Friday, September 30, 2011
I have a question for you today. Why do we like vintage? This might seem a little strange coming from me because, if you are kind enough to be a regular visitor here, you'll know that I love (almost) all things vintage. But lately I have been thinking about why I love it. Is it purely aesthetic? I like the look of the clothes, the interiors therefore I like vintage? Yes, that's part of it. Do I think that there is perhaps something missing today, some social and cultural niceties that have fallen by the wayside over the years without being adequately replaced? Yes, that's part of it too. Is it because it appears to have been a slightly simpler life 'back in the day', one in which everyone knew what was expected of them, with fewer shades of grey? Yes, perhaps a little. Is it just straight-out nostalgia, given that, as an historian I have an in-built predilection for the past? Yes, certainly. But is there something else? And, more than that, what is the appeal of vintage to society at large?
Because when you peel away the doilies, the pastel colours and the layers of tulle, the past - and by this I am referring in this instance to the 1950s - 1970s - was not always a very good place to be - especially for a woman. The prevailing media (and so, society) often portrayed you as, by turn, vain, stupid and interested only in (and interesting only for) your appearance. Knowing what was expected of you in fact gave you few options - many professions were not open to women and their ultimate goal was (whether they liked it or not) to marry and have children. My mum, who was a teenager in the 50s and began her professional life in 60s, has wondered why Madmen has been feted to the extent that it has, because, as she puts it, "I remember those times." And, by implication, what they were really like.
In Madmen, as they themselves put it, women are either 'a Marilyn or a Jackie' - that is, a mistress or a wife (or, if you will, a madonna or a whore). The writers of the series would no doubt suggest that they put this forward as evidence of attitudes in the past and yet we as viewers rejoice when Peggy Olsen sheds her serious, 'mousy' look for something more fashionable and so succeeds.
Joan Holloway, as the red-headed 'Marilyn' character, is lauded for her 'womanly curves' and her sexualised image.
And we adore Betty Draper for her portrayal of an unhappy but nonetheless perfectly dressed suburban housewife.
So what is it that we - as viewers, as fans of vintage, as society - are hailing here? All of these women are praised - and not just within the confines of the show's plot - for their appearance, irrespective of the restriction and anguish that that appearance - both inwardly and outwardly - may cause. There is some symbolic suggestion of that in the show, when in one episode we see all three characters struggling into the corsets, stockings and almost bullet-proof-looking bras that allow them to present this 'face' everyday. So what, overall, are we praising when we praise vintage? Are we overlooking the considerable negativity of many aspects of it or are we still unaware that there is any negative there at all?
* For a clue on the title of this blog, take a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2bLNkCqpuY