Laver’s Law

by Drew Shiel

An unlikely source (he probably doesn’t want to be named here) pointed me at Laver’s Law. It’s a table that summarises the view of fashion over time, and was coined in 1937 by a chap called James Laver, a fashion historian. It goes like this:

10 years before its time is: Indecent
5 years before its time is: Shameless
1 year before its time is: Outré (Daring)
The ‘Current Fashion’ is: Smart
1 year after its time is: Dowdy
10 years after its time is: Hideous
20 years after its time is: Ridiculous
30 years after its time is: Amusing
50 years after its time is: Quaint
70 years after its time is: Charming
100 years after its time is: Romantic
150 years after its time is: Beautiful

And that’s amusing, because it’s reasonably accurate – or at least, it was in Laver’s time. It doesn’t take account of something that has happened since then – the spread of colour media in magazines, films, television and the internet has contributed to this cycle speeding up, and getting caught in its own cycles.

I don’t know enough to look forward, and I suspect that not everything¬†currently labelled “indecent” and “shameless” will come into fashion. Indeed, I’m not sure what we label indecent and shameless now, if I’m being honest.

Looking back, however, 1 year ago is, well, still not significantly different for me. Younger people than I were then and are now in the midst of some kind of 80s revival, although I don’t think the 80s had quite the range of hair colour available now.

Ten years ago was 2002. I’m not sure I could pick out the fashions of 2002 now, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t call them hideous. I’ll test that later, if I can find images to compare to.

Twenty years ago, though, was the early 90s. And there I can definitely say that early grunge looks a bit ridiculous. Not badly. Just a little.

Thirty years back, early eighties. Amusing. Yes, yes it is, but I’d also land “hideous” in here. Maybe it’s my own personal taste, but I find 80s clothing to be pretty awful in general.

Fifty years ago. 1962. Quaint. That, I think, is fair. And I’m pretty sure that given just a few more years, the punk era of the 70s will look quaint too; it’s already on the way there.

Seventy years ago was 1942. 40s-era clothing is indeed in the “charming” category, and I refer you to my grandfather. To add to that, there was a very definite post-war element in shop-windows about two years ago, so that one may have cycled back in and back out again already. There’s also a good bit of WWII memorabilia turning up in interior design at the moment – especially the “Keep calm and…” signs, and all their many variants. And the GIY (grow it yourself) movement gets some inspiration from the WWII “Dig for Victory!” campaign.

A hundred years ago, 1912. I don’t think there’s any denying that the Edwardian period set our expectations of romantic clothing. It’s also worth noting here that in the UK, the Teddy Boy subculture of the 1950s wore these clothes, just around the time they were passing from “amusing” to “quaint” in Laver’s terms. In that era, they were a rejection of post-war austerity as much as anything else – the Edwardians were notorious party animals.

And finally, 150 years ago was 1862. The middle of the Victorian Era. The beginning of subcultural dress in the Artistic Design Movement. Huge skirts for women, and for men, the advent of the ditto suit – a novelty three piece suit where all components were in the same fabric. That sounds familiar, given my recent research. However, looking at the fuss that’s made over period TV costumery, we do indeed identify the 1860s clothing as “beautiful”.

I think there are subcycles overlaid on Laver’s Law now, and I’m not sure they were there in the 1930s. I suspect a lot of these are to do with subcultures, which often seem to harken back to older styles of clothing – possibly because subcultures are populated by younger people, who don’t have much money, and 40-year-old clothing is cheap. I do think our commerical mainstream culture may be working to change that at the moment; the cheap clothing I see now is from twenty years ago, not forty. But I suspect that some closer study will show me some smaller cycle within Laver’s, which someone has almost certainly already pinned down, catalogued, and named.