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Archive Fever: Seeking Inspiration in the Age of COVID-19

Written by
Cyana Madsen
Published date
18 December 2020

Cyana Madsen is a second year PhD student at London College of Fashion. Cyana’s research considers the impact of curatorial practice on the biography of worn objects of dress and the authorship of histories.

Surely, I am not the only person who has spent long moments in the past 9 months (since UK lockdown measures began), staring with a mixture of irritation and sorrow at those pieces of clothing which once seemed essential to my wardrobe, now acting as cruel totems for a time that once was.

The “beforetime” as it has become known in the age of COVID-19, a wistful term that draws its roots from middle English and the King James Bible, was a time when different situations required different clothing: work/leisure, indoors/outdoors, day/night. There were certainly mundane occasions for garments of no particular note, but then there were outfits with a capital “O”.

The sartorial flattening brought on by the pandemic has been responded to in nearly every area of fashion study, from the dressed self in the Lockdown Clothing Project, studies into the financial and environmental impact, to the new meanings tied to once (in the West) dress-adjacent objects like the face mask.

The close association of clothing and memory is well established in fashion scholarship: from Peter Stallybrass’s writing on the sensory gut-punch that worn clothing can deliver in the absence of the wearer, to the memorial traces that remain in our recollections long after the material garment is no more, as explored by Alison Slater.

The recent trend for fashion corporations to engage with memory through the “archive collection”, however, puts an interesting and perhaps incongruous twist on what has previously been the realm of material culture studies.

Fashion often engages with its past indirectly, desiring to be at least perceived as perennially new. In this age of limited travel and access, but with little sign of the fashion cycle slowing, the industry has not been immune to the creative ramifications of COVID-19 and its attendant restrictions. As the pandemic drags on, a key question for brands and their designers seems to be: where does inspiration come from?

For high street retailer Zara, inspiration came from their own past with their “Archive Collection”. The reuse of campaign images ranging from 1996 to 2012, and the “relaunch” of select garments from those campaigns recalls to what (for some) were the simpler times of 20-plus years ago, pre-COVID. Perhaps there is a stabilising benefit to looking at this well-documented recent past for inspiration. There is nothing unpredictable in Zara’s collection of simple garments in neutral colours, and that feeling of certainty, so fleeting in an age of rising infection rates and deepening financial crisis, can be bought for the price of a £49.99 slip dress (originally from Autumn/Winter 1998).

For luxury design house Prada, the archived past is less a direct product, and more a site of reverence. Their footwear archive is housed in a purpose-built location in Valvigna, Italy and the Prada archive website highlights a glass building surrounded with lush greenery. Projecting a reliquary-like space where the design team can find insight from their own past for future collections and consumers can imagine favourite pieces frozen in time, Prada has elevated their archived garments to artefact status. The enduring legacy of contemporary fashion can be found in an Eden-cum-museum where pieces are housed safely and in a distinct order.

Whether invoking a time before social distancing to create a feeling of equilibrium will prove successful for designers remains to be seen. On an individual level, taking a cue from these associations with a remembered past and engaging with those “beforetime” clothes and the pre-social distancing memories they represent, might act as beacon of hope until which time we can wear them again.