A few weeks ago I read a very interesting article about why the continuous glorification of the ‘good old days’ is not only annoying but also deeply judgemental. This is something I’ve been thinking about myself for a while, and I really wholeheartedly agree with the author, the lovely Gemma of blog Retro Chick.

I would take her argument even one step further and would reason that this kind of blind nostalgia for the past has become a means to gloss over past issues and to judge the cultural freedom and diversity we can enjoy today.

It irks me that every image of past fashion styles I come across is used to celebrate the past as if it was some mythical wonderland full of slim, attractive, well-dressed people who had impeccable manners. Comments like “no obesity crises back then” next to a picture of Thirties fashion is just as absurd as the caption “the Fifties was the perfect decade” which I saw on a Facebook page.

Because, well, people were starving to death during the Depression, and I’m sure there are many African-Americans who didn’t and don’t think Fifties America was a wonderful era. Just like the presence, the past had lots of issues. It wasn’t glorious, it was just different.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am hugely nostalgic about the past too, every aspect of my life is encompassed by my love for vintage, yet as much as I’d love to be able to go back to check out London ca 1967, I don’t ever forget the enormous amount of freedom that comes with living in the here and now.

When I look at an image of some wonderful Fifties dresses, I don’t really want to be bombarded with the litany of “back then everyone was so classy” or “covered up is so sexy”. You know, I’m not a fan of a lot of contemporary fashion trends either, but I am so glad I live at a point in time when I – and everyone else within the same cultural sphere – can dress in pretty much whatever way they want, something women in the Fifties were not able to do. Let’s not use the rigid social dress codes of the past to shame the way people dress today. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but the very fact we can choose to wear ugg boots and skinny jeans is something to celebrate, not something to condone.

Freedom to make your own choices is what women have fought for throughout the 20th Century, I certainly don’t want to go back to a time where I am shamed into restricting what I do or wear because it’s deemed improper or – worse – supposedly a reflection of my moral conduct.

My grandmother, who was born in 1914, and I often talked about how different her life was to my own. She’d often tell me that had she had the freedom that I enjoyed, she would have lived a completely different life and would have made some very different choices. “Lena,” she’d say,”you have a career, your own money, you can travel wherever you want. I had to get married young and then be mother. It wasn’t something I chose, but I wasn’t even allowed to finish school cause I was ‘just a girl.'” In many ways I feel I owe it to her and the many other women like her to defend the freedom I have.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong in admiring past fashion, in preferring past styles, in daydreaming about the past, but it’s time to take off the rose-tinted glasses. The very fact that we can dress in head to toe vintage if we fancy is testament to the enormous cultural freedom and wealth of choices we are able to enjoy. Individuality is something to celebrate, not vilify.

17 Responses

  1. Helen

    I find the comment “covered up is so classy” soooo funny. This idea that “vintage” should be sexless. I came from the mod scene where I went about in extremely short dresses, then my tastes worked backwards in time to the 50s, and I was going to rockabilly nights full of women with plunging, boob-revealing necklines and slits up the thigh. Heck, I was doing pin-up at one point, too – just how covered up can you claim to be in your pants?! (even if they *are* enormous….).

    I think unfortunately as vintage has widened in its appeal, the bunting and cupcakes (I happen to like them, but bear with me) have led people down an alley where the past is well-mannered and polite and sexless. I find it bizarre. Bring me 1930s blues songs with lyrics full of double entendres, bring me the Zoot Suit Riots, bring me speakeasys and pre-code Hollywood, bring me juvenile delinquents and Bettie Page with a whip! That’s my kinda vintage, honey.

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    • Lena

      Thank you so much for this comment. “. Bring me 1930s blues songs with lyrics full of double entendres, bring me the Zoot Suit Riots, bring me speakeasys and pre-code Hollywood, bring me juvenile delinquents and Bettie Page with a whip! That’s my kinda vintage, honey.” Exactly that!

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    • PepperReed

      Exactly!! Every generation likes to think they’re the ones who invented Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll and that they’re somehow pulling the wool over the eyes of those ‘old-fashioned’ fuddy-duddies. Nope, not a chance… ;^)

      Reply
      • Paul Hayward

        Yes, each generation loves the idea they are the first who invented all positive things, sex, medicine advantadges, feminism… but sex came with the 1920s, as just as feminism and workplaces to women -with independence and their own money- and if today more illnesses are cured, at least in past medical science was not associated with pharmaceutical industry to make healthy people believe they are ill only to sell medicines. Give me a time machine and I yes will travel to past forever.

  2. Nora

    I totally agree – we definitely can be TOO vintage. I think we need to remember that we are living in the modern world and while we can take all the positives from the past we must incorporate it with the positives of modern world. I always get asked if I would like to live in the 50s, and I never hesitate to say no! For a day visit maybe, but never to live there. Even in 2013 as a university-educated English-speaking multicultural Asian female I still experience sexism, racism, and general bullying! Why would I ever want to go back to the past?! 🙂

    Nora

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  3. Else Birgitte Remmen

    I’d only go back to shop! With my own money, a freedom that is aptly appreciated in your article. Thanks! 🙂

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  4. vp19

    I think the key word in this topic is “blind.” Sure, many of us would love to step inside a time machine and be whisked back to 1929 or thereabouts…but how many of us would actually want to stay there, given the technological and medical advances in the ensuing 80+ years?

    I marvel at the few black people I know who are into classic Hollywood, vintage fashion or the like, because their passion must strictly be based on film or fashion aesthetics, certainly not a yearning to go back. (The other day, I ran a small movie ad from a Texas newspaper in November 1933 at my site, “Carole & Co.”, and noted there was a reference to prices in the “colored balcony.”) And the ethnic stereotypes in many movies of the era — not just regarding blacks, but Jews, Italians, Irish and other groups — induce cringes when seen today, but then were part of societal values, similar to incessant cigarette smoking of the time. If you go into researching these things recognizing such values as products of that period, you come to appreciate what’s best, and what’s timeless, about fashion or films of the era.

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  5. Geoff

    I wasn’t alive until 1994, but I do appreciate other eras greatly, my favorites being the 30s-early 60s. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. No era is perfect, however those, at least in some ways (at least the 50s), have always seemed more pleasant and just plain fun. There’s people overtly nostalgic for any era. I know the “90s Babies” have gotten really annoying to the point of becoming an almost elitist circle. Don’t get me wrong. I miss the late 90s/early 2000s like crazy, but being someone who doesn’t care how old anything is really, seem to get the most enjoyment from learning about the mid-20th century, especially it’s pop-culture. I’ll take Bill Haley & the Comets and The Platters over almost any 80s or 90s band any day of the week.

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  6. Paul Hayward

    I spent many years of my life studying the past, and I can to say that to know the past made me love it more and more each day: why past have to be perfect when no age can be it?. For this reason, I have no doubt that, if I could to live in it and leave XXI Century, I’d leave it. But why? Perhaps because I’m vintage since childhood. Present is present, but past includes many decades, many morals, many ways of life, and it’s a common mistake to speak about it as if it can be something static. For example, a vintage gay can prefer the 1920s or the 1960s, or the 1970s to vintage, when gay people were more free, and not the 1950s, when they were more restricted: a black can to say “I never would travel to past because I’ll be discriminated”, and yes, that’s right, but it’s not the same to go to the XIX Century that to XX, not the same in France than in USA, not the same to live in Chicago than in Missisippi. And the same for a woman: is the same for her to live in the terrible Victorian Era than in the sexually liberated 1920s or 1960s? Of course, no. Many women love 1950s fashion but confess they never would live in them because they weren’t born to be housewifes: this is not right because it’s like to say: “I take of you only what interest me”, when a deeper knowledge of past let to know things like the 1950s weren’t conservative as popular tradition show to us -I recommend “The Permissive Society” of historian Alan C. Petigny- but the real seed of 1960s sexual revolution with one million of women more in the workforce each year since 1950, many of them married and with children, till reach the 40% of the american workforce to 1960. I think to be vintage is a condition as real as any else, but a real vintage is unable to prefer present to past too, loving it with its highs and lows in the same way modenr people prefer present to past despite all its problems. All decade has problems and lacks of justice, but all lows matter less if they are sweetened with happiness, and a vintage needs the past to be happy.

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  7. Catherine

    I remember someone asked me once about my 60s obsession and if I would ever go back there – and yes i would if i could for maybe a day or two but i couldn’t live there i think. I’m used to the liberties of the modern age, computers, equal pay, the right to make decisions for myself and my own body. Though the 60s was the most radical for change, it was also the decade that it had to be fought for. demonstrations and killings in the name of an ideal, Unmarried women were still forced to give up their babies here in Australia till the late 60s. And I have an awful lot of respect for the lovers of the London blitz era. As we humans do, we tend to Romanticise and pick up one the things that we like about the time. Sure living on rations with the constant threat of being bombed is the grim reality, but also the mateship, make do and mend ethos sort of make up for it. I think many vintage lovers know of the true history of their preferred era, but while we dont want to live it now, its good to remember how far we’ve come and what others have suffered in order for us to go back to that time as we wish.

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  8. andrea

    i love your article. i am constantly day dreaming about the past but then i think about how women were treated, and how your life was if you were not white. but then again if i wanted to dress like women in 50’s, or 70’s i can now.

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  9. Jodie

    I enjoyed this topic and agree individuality is something we are free to embrace now. My feeling is that there is no time or era that is good or bad, just different to today. We are so lucky to have so much inspiration to draw on.

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  10. Mary

    Great article. I’m a huge twenties-lover myself but I could never imagine going back in time and living in those days. We have the freedom to pick the best things out of the past for us and skip the bad ones and thats okay but we shouldn’t glorify ANYTHING that happened back in those days. Woody Allens “Midnight in Paris” (great, great film by the way) shows a man who romanticized the 1920’s and get’s the chance to go back in time. When he mets a nice flapper girl and talks to her, he notices that she (despite living in his “best of all” times) romanticizes the ‘Belle Époque’ of the late 18-hundreds and would give anything to explore those days. I found that very interesting and true to how we all like to think the older times were the better times even if they weren’t.

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  11. SewHappyFunTime

    I read an article in my undergrad about this nostalgia we have for decades we never knew. We have a superficial concept of that decade in mind, we don’t take it for what it actually is. That’s why you see so many god damn pin-up girl wannabes and frickin’ Hollywood glamour enthusiasts. Those decades were anything but glamorous! My Nan will tell you the hats, the dresses, weren’t even worn. Before coming over from England, she’d watch American films with her mates and think North America was this squeaky clean, beautiful place. Then she got there and realized it was all a load of crap, nobody dressed that way, nobody could afford to. Now I see it being done with my childhood decade. I lived through the 90s and I remember it well. Now I see all these obnoxious fashion cliches being brought about – did you know the 90s was strictly tartan flannel and swearing? I sure didn’t… I’m passionate about vintage clothing, but not for this weird idea that it’s classy or sexless. Any good seamstress knows covering yourself up doesn’t equate sexlessness, hell, it’s even more sexy. I like vintage clothing for its construction, for the little details. For its silhouettes and use of material. I appreciate the fashion, not the “idea”. Mind you, I see no problem of recognizing positive aspects of a decade, like when women gained independence during war time; when they could actually work and when certain fashions reflected that change. But hey, I doubt many people think of that these days. They seem to think it was all just Monroe and Page.

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  12. Morgaine Bergman

    To this already thoughtful discussion I would like to add some other possible reasons why vintage (and particularly 20s-50s vintage) is so popular with so many people right now…

    (1) Modern disposable ‘fashions’ are generally not very attractive or well made, but they are quite expensive nonetheless. I think it is only natural that we (women especially) should yearn for the days when clothing was beautifully fit, detailed, and crafted, and designs glorified the wearer more than the designer.

    (2) History is repeating itself. The 20s and the 90s were boom periods. The 30s and the 2000s were the beginning of the bust. The 40s brought world war, and world war currently threatens to darken our horizon. The fanaticism and intolerance of 30s Fascism and 50s McCarthyism echoes the darker trends (re)surfacing in Western societies. I think we sense this, and are drawn to these decades for reassurance (they survived similar perils) and answers on how to navigate the times we live in. And we are right! There is guidance there, if we choose to see it. People in times past relied heavily on family, friends, and community. They gave and received from these bonds strength, guidance, and support in the hardest of times. The bonds between people hadn’t been systematically weakened by converting families into ‘foundations’, friends into ‘contacts’, and communities into ‘corporate municipalities’ warehousing corporate workers. We’ll need to reclaim those social skills and rebuild those bonds if we’re to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

    (3) Real socializing has been in decline since about the 70s in America (if not earlier). I think we are tired of interacting mainly with machines, and are craving real, meaningful human contact. But the venues that existed to satisfy that need simply don’t exist today, so we need to create our own opportunities to rebuild strong relationships and communities. Vintage culture gives us a common focus and a template for reconstructing meaningful social bonds that may also instruct us on how to survive hard times and still derive some enjoyment from life.

    (4) It’s terrific good fun!

    Of course the past was imperfect (as are the present and future), and it isn’t possible to go back. Whatever we make now will be informed by the times and places we were born into and the cultures in which we are immersed now. But actually, if we’re selective, letting the present age inform our passion for the past will only make for a better and richer experience than we could ever have had before. So I say, have at it and enjoy! –and thank you for providing this site.

    Reply

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