Monday, 12 July 2010

"I should have been born in....."

Not 'what's your poison'? but 'what's your decade'?

This is a question often posed on forums and within chat rooms aimed at vintage friendly web surfers, the answers can be revealing and expose as much about the contemporary world as any individual historical period. History and Nostalgia are different entities. The love of a particular period often stems from a desire for things from a real or imaginary past or dissatisfaction with the present. Some express a reactionary rejection of elements of modern life or merely a tendency towards romanticism. For others it can be triggered by a love of a particular thing, say a musician or a certain car. In other cases people who are backwards-loving are also forward-looking, actively grabbing the past and inserting it into their otherwise completely ‘here and now’ lives. This is particularly the case for women. Some do seem to want to return to cake baking and being kept; whatever floats your boat. Very few however would want to return to the curtailed, narrowed and often frustrated lives of their mothers and grandmothers. Those who lurk and loiter in web forums are by their very nature modern human beings. I think that many and I include myself, do not in slavishly follow the style and habits of particular bygone decades although every group contains its ‘fundamentalists’. However I do believe that most express a marked preference for one specific decade or era. I am going to talk about mine and hope for some comments and discussions about why you consider a particular time calls to you…

If anyone fancies running this up for me get in touch...

I’m fond of the licentious Georgian era and also the 1890’s. I suspect this is because being a libertarian I prefer periods that are more tolerant of sexual misbehaviour and artistic creativity. However my favourite period is, and has always been the thirties. I suspect it has the edge over the previously mentioned periods because there are photographs, films and recordings which take us back to those times more viscerally than books, engravings and documents can. Simultaneously it is far enough removed to be beguiling and fugitive.

Applying lippy 30's style.

The question is why the 1930’s rather than say, the 1940’s? My figure would probably be more suited to fifties fashion (which I like) and I have the freckly plainish face of a forties Land Girl so I have not been drawn to a period that makes me just look good. I suspect the germination of my love of the period is my relationship with my grandmothers. I was regaled with stories of triumphs at dance competitions, Errol Flynn’s good looks, various mishaps and romantic scrapes. I loved old people’s houses in the 1980’s, full of heavy brown furniture, deco clocks, studio portraits, antimacassars and tiled hallways. All accompanied by the smell of furniture polish and the faint whiff of lavender and meat pies. I always buy Imperial Leather soap because it evokes their homes. My paternal grandmother’s dressing table was a frowzy masterpiece of grubby glamour with elegant looking little glass pots of powder and cold-cream (she was a rather chaotic Cornish woman who had a habit of baking her door keys by accident). I feel as if I missed something.

This is what you call work wear.

My mother has a bundle of photographs of relatives most of whom cannot now be reliably named. They lean against cars dressed as pierrots or stand on the beach in daring beach costumes. That English 1930’s fantasy of creamy colours, afternoon teas and wind breakers just charms me to death. Elegant little hotels where you dressed for dinner, took cream teas, ate crab sandwiches, walked along the prom and attended concerts in the Winter Gardens.

The other major factor is the sheer in your face glamour of the era. I’m a Londoner from a glamorous city and am very vulnerable to its appeal. The twenties are stylish but the thirties for me, particularly the early thirties have more glitz. I think of Anthony Powell’s characters rushing from party to party in Mayfair, lindy hopping in Harlem and tea dances at the Alhambra. Paradoxically the clichéd idea of ‘gathering storm clouds’ also contributes to the appeal of the decade. Things are generally at their most alluring just before they fade and die and the 30’s are much like the golden summers that preceded the Great War. The 30’s however are deeply bohemian, vorticism, abstraction and surrealism, women smoking and wearing trousers, jazz, writing and travel. It not only saw the horrors of fascism develop but also life enhancing movements such as socialism and trade unionism grow.

Buffet car.

In the same way that the Victorians made efforts to build and create things that were rich, embellished and made of quality materials so did the thirties designer and maker. They take the rather more brittle decorative glamour of the twenties and twist it into something solidly darker and more threatening. It is an era of dyed hair, shimmering dresses, severe but beautifully tailored suits and cigarette holders. It is Marlene Dietrich in furs, marble floors and fabulous hats. It is the artificiality that appeals initially but there is a dark comprehension behind the frivolity. The thirties are mysterious, in the forties all was laid bare.

Where we used to dance.

I love the thirties approach to travel. Sleeper trains, well just trains in general. Sleek metallic aeroplanes, oh, and of course, steamers down the Nile (yes a leisured Poirot world minus the murders would suit me very nicely thank you). Then there is entertainment, glamorous supper clubs, Italian restaurants in Soho, cocktail bars (nearly all of my favourite tipples date from this period) and both sedate and furious dancing to smoochy smooth numbers and hot jazz. London was both bohemian and classy, full of refugees and grandees. And the men looked soooo gorgeous. I imagine my thirties Chapette home, jazz on the record player, a beautiful lilac silk walled dressing room and a glass cocktail cabinet; fully stocked of course.

Dining on board.

Of course this is a fantasist’s view, and we would all naturally be rich and leisured in our favoured eras. The thirties was a poor decade, full of death, struggle and finally disaster. Yet in my mind it is always an effortlessly stylish world full of Wodehouse characters, femme fatales, glamorous hotel lobbies and perfect Brandy Alexanders. And if can smuggle just an element of it into my 21st century world I’ll try my utmost to.

But what about you? For some vintage is, and I quote my friend Darhling: ‘mini skirts and trilbies’. It is a passing trend. Many vintage poppets in a fine 30’s bias dress would have no idea what a ‘black shirt’ or indeed a ‘black short’ was. It doesn’t really matter. But for those of you out there that admire, borrow from, hanker after or live a little of the past in their now lives, what was the catalyst or the things that brought you there. It would be interesting to know so please comment!

C'mon you lot, comment!


Unknown said...

I'm very definintely a 1930's girl long as I was on the wealthy side and partying in clubs and mansions of London. Mid-late '50's fashion is good for me too but all that housewifey stuff...uugh!

Angel said...

I'm a 1950's girl at heart. I love the housewife stuff, I love the femininity, I love the pin ups the glamour of hollywood during the period. I just love it.

However, I also love the 1940's for the comraderie that we see in the movies and the self-suffiency.

And the more I read about the 1920's and 1930's the more I like those but I am a 1950's girl. I love poofy dresses and I love the pastels I love the general feel that we get of enjoying life after decades of struggle.

Great post by the way... lol.


Actuarius said...

Definitely the 30's for me (but then you knew that anyway didn't you)? True we look to the avant garde and away from the disadvantaged of the era but so does anyone with a "calling" to a particular age. Quite natural when elements are brought into one's everyday life - you wouldn't deliberately live in a house that is made to resemble a slum. Having said that the 30's were the time of great social reform - the clearance of those Victorian slums and focus on medical help for all. For me the draw is the simple elegance coupled to the uncomplicated love of the moderne and the mechanical. The excitement, the hope and the joy. We shall have to get you down for cocktails on the lawn and a little crooning from Bing sometime.

Retro Model Sari said...

Like Angel Iam a 50s girl. It was such a playfull and sometimes over the top decade - this perfectly suits my personality - and my figure. I also love fashions from the 40s, but those times were hard and serious due to the World War. I´m more a colourfull, happy Wirtschaftswunder-Girl than a war-bride I guess :-)

Unknown said...

If I could magic myself into an era, it would probably be 1937-38 ish. Before the war 'ruined' fashion. Those are the frocks that are the most aesthetically pleasing to me. But art deco furniture is my favourite.

Polly Garter said...

i adore the decadence of of the 20s and 30s, Waugh's Bright Young Things, but my hourglass figure sets me firmly in the 1950s style of dress which is my usual style. but on the other hand being an actress I adore dressing up in general...but as my mother said just the other day, "you wouldn't want to be poor then" true...

Retro Chick said...

I'm a 30s girl too, for all the reasons you list.

I find myself immediately drawn to art deco furniture and nick nacks in Antiques stores.

I do also find myself drawn to wartime utility as well. Obviously very romanticised, I could do without nightly bombings, but from a fashion perspective and as a person who seems to have spent her entire life permanently short of money I admire the "make do" way keeping up the glamour on a budget. I also see it as a great decade for ordinary women, breaking out of gender roles

I feel my interest wane a little as you go through the 50s. It seems bright and brash to me. A little *too* technicolour and twee. Not that I'd say no if someone wanted to hand me a load of early 50s New Look Dior though, naturally.

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