A wistful longing for times past

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.

Technically, these people are wearing vintage clothing. (Photo from the National Archives.)

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.

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9 Responses to “A wistful longing for times past”

  1. Kristen@TheFrugalGirl Says:

    One of my favorite Bible verses: “Why do you say to yourself, ‘The former days were better than these.’ You do not inquire wisely concerning this.”

    It makes me smile to read that because apparently, people have been doing this nostalgia thing for a really, really, really long time.

  2. Emily Says:

    Great post! The waltz is one of my favorite examples of this “everything changes and everything stays the same” idea as well.

    David and I often talk about the danger of presenting something well-produced but satirical or dark—you’re pretty much guaranteed that a hefty segment of your audience will not read carefully enough to get the critique. Just look at the missionaries who wrote to Jonathan Swift after he published Gulliver’s Travels, wanting to know where they could find these wacky talking horses and convert them to Christianity.

    I think Mad Men is a similar deal. The show itself (I think) does a GREAT job at presenting complicated but very unhappy, unfulfilled and often neurotic or compulsive people, whose lives are severely messed up because they’ve absorbed social values unquestioningly, and kept their eyes on what society tells them is the prize, never acknowledging that those social norms are completely insane. (Betty Draper’s unquestioning acceptance that her physical appearance is the only thing about her that makes her valuable, and her efforts to teach her daughter the same thing, are one example that leaps to mind—she doesn’t even see this complex of issues as something that might possibly contribute to her unhappiness.) I see very little “freedom” in the show, whether from political correctness or anything else; everyone is trapped by their own narrowness. Yet (very) occasionally they do manage to reach out of their respective abysses and connect with one another on some level. Those are the moments that make the show worthwhile for me, and make the world seem flawed but real rather than totally nihilistic. Another note of hope is that the show is perched on the eve of the huge cultural revolution of the early 60s, and you can see the seeds of that huge change hinted at while observing how NECESSARY it is in the everyday lives of these characters. But I had the same reaction after just watching two episodes; it takes a while to recognize the humanism underlying the hopelessness, and to get into the groove of the rather dark humor.

    In a way the gorgeous costuming and set design are almost a liability for the show being “read” intelligently, since they become the primary focus. On the other hand, I doubt it would have done so well without that pretty-pretty aspect (ditto, of course, for the unrealistically gorgeous actors, but that’s nothing unusual).

  3. Andi Says:

    I love your thoughtful posts.

    I also admire the aesthetics of the past, but I think many vintage lovers are clueless as to how clothing was treated in the period it came from. They don’t realize that women in that period wouldn’t have the vintage lover’s giant collection of fancy dresses. They would have one or two for wearing out of the house and they’d change immediately into house dresses when they returned home to preserve their nice clothing. I think people look at the pretty things that have been preserved (because they were precious and rare) and assume that they’re representative.

    For a lot of people my age (early 20s) I think the warped image of the past we end up with is due largely to not being taught 20th century history in school and learning what we know of the past from pop culture. We do the quick and dirty presidents + wars version of 20th century history in school. If you don’t major in history in college, you have to actively search out this information yourself if you want a fully fleshed out idea of the way things used to be. I don’t think many people have that drive or are even aware that those decades are misrepresented in pop culture.

  4. Bridget Says:

    Excellent post!

    Sally Draper in Mad Men is slightly older than I was then, and I remember a lot of the things depicted there. I would only want to ever go back for a day because my parents were alive then. Otherwise, I agree with the song from La Cage Aux Folles: the best of times is now.

  5. Joyce Says:

    I agree with all of the previous posts! I am also slightly younger than Sally Draper. The show has given me a new appreciation for the clothing of the period, before Mad Men my idea of vintage was 30s bias cut gowns. I have always loved the midcentury modern design style of furniture and buildings and enjoy that aspect of the show. Watching Mad Men with my children has led to discussions about what the era was like growing up and the differences from now.I would never want to live in either the 30s or early 60s– Great Depression, no antibiotics, segregation, the BOMB, etc.

  6. Sonya Says:

    All I can think of is how one can admire and own vintage clothing but not have to wear that dress or skirt every day or its proscribed foundation garments in order to adhere to the societal feminine norms. Great freedom, in more than one sense of the word!

  7. Sarah Says:

    Emily already said all I wanted to about Mad Men (and she said it better than I would have); I’ll add only that my reaction to it has also included a dizzying sense of how life has changed from the previous generation to my own. My mother’s family moved away from Manhattan in 1950 and it’s truly bizarre to watch these characters and think, “That could have been my aunt, or my grandmother.” My mother was a young teen during the years this show depicts — in a sense, the revolution came just in time for her — and I wish she’d watch the show so we could talk about it. (Alas, she is too busy for television except for Masterpiece on PBS!)

  8. Liz E. Says:

    Thank you for such a lovely post on nostalgia… I’ve been coming to similar conclusions as I get older… I used to think that I was born in utterly the wrong time because of the way in which I tend to prefer fashion, entertainment and other elements of pop culture from decades ago to the dominant forms of the same that have emerged in my own lifetime.

    Then I realized that no time is perfect, that every life and time will have its trials and tragedies… and it will have its moments of freedom and beauty and simplicity. I think we have a way of longing for the positives of the past and not only neglecting to view them in the context of ignored masses of people who lacked privilege, but also neglecting to view the downsides of the “good” things that came along with privilege.

  9. helene magnusson Says:

    Definitively INTP ! It all talks to me, really.

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