Are Mechanical Watches a Bellwether for Fashion?

Italian-Canadian tailor Sr. Francesco

Social Change & Style

People who know I write and care about men’s style ask me the same questions every week: does tailored clothing have a future? Will this finally be the end of the suit? How will people dress after the pandemic? I attempt to answer these questions—trying to predict what will come—by looking back. And when I look back I see that major traumatic events do indeed change society but that those changes were already in the works.

For instance, after both World Wars, dress shifted dramatically towards more casual styles. Partially, this was because the world felt so different that people didn’t want to go back. But mostly, these shifts were already in play; the wars only accelerated them. Take the three piece suit, which was common before WW2. The rationing of wool during the war helped to end its dominance, but even before the war, with various types of indoor heating innovations, the many layers of wool weren’t as necessary. Western society was already on a path towards two piece suits, the war just hastened that change.

Trouser measuring by tailor Sebastian Richard.

Which seems like the safest prediction to make now: that the wall between private and public life, after decades of being dismantled brick by brick, will finally come down completely. Starting in the late 1950s, Western societies’ obsession with “authenticity” kicked into high gear. Instead of an undercurrent earlier in the 20th century, authenticity began to be expressed in the mainstream through personal style, by blurring the line between what we wore at home and what we wore in public. As the next few decades passed, it was increasingly seen as stuffy if you had clothing only for wearing out or for special occasions versus clothing you wore relaxing at home. Instead of public and private wardrobes, we were moving towards a private one worn in public. Today, partially aided by Zoom calls where everyone’s home life is on full display, that line is not just blurred, it is almost gone. I suspect it will no longer just be young people wearing their pajama bottoms in public but that people of all ages will feel emboldened to leave the house with that “just out of bed” look. That without offices and public gatherings, there will be no need anymore for formality of any kind. The trend that has been going for decades, that you wear the same thing to weddings, funerals or shopping at the mall, will reach its peak. We will lose all sense of occasion, because occasions are banned.

But then again, things may not turn out this way. After all, the World Wars went on for years, enough time for people to lose touch with how life used to be lived before the devastation. The wars also physically destroyed some parts of that old society. The pandemic, while crippling and causing all sorts of societal shifts, will probably only last another year or so (let’s hope). Will that be enough time to fundamentally change our society? Once able to return to public spaces, will people want to wear the clothing they wore in lockdown, perhaps associated with that difficult, challenging time in our lives? Or wear something different, dressier, sharper? 

Craftsman Stephen Temkin of Leon Drexler hats.

Beyond Style

But the question I really want to ask is how this pandemic might change our attitudes toward clothing at a fundamental level. Not just style, but where it is made, how it is made and what it is made of? Can this worldwide pause on consumption get us to start thinking about our clothing like some of us do about our food?

Can we return to a time when clothing was made in small amounts, by skilled craftspeople, with a combination of hand and machine work? When most people only had a few garments but took care of them, treasured them, and even passed them on? Before the era of mass mechanization and clothing as a commodity, something that is consumed, rather than owned. So fast, cheap and available it has become disposable.

All of what I just wrote about clothing is also true of mechanical watches. They require skilled craftspeople to make, and even the more affordable ones would still be considered an investment by most people. They serve a functional purpose and also express the owner’s sense of personal style. And yet you’d think, well into the 21st century, we would have stopped wearing mechanical watches long before we’d stop wearing suits. At least suits can still serve the function of keeping us covered in more formal occasions. Almost no one needs the extra complication and cost of a mechanical watch anymore.

My beloved 1976 Seiko Lordmatic

To try to understand why mechanical watches didn’t only make a comeback but are, it seems, more popular and loved than ever, I canvased the opinions of my fellow BTD writers. There were a number of shared opinions around nostalgia for classic style, an appreciation for craftsmanship or a socially acceptable form of male jewelry. As a reaction to our age, James said “Unlike digital or disposable modern items that destroy the past as they move forward, these items preserve the past as they move forward in time.” In calling the popularity of mechanical watches “a postmodern Luddite rebellion against the instantaneous digital world we live in,” David pointed out the connection to an understanding of machinery that watches represent: “Most people can understand how a mechanical watch or clock works. Now ask that person how an Xbox works.” And calling watches “A panacea for our increasingly digitized lives,” Allen brought it all together by postulating that “folks are sick of the wasteful excesses of Late Capitalism.” 

All of these reasons can apply to clothing: craftsmanship, nostalgia, quality, style, durability. And in case you think I’m picturing ol’ timey stuff, like top hats and walking sticks, what I’m really talking about is clothing that is made in small batches, by skilled artisans, of quality materials. That can be leather shoes, cotton shirts, wool trousers or chunky sweaters. The style isn’t as important as the materials, process and maker. In other words, it can be a sport jacket, a tshirt or a pair of jeans, but do you know: Who made it? What is it made of? How did they make it?

Custom jeans maker Ben Viapiana

Not only do I find the resurgence of mechanical watches encouraging because I love them myself, it gives me hope that people will rediscover the joys, satisfaction and value of investing in their clothes. Despite the similarities, however, do I think it’s really going to happen? Sadly, no, not at a large enough scale to have a positive impact on society and the environment. 

The Apple Watch & It’s Discontents

As much as mechanical watches are having a moment, the best selling watch in the world is from Apple. That’s a problem for a number of reasons. Despite Apple’s attempts to update software and keep older versions of the watch running, computers have a limited lifespan as operating systems evolve and require more memory and updates. Plus, while replacing the watch’s screen is possible, larger repairs usually cost more than getting a new watch. And while Apple has done a commendable job lessening the amount of toxic chemicals in its watch production and diverting waste from landfills, from its own reporting they are producing far more waste than ever before. Not to mention that working conditions at the factories that produce their products occasionally make headlines. 

As with many things, including mechanical watches and cotton clothing, negative impacts cannot be avoided. However, the fewer that are purchased and the longer the item is used, this impact is offset. Apple Watches do not pass this test. As much as I would like to believe Allen’s view about society’s feelings around Late Capitalism, I fear not enough people are sick enough of it all to pay more for quality, have less convenience and most importantly, stop buying so much stuff. 

A shift in the right direction, yes, I do honestly foresee that happening. Anecdotally, I’m seeing lots of talk about quality over quantity, that this pause has given some people time to reflect on their buying habits. That during this time, when they couldn’t easily go out an buy whatever they wanted, they had to rely on what they already had. And that put into clear focus what was well made and would last, and what wouldn’t. On a broader level, there is some reason for optimism, as more and more governments around the world are using this moment to transition faster away from fossil fuels, focusing on finally dealing with climate change in an effective way. 

And there is the chance that, sadly, like the Great Depression, a general drop in wealth will force us to focus on quality over quantity, like folks did in the 1930s. Along with that might come a reassessment of how wealth is so unevenly distributed in our society, causing the kinds of inequalities we are seeing today. 

If, however, the shift is not so widespread then, if mechanical watches are any bellwether, it will be too niche and too narrow to have a big enough impact to change mainstream attitudes and habits. I, however, will continue to wind my watches and wear well-made clothes.