On glamorising vintage life

by Franca on 26 July 2010

A while ago, we watched Revolutionary Road. I thought it was a fantastic film, and I was crying my little eyes out at the end. It really captured that type of depression where nothing tangible or serious is really wrong yet everything is completely hopeless.

The clothes and interiors are absolutely stunning of course, and made me swoon, but the film was also a reminder form me that the 1950s were not a great time for women. Or men! It portraits such a restrictive society with such a limited range of acceptable lifestyles that people had to squeeze themselves into.

I think we sometimes forget or ignore in our enthusiasm for all things vintage, that these were not the ‘good old days’. It does worry me that while 1950s style dress, aprons, vintage china, cupcakes etc have become fashionable, there is very little critical discussion of the historical context from which they have emerged. It reminded me of an excellent disucssion from a while back over at Gertie’s Blog for Better Sewing on whether one can be a feminist and wear vintage clothes from a time period that was very opressive for women.

Of course I dont think that we should all stop wearing the clothes we like and stop restricting our individuality in the name of feminism (I actually dont think anyone was suggesting that anyway, but that seems to have been the way it was interpreted in the comments), because that is based on a restrictive and outdated idea of feminism that I’m sure few people would subscribe to. But on the other hand, neither do I think its as easy as the ‘Feminists fought for women to have choices. I am a woman and therefore any choice I make is feminist’ argument lots of people were making in the discussion.

Don’t get me wrong, I take no issue with people who wear 1950s clothes (or clothes from any other vintage period) just because they think they are pretty and nothing else. But I do think that if you’re interested in equality and social progress, you do have some responsibility to inform yourself of the socio-economic context of the styles you wear and be aware of what the signs you are wearing and using mean.

Because I do see a lot of people glamorising times past, ignoring all the problems of the time and focusing only on how lovely everything looked. I also often see people saying things like ‘People used to really dress up then for getting groceries in the 1950s, whereas now everyone wears trackie bottoms to the supermarket. People back then had more self-respect*.’ But it’s not as if people’s dressing up was based on choicein any meaningful way. They did because if they didn’t, their neighbours would gossip and point, and if they persisted, avoid them altogether** . And I quite like that I can go for a run with greasy hair and then drop in at the corner shop on my way without anyone staring or judging me. Quite apart from whether it is desirable, it’s probably not possible to return to that kind of social pressure anyway, because most people no longer live in bounded communities where it really matters what your neighbours think of you.

You also have to remember that people used to have a lot more time in their lives. In a way that was why the ‘glamorous housewife’ image was invented during the 1950s, to give women who had gone out to work and gained economic independence during the war something to do and aspire to after they were encouraged to return to the home. Because, let’s face it, housework isn’t exactly rivetting stuff. But in today’s society, we are all expected to do a million and one things all at the same time, and be good at them too. For some people, spending time on dressing is the thing that gives. If you want to encourage such people to spend more time on their appearance you’d really need to find a way to take the pressure off elsewhere. The lovely, ‘respectful’ dressing didn’t just happen in isolation.

It bothers me a little when people just pick out one tiny little thing and forget everything else about that world, all the myriad of ways in which today’s society is so completely different. Some (many) aspects of vintage life were better and some were worse, and all can only be understood in the context of the whole. We need to inform ourselves, to appreciate this context, if we want to learn from the past and pick out the good bits without dragging in the bad.

Thoughts?

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all images from here.

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*As if self-respect is measurable in the amount of time spent getting ready in the morning!
** I am aware I’m generalising and am thinking of the stereotypical small town/suburb situation. I’m sure there were havens of tolerance and diversity then, as always.

{ 23 comments }

Ms. Chyme July 26, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I agree.

Penny Dreadful July 26, 2010 at 3:14 pm

I agree with lots of what you are saying; but then ignorance in any arena is irritating. I do think that period, very specifically the 50s, has been overglamourised and people forget what a raw deal women had at the time. And it really annoys me when people say things like 'now that's when women knew how to dress like WOMEN', like they were all naturally that shape and appearance and weren't being forced to try and achieve a restrictive stereotype of the ideal 'look'

*rant*

superheidi July 26, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Thanks for this, I like to ponder beyond styles and looks, and I couldn't agree more.
I think I never get completely over the akward feeling to plunge into 1940s style and fashion because of WWII (and the grim postwar years).

Cynthia July 26, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Interesting post.

I'm wearing a shortish skirt at work today, a couple of inches above my knees, and it's really reminding me about all the ways that a certain style of dress assumes that you will restrict your movement and behavior. I didn't go to charm school, and I'm pretty much used to being able to reach, bend, not sit with my knees together, and do whatever the heck else I want to do in clothes, even office clothes. I like the look of what I'm wearing but I don't have the habits of mind and body for it, apparently. Maybe in another day and age I would have had to.

northwest is best July 26, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Great post! You raise a lot of interesting points. The 1950s were definitely low on glamour for my grandmother, a farmer's wife coping with three young children, a huge herd of dairy cows and post-war rationing.

Rad_in_Broolyn July 26, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Brilliant post as usual. I like that my current context is not so repressive that I would be shunned every time I stepped out the door in a t shirt and pair of jeans. We forget that the 1950s in the US (probably also UK) was worse for women than the 1940s, when many women worked outside the home, had financial independence, and wore work clothes and more practical dresses.
Another thing that folks don't think of is that the glamorous types were usually upper middle class women. If you watch Vera Drake (not that Mike Leigh films are documentaries), you see that working class folks looked nice but not glamorous. They did not have the leisure and the resources of these Connecticut housewives with their commuting husbands. In addition to constant pressure to look nice, there was no concept in shared parenting either. Being a well coiffed, privileged women in the 1950s and 1960s meant you might also be addicted to Valium or alcohol, as there wasn't much other chance you could get as an escape.
It was also a really rough time for people of color too. Segregation, legally sanction discrimination. Many women who looked glamorous relied on their housekeepers and nannies, often working women of color. Not that this doesn't happen today, but if a more egalitarian society includes folks wearing track pants and vintage dresses, I am quite happy to be a part of it.

Sal July 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I agree that looking back on the 1950s wistfully, and painting that era as one of self-respect and beauty is revisionist. Women, as Penny Dreadful put it, had a raw deal back then, and no two ways about it.

But when conversations like this arise, I always wonder: What does it mean to be "aware" of what you're doing, and the potential implications, without altering your actions? If you keep doing whatever controversial thing you've been doing, does that mean you're furthering misinterpretation, even if you, yourself, have a deeper knowledge? As someone who adores the 50s silhouettes, I'm not saying that anyone who wears them is committing some sort of crime … but it's hard to convey awareness of feminist issues from that decade to the observing world. Does that make sense?

Franca July 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Really good point Sal, and that was something I came up against when writing the post and didn't really know what to do with – if I wear a 1950s dress, a person seeing me wouldn't know that I had thought about the implication. But I guess it does make me more prepared to counter the 'wasn't life wonderful then?' comments you inevitably get.

Charlotte July 26, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Really, all you have to do is try on a true 1950s dress to understand why the 1960s needed to happen. No matter how campily cute, the things are blasted uncomfortable–they make me feel as if I'm in a strait-jacket. Late 60s fashion was a direct response to this–no more girdles, no more garter belts, no more cone bras, no more self-belts at the waist, etc. I wonder now about so-called "shape-wear," which seems like a new name for what used to be called "panty girdles." Spending the day inside a sausage casing is not for me, thanks–no matter which decade we're in.

Lorena July 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm

What an insightful read.
Honestly speaking I had not thought about it that way.
I guess we do like to remember or recall only what we find positive and leave out all the bad.
Now I will look at it with different eyes.

Amanda July 26, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Hi, this is a great post – (although I disagree partly about the movie, I HATED it) – it bothers me when the value of vintage/antiques/collectibles is lost because people don't realize what makes them special is their history and their stories, not a pretty collar detail or something similar, (that's more of a bonus).

I also think the film inadvertently did an interesting job in showcasing "white" problems of the 1950's, leaving the viewer to think about what minority groups would be worrying about in the same period – which history tells us tended to be a lot more than dissatisfaction at home. It added a greater sense of nihilism to the characters.

Anyway, I agree with this summary of the film:

http://comixed.com/2010/01/12/revolutionary-road-summary/

Franca July 26, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Amanda, wasn't that kind of the point of the film – they were the ones who supposedly had it all, yet they were trapped? The characters weren't likeable, but they felt real and oh my god did I feel for her!

Amanda July 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I didn't really feel for her – possibly because she was overall unlikeable – but her seeming lack of concern for her own children, and being bratty in general (not taking compliments about her play, etc) led to my distaste. And then of course he was controlling and didn't take her needs into consideration, so there was some sympathy there. But it felt like two hours of watching them scream at each other. I got the point after roughly half an hour- very little new revelations came up after that, and it remained unenjoyable to watch (and I know I know – the power of discomfort in art, etc, but that doesn't mean I liked Heart of Darkness any better either). I sold my copy of the film to Half Price Books after watching it.

Michelle July 26, 2010 at 9:30 pm

I think you raise some good points and I see these problems in other places (steampunk is the first that comes to mind, that's actually why I stopped hanging out in steampunk places!). I think we have to rely on words rather than looks when it comes to this (in reply to Sal's comment); I've seen just as many people wearing 50's kitsch with a full awareness of how bad the 50's really were (including femme lesbians) – but there are a lot of people who unquestioningly idolize the era and it drives me up the wall! pretty clothes =/= high quality of life.

I think it's kind of funny how often people ignore that, as far as I can tell, Mad Men is attempting to point out the problems of the era, NOT attempting to show it in a happy light. I saw an interview with Christina Hendricks once where she said (paraphrasing, obvs) she was a little disturbed by some of the show's fans because they would misread scenes (the rape scene with Joan was what she was talking about) or glamorize the clothes/lifestyle without really talking about the problems. She said her clothing is often so restrictive she can't walk up the stairs into her trailer in those pencil skirts – she has to walk up the stairs sideways with help. Not something I want to go back to, personally!

(ymmv, imo, etc, also, I haven't actually seen Mad Men except for like three episodes, because I found it too depressing to watch!)

Anonymous July 26, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Hello!

We had a fabulous history teacher during high-school (all girls school) who took a class called "the american dream" which looked at, amongst other things, rhetoric about women and their role in "modern" society. (Have you read the feminine mystique?)

One of the poems that stuck with me from that time (that encapsulates some of the restriction/pressure):

Sylvia Plath – The Applicant

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something's missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit—-

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they'll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that ?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk , talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it's a poultice.
You have an eye, it's an image.
My boy, it's your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

The Waves July 30, 2010 at 3:15 pm

What a great post! I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Idolizing any decade comes with the consequences, but the 50s are particularly disturbing in this context. I don't quite understand the head-to-toe-vintage looks (they appear very costume-y to me, and the 50s tend to be the choice most go for) – when I see those girls walking down the street, I do wonder if they fully realize what they are idolizing.

Having said that, I do want to be able to wear clothes and silouettes from any time I want, because let's face it, this time and age I can. It is important to me to dress my vintage pieces with something modern to break the pattern though.

sartoriography July 30, 2010 at 8:11 pm

This is a great post and relates to so many discussions I've had with friends and fellow style bloggers and vintage enthusiasts. I think the real danger in all this (as others have said) is in ignoring the context from which a fashion emerges. Being aware of why and how women wore the clothes they did in the 50's or any other decade matters for lots of reasons. To dream of an era in which women's clothes were constructed to suit their confinement to the home and their role as accessory to their male counterparts (father, brother, husband, even boss) is certainly counter-productive to the idea of female social equity. To appreciate an aesthetic without knowledge of its origin can run from naive to plain ol' irresponsible.

As Sal pointed out, though, being aware of the context doesn't necessarily mean that others have the same awareness of your actions. Sometimes I feel obliged to explain my clothing choices and how they fit with my social perspectives- "I'm wearing this ironically" or "I'm wearing this is solidarity" or "Yes, I've considered what this means and I'm choosing to wear it with that in mind." That gets a bit tiresome for all involved, but sometimes it's leads to great conversations.

One of the things I really enjoy about vintage and find promising in the idealization of it is that, in general, vintage clothing and images of the female body did all for a wider range of "beauty" than I think is available today. Or, at least, wider hips. :) While the notion of perfection and "not hair out of place" was restrictive and negative, I think, the appreciation of curves and an allowance for sizes beyond the stick-like is gratifying today. If an awareness of the problems with vintage are merged with an appreciation for a return to more lush body types, I think we'd have something good here.

Another problem with "vintage" is, I think, the fact that it's not just an idealization of women who are often powerless or oppressed and the society that put them in that position, but also of a class system that excludes most of the population from the category of beauty, creativity, and even relevance. "Vintage" really is largely about the styles of the wealthy or the privileged, regardless of the era. If you checked out the style of rural Southern sharecroppers in the 50's you'd find clothing that's completely different from that of an upper-middle class Connecticut house wife. Or try to clothing of a factory worker in urban Pennsylvania. Again, based on income, geography, ethnicity, etc, styles and ideas of beauty change drastically. To experience nostalgia for "vintage" is, in some ways, to experience nostalgia for a social/economic class to which most of us do not and will not ever belong and that both actively and complicity oppresses the successes of others. To want to dress like a 50's house wife does, in some small way, invite a return to a "traditional" (oh, all the problems with that word!) American society in which beauty was white and wealthy.

Having a broader view of and understanding of "vintage" could really make a difference, I think. The bourgeois definition of beauty, fashion, etc doesn't have to be all that we take from an era. And hey, this is where fashion gets fun and subversive- acknowledging, appreciating, even responsibly appropriating things that don't fit within the dominant schema.

Whew! Sorry for all that! This is a great post and I'm so glad to see how many people have gotten into the discussion!

La Historiadora de Moda July 30, 2010 at 9:26 pm

I wish I had seen this post earlier in the week (but alas I was in the midst of moving and my blog-reading was very limited)! I can only really join the chorus here. This is an issue I've been thinking about a lot with the return of Mad Men this past week. It has really bothered me to see the number of women who write things like "I was born in the wrong era." I feel like a humbug, but I just want to point out to them what they'd be facing if they had been born in, say 1930, and had come of age in the 50s and 60s.

I do think that we can be aware and wear these things as kitsch in a post-modern world.

Linguist Barbie July 31, 2010 at 4:53 am

Came here from Sal's. :c)

So, here's the deal. I'm a queer, Arab, Pagan, nerdy, disabled femme from a working-class family. (I'd define myself as middle-class now, but only because of my educational level.) The 50's – and even the 40's – would have flat-out sucked for me.

But late-16th-century England, Ireland, and Calais would have sucked a whole lot, too. And nearly 20 years of Renaissance re-enactment have undoubtedly shaped my perspective on vintage/retro dressing.

For most re-enactors I know, 'Faire/SCA/etc. are opportunities for a historical do-over. They're a way to get live Shakespeare straight from the source… without having to buy posies on your way into the theater, to keep away the smell of poor sanitation. They're a way to wear gorgeous pearl-encrusted sleeves… without worrying that you'll be jailed, or at least forced to pay a sumptuary tax, for dressing above your family's station. And, yes, they're a way to let your boobs hang out and be a pirate. Or whatever.

That's the approach I take to more modern ways of vintage-dressing. When I wear a shirtwaist or a swing skirt, I'm salvaging one of the good things from a period that was fraught with bad things, and bringing it into the life I'm lucky to lead now. Goodness knows, if I actually went back in time to the 50's, I wouldn't be wearing anything similar; I'd be wearing whatever they put you in when they committed you to a mental institution for hysteria (=uppitiness).

I don't want to bring back McCarthyism any more than I want to bring back the Black Death; but I guess I feel like I'm pulling the baby out of the bathwater. This is the first time period in history in which those fashions and my life can co-exist – and I don't intend to miss out on that freedom, now that I have it.

Bri@accidentalcitygirl July 31, 2010 at 7:39 pm

I agree with what you said, I think dressing vintage can be a bit sticky for women, but I also agree with sartoriography in that it can be hard for those of us with hips and thighs to find flattering silhouettes now without the help of spanx. (Something I'm dead set against)A fifties silhouette on the other hand with the full skirts, defined waist and sweetheart necklines are really flattering on me. Waiting for the odd seasons when designers create items for the rest of us is frustrating, so I buy vintage. Not because I wish I lived then, but because I don't, therefore I have the choice to wear whatever I want.

Valerie August 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I've read many articles/essays that notice a trend between the growing independence of women (in the 60s, 70s) with the growing boyishiness/adolescence of women's fashion shilouette (forgive spelling. It was if somehow, to lessen the power of a womanly shape would lessen the power of a woman in real power. Look at the difference between Marilyn Monroe and other icons of her era, and the (mostly)sadly emaciated actresses/stars of ours. Vintage fashion didn't worship the preadolescent wraith.

I think the 50s, for all its repression, saw the beginning of many great movements against that repression. And we can't just isolate these 10 years from history: soldiers returning from WWII, women who had jobs in the 40s and people who lived through the depression all brought a collective history and influence on those times.

Retro Chick August 1, 2010 at 6:39 pm

I have so much to say on this that it might be worth a post all of it's own!

I love wearing vintage styles, doing my hair etc, but I would never in a million years want to go back and live there. I'm very aware of the civil rights, womens rights issues and general unpleasantness of these eras, and I'm also fairly sure that they never had iPhones ;)

My feeling is that just as the 60s were a reaction against the restrictive 50s clothes, the recent resurgence in interest in vintage dressing, including the underpinnings, is a reaction against how far in the opposite direction things have moved. Whilst I think it wouldn't terrible to live in a world where people would judge me for going to the shop without a hat, I equally think it's pretty bad to have so little interest in your own appearance that you'd go to the shop in your pyjamas! Appearances DO matter! :o)

Marissa August 1, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I 100% agree with La Historiadora de Moda! If you're watching Mad Men and swooning over the fashions while ignoring Betty's depression and Joan's power struggle with her fiance, then you're entirely missing the point. That's not to say you can't still swoon over the fashions, of course. ;)

In any case, I think many period shows an movies have accurately portrayed the era, such as Mad Men and A Single Man (deals with homosexuality in the early '60s). It's really a matter of what people are taking away from these shows and films.

Great post!

xo Marissa
(The Well-Appointed Catwalk)

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