Anatomy of a Classic

Cher's house in CluelessIn a voice over at the beginning of the 1995 film Clueless, the character Cher Horowitz asks the audience, ‘isn’t my house classic?’ She then goes on to explain that ‘the columns date all the way back to 1972.’ Although viewers may initially laugh at the seemingly naive implication that a twenty year old building could be classic, Cher might have been referring to the Classical Greek style that the architects referenced when building those columns. However, even if that was not her intention, this raises the question of what makes something a classic. Does it need to have existed for a certain length of time? Is it something that has universal appeal or that transcends trends, like a Burberry trench coat, the Eames lounge chair or a black London taxi?

When discussing fashion classics, most people instinctively refer to simple elegant garments with clean lines and neutral coloured fabrics. These classics are the type of item that can be worn with everything else in your wardrobe and don’t look particularly current, so they will never end up looking dated. A blazer with a peak lapel, a black shift dress, a crisp white shirt or brown leather brogues could all be considered classic. Perhaps a fashion classic is something that is only occasionally in fashion but almost always in style?

ASOS biker jacketFashion writer and historian Jana Melkumova-Reynolds believes that a classic ‘is something that people from different backgrounds, cultures and age groups can instantly read and relate to – and, ideally, be able to appropriate and adapt to their current lifestyle.’ This explains why items like straight legged jeans and the leather biker style jacket have become classics. Melkumova-Reynolds believes that a true fashion classic should be a blank canvas for the wearer to project their own meanings onto, yet it should be instantly recognisable. ‘A combination of all these is very hard to come by, which is why there are so few classics in fashion.’

A lack of embellishment and exaggeration often characterises design that is considered classic, especially within fashion, but other forms of design have characteristics of a classic that extend beyond the aesthetic. For company taxation purposes in the UK, a classic car is defined as one that is at least 15 years old and worth over 15,000. More frequently referenced is the fact that cars made before 1st January 1975 are classified as historic and are exempt from paying vehicle tax, a cut off that some people use as a strict definition of a classic car. However, in reality, it’s more complicated than that. After all, can a car be classic if its design is universally considered to be bland or ugly? Can a classic car be one that’s notoriously bad to drive? The favourable opinion of classic car magazines certainly helps, but the definition is still extremely subjective.

Book cover of Jane Austin's Emma, by Ben Templesmith on FlickrIt would seem that certain works of art are somewhat easier to define as classic, especially if you consider the storytelling of novels and movies. If asked to name a classic movie, many would go for the enduring appeal of Casablanca or It’s a Wonderful Life, but what is it about these stories that captures the imagination? Jane Bradley, the founder and director of For Books’ Sake, a charitable organisation dedicated to championing writing by women, describes classics as ‘those books that are memorable, with something distinctive to say; something that we still recognise and connect with years, decades and sometimes centuries after their initial creation.’

This brings us back to Clueless, a film about teenagers set in Beverly Hills in the 1990s, which was loosely based on Jane Austin’s 1815 novel Emma. Even though the story that inspired it was 180 years old when Amy Heckerling’s movie was released, it is easy to recognise some of the characters and plot points from the original, proving how universal some of Austin’s themes were. When something continues to speak to people and evoke an emotional response, years or decades after its creation, that’s when true classic status can be conferred. It would seem that, although aesthetic or emotional appeal is key, classics really do need to have stood the test of time.

This article was written as part of Wonderment Magazine‘s connotations series. Images via Noisey, ASOS and Ben Templesmith‘s Flickr photostream.

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