation they’ve been subjected to by modernity, still retain a subconscious memory of all that was good, noble and dignified, classy even. The execs then pat each other on the back for a dissimulation well done and silently give thanks to the powers of association and symbolism, those wonderful labour-saving devices without which marketers would actually have to create new meaning.
One field of human activity where this trick is played is in fashion. Styles from the past are constantly recycled in ‘new’ designs, which are then mass-produced on a resource-greedy scale to sate the gluttonous masses. The values once embodied by the classic styles of the last two centuries of Western fashion – modesty, temperance, diligence, industry, independence and self-cultivation – are stripped off the fabric and discarded as irrelevant. Mere appearance is current fashion’s raison d’etre. When quality of character is jettisoned as superfluous and ‘The Look’ is to carry the entire burden of identity, we witness the birth of such postmodern shibboleths as the self-consciously ironic ‘hipster’ and the bourgeois-bohemian, or ‘bobo’, affluent yet desperate for meaning. And so we have a farce put on for our viewing pleasure, where the hipster parades his faux rebellion and the bobo her pseudo-authenticity, both informed by manufactured nostalgia. At this juncture of fashion history, the whole business is the regurgitated ala carte that dare not speak its name.
Yet all these shenanigans only prove the objective value and timelessness of some things, whether in aesthetics or human character. For all the cynicism inherent in corporate cool, the Romantic knows why marketers steal what they steal. Quality – of clothing and character – truly never goes out of style.