The Cycles

History as an Alternation of Static and Creative Periods

I have always loved history, ever since I was a 10 year old fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome and Egypt, but it was only when I was in college that I began to think of history as anything more than a collection of remote and romantic otherwhens.  I can recall two experiences in particular that helped to shake me out of my old way of thinking about the past and into the beginning of a new conceptualization -- and they both involved the history of fashion.

One realization came when I visited the Japanese pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair and my eye was caught by an exhibit of clothing from various periods of Japanese history.  I was amazed to find out that it wasn't all just kimonos -- that the clothing and hairstyles of 1600 AD were very different from what I thought of as traditional Japanese dress, and the clothing of 1200 AD different yet again.  

I had been aware of changes in European fashion of course -- thanks to a fondness for swashbuckling historical novels and movies, I even had a pretty decent eye for what styles went with what era.  But it had literally never occurred to me before that the clothing of other cultures had evolved every bit as much as that of the West.

The second realization hit me while looking at a drawing, perhaps in one of my textbooks, of a group of Englishmen visiting India in the early 1600's.  In studying this picture, I was struck not just by the fact that the clothing of the Indians was unlike anything worn in India today, but even more strongly by the degree to which the baggy trousers of the Indian hosts resembled the puffed breeches of their English visitors.  The details were very different, but the general outline was oddly similar.

That got me wondering whether it could be more than a coincidence -- whether certain cultural developments might have taken place across much of the Old World simultaneously.  I started collecting examples of what seemed to be parallel developments, from the subtle philosophical innovations of 500 BC to the creation of post-feudal states by powerful centralizing monarchs in the 1500's and early 1600's.

As I did, I gradually began to think of history not as a single great stream with minor tributaries, but rather as a kind of grid -- a collection of parallel developments going on in different cultures, each following its own internal dynamic but at the same time all extensively cross-linked and mutually influential.  

That realization didn't come to me instantaneously.  All I had to start with was a vague insight, plus a small accumulation of scattered data points that seemed to support it.  It was only by chance that I stumbled upon a scheme of recurrent historical cycles that turned out to provide a master template for the pattern of cross-linked change I had been groping towards intiutively.  That crucial insight sprang itself upon me in 1972, when two completely separate lines of research came together with profoundly synergetic results.


My husband, Alexei Panshin, and I had recently begun collaborating on a series of essays examining the history and nature of science fiction.  At the time, we were strongly influenced by Joseph Campbell's classic studies of mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God.  Many of Campbell's ideas about myth seemed apply to science fiction as well, and we were excited by the idea that the true nature of science fiction might be as a modern form of mythology.  And yet there were aspects of Campbell's thought that did not seem to apply to science fiction at all.

As Campbell presented it, myth was something single and unchanging, a set of Jungian archetypes rooted in universal human experiences and family dynamics.  That seemed plausible enough on the face of it, but somehow it wasn't doing much to help us understand particular science fiction stories.  After spending several months on one particularly frustrating attempt to decide whether Asimov's positronic robots were father-figures or mother-figures, we reluctantly concluded that if science fiction really was a form of myth, there had to be more going on in myth than Campbell's Jungian psychology could comprehend.

Another problem we had with Campbell was that he saw science as the enemy of myth, the destroyer of the old mythic order, whereas for us science was the midwife to a wonderful new form of myth and the source of an endless supply of fresh mythic metaphors.  We eventually grew so confident of this conclusion that we even came to perceive all older myths as the science fiction of their day -- that is, philosophical speculation based on leading-edge scientific knowledge and dramatized in the form of story.

Once we had identified science fiction as merely the latest in a long and ever-changing sequence of mythic forms, we also had to acknowledge that what we had previously taken as crude proto-forms of SF -- the Gothic novels of the late 18th century and the scientific romances of the 19th -- had represented valid mythic statements for their own times.  And so we began considering in what manner one era gives way to another, and how the myths of any particular era evolve, decline, and mutate into their successors.

* * * * *

At the same time that Alexei and I were reading Joseph Campbell and thinking about science fiction, I was also pursuing a personal fascination with historical costume, which went back to that teenage passion of mine for swashbuckling romance.  At some point, it had occurred to me that it would be fun to be able to identify the period of various styles at a glance, so I began taking costume books out of the library and making notes on the trends in each decade:  "1714 - hair low, 1720's - hoop skirt, 1730's - hoop flattened ... 1830 - shoulders rounded ... 1880 - high bust." 

When these verbal taglines alone proved insufficient to train my eye to the degree I wanted, I started adding little sketches that reduced the typical styles from each decade to simple geometrical forms, such as triangles, rectangles, and circles.  I was hoping to compile a set of useful mnemonics -- but instead I encountered a revelation.  To my amazement, I discovered that over the last few centuries there had been only two basic silhouettes in women's fashions -- one based on curves and the other on straight lines -- and that these two types had ruled the fashion world in strict alternation.

The first silhouette involved an exaggeration of the natural, organic curves and divisions of the female figure -- and my little sketches for it resembled a set of circles piled up like a snowman.  Whether in the late 18th century, the late 19th, or the mid-20th, the dominating element was always a tightly-cinched waist separating a full bosom and hips.  The size and roundness of the hips might be enhanced by padding or a bustle, and that of the bosom by puffed sleeves or shoulder pads.  The head would be well set off from the body and emphasized by high-piled hair or a wide hat.  To further emphasize the curves of the torso, sleeves were generally tight at the wrist, while high heels might accentuate the slenderness of the ankles.

The other silhouette, in contrast, aimed to subordinate the female form to a simple, linear geometrical shape.  In the early 18th and mid-19th centuries, that shape was pyramidal, achieved through a tight bodice and a voluminous hoop skirt.  In the 20th century, rectangular forms were more common, as in the loose, waistless shifts of the 1920's and the 1960's.  In both cases, hairstyles or hats were kept small and close to the head, sleeves frequently widened out towards the wrists, and ankles were either concealed or de-emphasized by low-heeled shoes and boots.

What was particularly surprising to me was the extreme regularity with which these two forms alternated.   Organic forms would dominate for several decades and then give way to geometrical forms for several decades more.  Changes in men's fashions, although more subtle, moved in exact parallel with women's, with organic phases tending towards a broad-shouldered, mature, and strongly masculine silhouette and geometrical phases presenting a more lanky, willowy, or even feminized appearance.

But the real stunner came when I started assigning dates to the more recent of these alternating phases and found that they corresponded extremely closely with the developmental periods that Alexei and I had started to identify in our study of science fiction. 

For example, organic phases in fashion matched up precisely with what we had begun calling "creative periods" in science fiction -- those times when the concepts and motifs of SF were evolving most rapidly.  One such period, from about 1760 to 1820, had produced the Gothic novel.  Another, between roughly 1860 and 1900, had marked the development of the scientific romance from Verne to Wells.  And a third, from 1930 to the early 1950's, was when modern science fiction had appeared and established its fundamental themes.

Geometrical phases, on the other hand, went along with what we had begun calling "static periods" -- those times where there were few truly new ideas in SF and the greatest artistic achievements were based on radical innovations in style and attitude rather than far-reaching changes in content.

* * * * *

I was reluctant to conclude that there might be a special, unique bond connecting clothing styles with science fiction, but I realized that any link would be less anomalous if the parallels were actually culture-wide.  I therefore started trying to find similar patterns in other areas of society and quickly came up with several additional examples of the same alternation of creative and static periods.

In technology, for example, the 1760-1820 period was the era of the Industrial Revolution, which introduced not only the factory system but also such world-altering inventions as the railroad train, the steamboat, and gas lights.  The years from 1860 to 1900 gave us electric power, telephones, phonographs, motion pictures, radio, automobiles, and airplanes. The 1930 to 1954 period produced atomic power, television, computers, transistors, jet planes, and rockets.

In contrast, the periods which followed each of these bursts of invention were far less innovative and tended to focus on perfecting the new technologies and finding practical uses for them -- criss-crossing the country with railroad tracks, setting up motion picture studios and radio stations, or turning computers from million-dollar behemoths to affordable household PC's.

In terms of political events as well, creative periods seemed to incorporate the most dramatic and world-changing upheavals --  the French and American Revolutions in the late 18th century; the development of capitalism, industrialism, and imperialism in the late 19th; the Great Depression and World War II in the mid-20th.  The politics of static periods were far more superficial in comparison and even the wars, though often bloody, were generally without significant long-term consequences.

* * * * *

Although filling in this larger picture gave me greater confidence that the alternation of creative and static periods was real, to this day I have no idea why it should occur so unfailingly.  My best suggestion is that it may reflect the same fundamental biological rhythm of activity and recuperation that is found in every living being -- only taken to a higher level through the human gifts of language and symbolism and coordinated across entire cultures.

I have even less understanding of why something as frivolous as fashion should track cultural periods as closely and subtly as it does, or why the heightening or suppression of secondary sexual characteristics should be related to fluctuations in artistic, technological, and political innovation.  I can only speculate that bodily display in human beings may be a form of symbolic communication even more ancient, more universal, and more easily deciphered than spoken language -- one that goes back to the time when we first stood upright and shed our body hair -- and that clothing represents not a rejection but an amplification and codification of this ancient symbolic system.

In 1972, however, I wasn't trying to figure out rationales.  What mattered to me was that this theory which had fallen in my lap seemed to work -- and that it would continue to work even as I extended it beyond its original limits.  I began to examine the history of non-Western cultures and found the same cyclical alternation there.  I looked increasingly far back in history and the cycles were still apparent -- although of increasingly long duration, covering centuries and eventually millenia.

Moreover, since 1972, history itself has moved on, and at every point my expectations have been confirmed.  Through fashion and other indicators, I have tracked the conclusion of one static period, the unfolding of an entire creative period (the 1980's and 90's), and now the start of another static period.    I have learned that knowledge of the cycles does not make it possible to predict what is going to happen in the future -- but it does suggest what trends will be important and indicates very clearly the timetable along which those trends will develop.

For example, though I never anticipated 9/11, I had long expected that the years from 2001 to 2006 would be a time of great anxiety -- equivalent to the peak atomic-anxiety years between 1958 and 1963 -- and would have perhaps a 50-50 chance of giving rise to extreme solutions in the name of security.

Barack and Michelle ObamaIn the same way, I am prepared to state at the moment of writing that we stand now on the brink of a new 60's-style counter-culture -- but one centered on the Netroots and the challenges of the looming planetary crisis (flavored with a strong dose of geek culture, open source idealism, and perhaps a dash of Steampunk), rather than on the hipster mindgames and anti-war agitation of the 60's.  And also that an initial burst of counter-cultural optimism is likely to be followed after two or three years by increasing disillusionment, escapism, and various forms of political and anti-corporate mayhem.  The details, however, as always, remain veiled.

8/3/08 Bonus: Photo of a trend-setting couple out on the town in typical static period attire, added November 30, 2008.

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