Theory of Style: On Seasonality
“Fashion is the future, clothes are what we already wear.” In her May column, Joanna Walsh ponders how fast fashion’s accelerationism plays with seasons, desire, and the virtual, projecting us into an elsewhere we’ll never venture into.
In the last week or so spring has happened where I live and I don’t want to sit inside any more, and write; I just want to sit inside looking at Pinterest pictures of people in Breton tops and white jeans. Because this is what spring means now. The seasons happen on Instagram, where cherry trees always bloom on time. The green shoots I’m looking for are fashion shoots. In the city I’m noticing buds and sprigs not in the fields and hedges but on dresses and coats. And even more on adverts. The first new tendrils of capitalism remind me that, every year in March, I will book a holiday in June and buy a garment that can be worn only there.
So much fashion is a mental holiday from reality. Holiday fashion in particular is a dialectic between where you’re going and what you are. It both inhabits and points up the nature of longing. Dreaming forward, I live in the future when I will have that shirt, that scarf, and can hardly enjoy the present, the present garment. On holiday, in the clothes I bought in February, I crave corduroy and wool. Where is the sensuality of a sweater but in my imagination? What are the ghost clothes I inhabit while I’m wearing what I already own?
Fashion seasons begin not with the nadir and zenith of winter and midsummer, but the seasons we have been taught to think of as secondary, ambivalent, changeable: spring and fall. No season in fashion arrives on time. The gap of spring is matched by the physical jolt of fall’s new season overload. Imagine the impact, pre-internet, of those pages: the thirst for fresh images, new words, the kilo-heavy September issue out in August, read in the heat of still-summer. I’m over sun.
Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” motto is softened by being wrapped in fleece that says “I’m not the man, I’m just another nerd.”
I crave clothes particularly in winter at the dog end of the sales, before the new season starts. Like the “hungry gap” between March and May when nothing can be harvested, the early months of the year are fashion hungry. An ascetic mood strikes around early April. Time and the weather stand still; spring will never fully arrive. This mood may offer some stability, but its realism may be nothing more than another aesthetic category with a narrative attached: wearing artisan clothes, I will live alone by the sea. I will go for bracing walks on the beach. I will come home and drink tea from a Bernard Leach mug. If I don’t watch out, this fantasy will lead me to buy a second-hand Margaret Howell or Toast pinafore dress on Ebay and spend the rest of the year wondering why I wanted to look like a giant bourgeois toddler.
“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” wrote outdoor-dwelling Henry David Thoreau in Walden (1854), “and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.” The truth is, it can be impossible to imagine new ways of being without the right outfit. Even “the snake casts its slough,” Thoreau admits, “and the caterpillar its wormy coat, by an internal industry and expansion.” This “moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives.”
In spring, I crave new clothes with the paradox of all new clothes – something perfectly suited to me that will also make me into someone else. Fashion is the future; clothes are what we already wear. It sounds like accelerationism. This proposal for “fatal strategies” (Jean Baudrillard) doubles down on technology’s capacity to speed up capitalism, crushing the very idea of seasonality. Accelerationism is based in Marxist thought, though its most prominent adherents are alt-right. The idea of a “self-escalating techno-commercial complex,” as accelerationist Nick Land called it, is beloved by some sectors of tech bros, who wear styles that declare they have not time to attend to anything so trivial as clothes. “In Silicon Valley,” according to Fred Turner, a historian of America’s digital industries, “accelerationism is part of a whole movement which is saying, we don’t need [conventional] politics any more, we can get rid of ‘left’ and ‘right,’ if we just get technology right.” And fashion.
Techcore is political in its desire to sidestep “conventional” politics. Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” motto is softened by being wrapped in fleece that says “I’m not the man, I’m just another nerd.”
Patagonia the clothing company heads the Google search results ahead of Patagonia the country.
Gorpcore arrived around 2017 to complicate tech industry style. Same clothes, different colors? Not quite. Though also based on fleeces and “tech” pants, gorpcore is a more complicated successor to techcore. It’s brighter and more varied, its silhouettes are dramatic, the labels – whether Patagonia or Balenciaga – are visible. Unlike techcore, gorpcore is definitely fashion. We know this because it’s derided by IRL hikers. Both styles reference outdoor living for people whose jobs demand that they largely stay indoors, whatever the season. Patagonia the clothing company heads the Google search results ahead of Patagonia the country.
Gorpcore and techcore share a minimalist aesthetic, eschew seasonality, and so may qualify as politically “green.” Patagonia, both aesthetics’ favorite brand, last year committed to channeling all revenue not reinvested into the company to environmentalist non-profits. Patagonia supports “grassroots” organizations. In fact the word “grassroots” is repeated so many times on their website that I can hardly see the wood for the lawn. It does not fund “political campaigns” and finances projects almost exclusively within the Global North. “Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” says founder Yvon Chouinard. Capitalist Realism (is there no alternative)?
It may be easier to imagine the end of fashion than the end of capitalism. Both tech and gorpcore not only reject fashion in its seasonal sense but its associations with decoration and excess. They are particularly down on femme styling, and also counter slow fashion, care, craft, tradition and skill.
Cottagecore is the visual opposite: clothes are detailed and “feminine.” Though its image is craft, and retro, on-brand styles are rarely available second hand. So where do you buy a cottagecore dress? It hardly seems to matter. A brief search online comes up with Boohoo and Amazon as top contenders, plus cottagecore-dress.com, which announces “the cottagecore trend is part of the anti-consumerist movement and seeks a return to simplicity” and advertises inexpensive dresses made of non-specific “light, soft, quality fabric” in US dollars, shipped direct from China. “Young women … showing their audience their authentic style,” is key: it’s not to do with living the life but Instagramming it.
“My favorite place to buy cheap cottagecore clothing and dresses is from Shein,” writes Montreal-based travel blogger Kristen Wendlandt. Brands like Christy Dawn may use deadstock fabrics and manufacture in the US, rather than the cheaper and less labor-regulated east Asia but, with no go-to “green” manufacturer – the equivalent of Patagonia – cottagecore’s ethics veer toward its adherents’ lifestyle, an invitation to drop out of the fleece-clad rat race and keep sheep. This could be a radical proposal except that the lifestyle is usually entirely virtual, not so much patches on the clothes (which usually look pristine) as squares in the scrapbooks of Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. Cottagecore is a vital playground for both queer and tradwife imaginaries but, like techcore and gorpcore, it seldom ventures into the environments for which its styles are designed. It seldom ventures out at all. Cottagecore, unsurprisingly, came to the fore during lockdown.
Is cottagecore still a thing? It’s going nowhere, said WhoWhatWear in April 2023. Like tech and gorpcore, it transcends seasons: cottagecore is eternal summer (I can’t remember seeing a cottagecore overcoat); gorpcore is perpetual fleece-weather, ideally layered. Are both a search for aesthetic stability in the face of online retailers’ replacement of fashion’s skewed seasonality by monthly – or weekly – drops and cyclical discounting?
It may be easier to imagine the end of fashion than the end of capitalism.
If fashion proposes hyperaccelerated capitalized time, style interferes. Innovation is coming, as so often, from the amateurs. Shopping in end times, second-hand sites break down seasonality, offering what wearers might actually need right now. Confusing. Is this the end of history or the beginning of something else?
“If you have any enterprise before you, try it in someone else’s old clothes.” I “re-popped” a T-shirt I’d bought on Depop, an oversized cut that did nothing for me. Or less than nothing. I was away when the buyer paid: “I can’t post for a week, I’m sorry.” “That’s ok,” they wrote, “I’m planning ahead for summer.” It was late January.
There is no realism in fashion. It is no place to chase Lacan’s “Real,” a state of nature from which we have been excluded by our entrance into language. That fashion continues to exist in seasonal disjunct – ideal seasons conjured from the words on magazine and webpages – allows us to realize, as Derrida did in The Postcard (1980), that “it is my desire I desire” (or to assert, with Charlotte in Sex and the City, “I choose my choice.”
In the here and now of an uncertain Northern European spring, I might do like Gertrude Stein who, on the fine spring day of her philosophy finals, wrote “I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today,” and went outside. Her teacher, William James, awarded her the highest grade.
JOANNA WALSH is a writer. Author of eleven books (several co-written with AI that she has coded), she is also an editor, university teacher, and arts activist. Her column “Theory of Style” runs the third Wednesday of the month. In the first edition, she broached the question of what style really is.