Monday, 7 November 2011

Vintage: "an unhealthy fantasy-world"...?!

Do I look unhealthy to you?
I've been involved in debates recently with some people who don't quite "get" the vintage idea, culminating in the comment that forms the title of this post.  They have been perfectly amiable; a frank exchange of opinions among friends with no malice intended on either side, even if we don't fully accept each other's point of view.  As all good discussions should be, in fact.  Those discussions have been at the forefront of my mind for a time now, as a matter of fact, and it struck me what a fine blog post they might make.  It is often good to put these things down in writing and for others to read and comment on, and I can think of no better group of people whose own thoughts on the matter I would rather read than those of the vintage blogger community.  The fact that Penny Dreadful and Tuppence Ha'Penny have both written blog posts about similar attitudes that they have encountered recently makes my own experience all the more pertinent.

It started off with the usual argument that I still for the life of me can't understand - that if we like certain positive aspects of our particular favourite time period (which for the purposes of this post will be my 1920s-30s bent) we must perforce have and accept all the bad aspects as well.  "You can't expect to have the good manners, the nice clothes and the art & design without the terrible poverty, racism and colonialism that went on then as well.  You just can't have one without the other; it's part and parcel of that time period.  You must accept that with the good comes the bad."

Look, for the hundredth time I do not want to live in the 1930s.  I'm fully alive to the hardships that would have been endured in that time and I'm well aware that there were aspects of that era that in hindsight are reprehensible.  I know I wouldn't have been living in a rambling country house or a large London penthouse, going out to my club or the local nightspot every evening (a pity, I know!).  I'd have probably been in some menial clerical position, or even doing some sort of manual labour in a factory while living in a run down tenement.  In fact, I probably wouldn't even have survived at all.  I'm very grateful for the advancements that have been made over the past eighty years, which have allowed me to live my life better than my 1930s counterpart.  And there are many modern inventions and designs that I admire and employ on a daily basis; I'm not advocating a wholesale return to the 1930s or the writing out of eighty years' worth of progress and improvement.  That's not to say the 21st Century is perfect though; we still have our problems and bad points, just as every decade has.

But who in their right mind wants the worst of something?  What I seek is the best of the 1920s and 1930s, married to the best of the 2010s.  And I truly believe it is possible.  Not just possible in fact, but downright popular.  Just look at the number of vintage fairs and events that go on all year round; see how vintage fashion is all the rage right now (some may say that it is just the latest bandwagon that all today's clothes designers and their followers have jumped on and it may well be out of fashion by this time next year, but I'd like to think that the current economic climate and the disillusionment felt by many of the younger generation in regards to this modern world may give vintage the edge for some time to come).  The rise of steampunk and dieselpunk.  I could cite a dozen examples where vintage style has met modern technology with great success.  There are scores of everyday household appliances that can be had in the retro style, from chromium toasters and Aga cookers to digital radios and even television sets.  And if it can only be had in boring black or uninspiring silver, chances are there's someone out there who creates a wonderfully embellished version.

This is what I'm talking about.  21st Century technology (digital, Internet radio) with flowing Art Deco aesthetics.  Far better than your average anonymous silver box any day.

The Times critic Richard Morrison wrote a fantastic column a few years ago about this sort of thing, citing a local Victorian pumping station as an example.  The Victorians decorated buildings that the general public might never even see; nowadays every office building is a study in drabness.

Would you rather work in this...
...or this?

And of course it's not just design and mechanics we're talking about here.  I think everyone would agree that social conduct was in many ways better eighty years ago than it is today.  People didn't swear every other word.  There was a good deal more respect (in the proper sense of the word).  I could go on, but you all know what I mean, I feel sure.  Is not politeness, good manners and general gentlemanliness (which can be ascribed to both sexes) something we should all wish to return to?  Is that not one of the foundations of this government's "Big Society" pledge?

Which brings us to the next level.  When presented with this last counter-argument, the response is:  "Yes, well it's too late now, isn't it?  We won't be able to get back to how things were, the rot's been set in for too long now.  Might as well get used to it and make do with things how they are.".

Now, unlike some I'm not a pessimist.  I guess you could describe me as an optimistic realist.  Yes, things are bad and there is no quick fix.  But to say there's no hope of getting back to some semblance of a social ideal?  That we ought to just shrug our collective shoulders and say "Oh well..."?  Not on your nelly!

It might take a generation or two, but I truly believe that if enough people stand up, set an example and really press our elected officials then we can certainly overcome this yob culture of today.  To add myself to the myriads who (mis)quote Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".  This, once again, is the serious agenda behind the foppish, Wodehousian facade of The Chap movement.  If you look at the original "Chap Manifesto" you'll probably, like me, find yourself nodding in agreement as well as laughing quietly to yourself.  It's humorous, but at the back of it all there's a kernel of truth about it:

Society has become sick with some nameless malady of the soul. We have become the playthings of corporations intent on converting our world into a gargantuan shopping precinct. Pleasantness and civility are being discarded as the worthless ephemera of a bygone age - an age when men doffed their hats to the ladies, and small children could be counted upon to mind one's Jack Russell while one took a mild and bitter in the local hostelry.

Instead, we live in a world where children are huge hooded creatures lurking in the shadows; the local hostelry has been taken over by a large chain that specialises in chilled lager, whose principal function is to aggravate the nervous system. Needless to say, the Jack Russell is no longer there upon one's return.

The Chap proposes to take a stand against this culture of vulgarity. We must show our children that the things worth fighting for are not the latest plastic plimsolls but a shiny pair of brogues. We must wean them off their alcopops and teach them how to mix martinis. Let the young not be ashamed of their flabby paunches, which they try to hide in their nylon tracksuits - we shall show them how a well-tailored suit can disguise the most ruined of bodies. Finally, let us capitalise on youth's love of peculiar argot only replace their pidgin ghetto-speak with fruity bons mots and dry witticisms.

It is time for Chaps and Chapettes from all walks of life to stand up and be counted. But fear not, ye languid and ye plain idle: ours is a revolution based not on getting up early and exerting oneself - but a revolution that can be achieved by a single raised eyebrow over a monocle; the ordering of a glass of port in All Bar One; the wearing of a particularly fetching cardigan upon a visit to one's bookmaker. In other words: a revolution of panache. We shall bewilder the masses with seams in our trousers that could cut paper, trilbies angled so rakishly that traffic comes to a standstill; and by refusing the bland, watery substances that are foisted upon us by faceless corporations, we shall bring the establishment to its knees, begging for sartorial advice and a nip from our hip flasks.

And should anyone say that this "Old England" (for want of a better term) never existed, that the afternoon cricket matches on the village green, the corner tea houses, the young boys in short trousers tugging deferentially on their caps, the uniformed policeman walking the beat ready to give a swift cuff around the ear to whoever might test the law, the general "good day to you sir/ madam!" nature of the man in the street are all just concoctions or rose-tinted, wistful half-memories then they should be referred to me and I will begin their re-education by showing them this advertisement from the 1933 copy of Modern Boy that I mentioned in a previous post:

Just one glance at the gifts on offer in this ad, and the way in which the language is couched, should leave you in no doubt that the Twenties and Thirties were a different (and some, myself included, might say a more wholesome) time.  "A real model of a dashing speed-boat -- a willow bladed cricket bat that will hit crisp fours" - you can just see young Johnny and his friends at the local park, playing a game of cricket before trying out the toy boat on the nearby pond.  And I doubt Nestlé, or anyone else for that matter, would even dream of giving away a 3" sheath knife with bars of chocolate these days!  How has it happened that in 1933 a boy can be trusted with a steel blade whereas a boy in 2011 is discouraged to go near anything remotely pointed, for fear that they might stab themselves or someone else?  The cry goes up - "Is that progress?!". 

And so we come to the zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) of the argument, this "unhealthy fantasy-world" that all we vintage aficionados are apparently living in.  We're all refusing to face up to the modern world and seeking "protection" in a past that never was, or was at least a lot worse than we're willing to accept.  Those of us who like to wear vintage fashions and take pride in our appearance are "wearing a disguise" so that we "don't have to engage with the world of today".  In fact, what we get up to is "a lot like a religion - taking comfort in a belief, a warming influence that provides a crutch and envelops".

Well, I'm not going to get too much into the religious aspect.  It could be argued that religion and society go hand-in-glove and that the general decline in standards could be linked a more secular society.  But to say that liking vintage has a quasi-religious bent to it is missing the point.  I'm not trying to "convert" people, and I'm sure you're not either.  The wish to return to a more refined age is not a crusade, it's just good sense.  I like vintage, dress vintage and do my best to act "vintage", yes because I feel more comfortable doing so, and naturally it follows that I will have a greater affinity with my chosen time period than I do with today.  But I'm not using it as a "crutch" - if anything it's the other way around.  To a certain extent I like to think I'm using vintage to prop up a society in moral and cultural decline, and I'm sure that's at least partly the attitude of a good few others as well.  My clothes are not "a disguise" - I feel more at home in them than I've ever done in modern things, it raises the standard and encourages others to raise theirs, I like to think.  I've not been brainwashed into liking this stuff, it's come on naturally over time and in no way am I saying it is categorically better in every respect to now.  It just comes back to what I was saying earlier - you can have the best of both worlds.

So there you have it.  Are we all in fact just unoriginal nutcases who wear old clothes and wander about the place going "what ho, old chap!" and so on?  What is your reaction to this summary of our interests?

13 comments:

  1. Hip Hip Hooray for being you,for being such a chap, don't change.

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  2. I agree with you on pretty much every point. I have no desire to live in the past, but I don't see why we can't reclaim the best bits.

    And even if we are all fantasists, I'd rather live out a shared fantasy of politeness and good manners than a reality of 'every man for himself'. Who knows, if enough of us share the fantasy, good manners could become a reality...

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  3. Eloquent and erudite as ever, old chap. And what ho to being unoriginal nutcases!

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha'penny Vintage

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  4. I always find it interesting that those who are quickest to label others 'odd' - and it's not just vintage... from uber-orange-essex types to goths to petrolheads, it seems everyone who (whilst not hurting anyone) wants to live their life without a hoot to what the middle-class-daily-mail-media thinks is 'normal' runs the risk of ameteur psychoanalysis. To me, that is one of the 'bad' aspects of today - a media so powerful that if you aren't a cookie cutter consumer they've brainwashed your friends to think there's something wrong. I say 'friends', thankfully a lot of people out there are much more open minded.

    I count it as a point of pride that a lot of my friends look completely different and have wildly different lifestyles and hobbies. It makes for interesting discussions and means we're all pretty open minded.

    BTW - the Hoover building is still in use, as a supermarket! Tesco did a pretty good revamp.

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  5. I love art-deco style and vintage fashion, which I strive to re-create in a small way for myself, however I do not live in a fantasy world where I think that Bertie Wooster is actually going to pop round for afternoon tea!!! I agree that as I live in 2011 I have no wish to return to a time without anti-biotics or the internet, or when racism and inequality were rife. However that does not prohibit the desire to be polite and respectful to others. My choices in lifestyle or clothing are what make me, well me!X

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  6. Ever since the renaissance society has been reclaiming the 'best bits of the past' (and sometime the other bits as well), think of Pugin or democracy. So its hardly some new phenomenon that makes us all nutcases, but frankly I'd rather be a 'nutcase' than 'normal'.

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  7. here's to wearing good hats, enjoying life to the full, and taking pleasure in the detail.
    is that so wrong?

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  8. What a fab post - I am so pleased that you have decided to share this with us. I think it is alot more a topic of conversation of late in various forums - because it IS becoming more mainstream and people think it gives them a carte blanche to have an opinion. Sometimes good - sometimes bad.

    I do not live in a fantasy world. In fact - I spend most of my time reading about the *reality* of the times that interest me. I dress the way I do by way of Remembrence, interest and, honestly? - because I think it suits me. When people meet me in person - they are shocked by my lady like appearance coupled with the fact that I can swear like a sailor. That's because I am being *ME*.

    I think it a weeping shame that alot of people think "the rot has set in". That's the downfall of society. I for one WOULD like youth to return to cheeky but being able to be told off and actually LISTENING instead of being agressive and violent. If a group of 9 year olds are playing their version of cricket on the green outside my home (by that I mean hitting a ball in any direction with a cricket bat) and someone approches them to ask them to stop - that person should not then have to be affronted by agressive, threatening behaviour.

    I am steadily entering rent mode. I shall leave it here. Hey - I may even do my own post..

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  9. Very well put Sir!
    It has always annoyed me that 'ordinary' people (their word not mine) think that by wearing styles and clothes from the past means you are trying to escape to a fantasy world... that you want to live in that time period wholesale and want to shun the 'real' contemporary world.
    I do it because it feels right to me, the styles suit me and I feel that, by taking pride in my appearance and by caring about the clothes that I wear and how I look, I'm bringing a little much needed sophistication to a world lacking in respect for such things.
    Part of the reason I started my Southern Retro portrait series was to highlight the fact that we are all regular people, that we do the same jobs and others, go to the same places as others and live in the same 'modern' world as others... it's just we do it whilst championing and honouring the styles, manners and positive ideals of the past.
    Keep up the good work!

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  10. I knew this would be a wonderful read. I started reading it a few days ago but was dashing out, so saved it especially until I could sit down with a glass of vino and give it the attention it was worthy of.

    Personally I have no qualms about being labelled 'odd'. I do see that I'm swimming against the flow of mainstream as I walk through the street with my victory rolls and red lipstick. I've had a post in draft for about two months about the reactions I get to my look. I keep pondering whether to post it or not.

    I've had some horribly cutting remarks from strangers in the street,but they are just rude people without even a pinch of the manners that you speak of. I accept that I will get looks and remarks because I do at times look a bit different from what may be considered the 'norm'. If you dare to be different you have to embrace the rough with the smooth imo. That is life.to Do I like getting rude comments in the street? No - but I'm not going to let a lack of manners stop me from being who or what I wish to be.

    I enjoy looking feminine, this doesn't mean I am not a feminist. Although I'm saddened quite when a chap doesn't hold a door open for me. There's nothing wrong with good old fashioned manners and making an effort with your appearance. Gosh I've started to completely waffle on now. In summary - loved the post, your write beautifully. Keep up the good work!

    P.s You look distinctive and dashing in that picture not unhealthy!

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  11. Hurray, great post, I accept my oddness and revel in it.

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  12. Hurrah!

    I could say lots more, but you mostly said it all already!

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  13. Very good post! Another thing I'm a bit annoyed about is the men vs women thing. There are too many radical feminists today! Of course women should have the same rights, and earn as much money as men, and blah, blah, blah...But I like the old fashioned thought that men are men, and women are women. When a man forces his way in front of me to get on the buss as fast as he can, I think: "what happened to the gentleman?". I LOVE it when a man treats me as a lady! If he just opens a door for me I feel so special! But that means women should act the part too! Both sexes CAN be equal, but still be what they really are - MEN and WOMEN!

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