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but that seems to have been the way it was interpreted in the comments), because that is based on a restrictive and outdated idea of feminism that I’m sure few people would subscribe to.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.
all images from here.
*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.