Whenever we watch old movies, my husband points out the people with a skin color similar to his own and then what role they’re serving. Serving is quite literal here, as they’re usually in some service position or another, waiting to back up the white leads with a toothy grin or a deferential bow. Now that I’m married to someone with darker skin than my own, I notice this more overtly, too, but I still very much enjoy old movies, particularly screwball comedies with their punchy dialog. One of the things I enjoy about old movies, as well, is fashion watching.
Like many modern, youngish knitters, I have a taste for what is commonly referred to as vintage fashion. Vintage referred originally to wines, but now, according to Random House, it can refer to “the high quality of a past time”. Certainly, vintage clothing is not used to refer to old work clothes or the reused fabrics worn by the working poor.
No, vintage clothing refers to clothing worn by the middle and upper classes. It refers to fashion rather than to necessity. And the idea of “high quality of a time past” contains in it a certain nostalgia for the way things were.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I have a really dual and necessarily compartmentalized view when it comes to vintage clothing and styles. I have no desire to live in the past whatsoever, nor even to time travel to the past for a visit. I can see many inequalities that exist in the time and place in which I live, but I still feel that I live in the best possible time so far for a person like me. At the same time, I have an aesthetic appreciation for some of the looks and styles of the past, even a past that worries me in its more exaggerated inequalities. My current favorite dress looks like it walked out of a fifties or early sixties cocktail party. It’s full skirted and nip-waisted and it exemplifies the look of a well dressed lady from well before I was born. I wear it with my pierced eyebrow and perhaps there is a certain contrast or visual irony that I enjoy in that, but really, I just like the pretty dress.
I like certain past aesthetics very much, but I’ve noticed that appreciation of an aesthetic can come at a price. It’s easy to slip from appreciating a look into an idealization of the past. I am wary of the show Mad Men for this reason. Although by all accounts the show is meant to expose the underbelly beneath the smooth surface, many of its fans seem mostly to extoll the look of the show and the freedom from political correctness it represents to them. This is a broad generalization, and I haven’t anything to back it up at the moment other than a certain uneasiness I’ve personally experienced when I’ve seen the fliers for Mad Men themed bar nights around town or spoken to someone who went on and on about the fabulousness of the clothes. The two episodes I watched seemed almost nihilistic in the intensity of hopelessness presented, but that’s not the aspect of the show I see represented in its pop culture mythology.
Nostalgia is intense and represents a certain agreed upon amnesia. While I think few people would argue for a loss of civil rights gained by women and minorities in the past 100 years, I do frequently hear people call upon the past as safer. “We didn’t have to worry about this when I was a kid,” is a phrase commonly uttered by many people who seemingly forget that when they were kids, their parents were the ones doing the worrying. It’s a variation on “kids today” that defies any actual statistics about what kids today are doing. It also ignores the very real problems of the past. Drugs, sex, and new and scary music have existed for each generation. Look far enough back and you can find parents scandalized by this new fangled waltz with its opportunities to cop a feel in a dark recess of the dance floor.
The problem with trying to call up the past as better in some aspects is that history is not really divorced from its whole. The picture of nineteen fifties prosperity depends on an ignored unprosperous many as much as on house dresses and good manners and supposedly safe neighborhoods, and that’s ignoring even the nineteen fifties definition of prosperity, which probably would satisfy few alive today, or the fact that rude people have existed in every era, and crime occurred in good neighborhoods and people still behaved like people.
When I’m watching my old murder mysteries or screwball comedies, I enjoy the escapism, the travel to a different time and place, the pretty clothes, the funny dialog, but I try to remember that what I’m seeing is a picture meant for enjoyment. It’s a picture that reveals some of the flaws of the period, as in the case of the dark skinned characters and their service or the women and the way they revolve around the men, and it’s a picture that hides some of the flaws of the period, like when characters in the 30s manage to go an entire movie without ever encountering a single poor or unemployed person. The clothes worn by the movie stars are of course gorgeous, because they were meant to be gorgeous. Your average housewife wasn’t going out in the gowns and coats worn by Myrna Loy or Katharine Hepburn. The past is different from the present, certainly, but people have not changed as much as attitudes have. There is nothing wrong with appreciating the aesthetics of the past, but it’s helpful to remember that aesthetics are deliberately limited in scope.