Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Myth of the Well-dressed Past

This is an opinion post, so brace yourself.

A recent CBS article caught my attention and I just had to comment. Every once in a while an article like 'Dressing down a culture for refusing to dress up' appears to remind us how we're all turning into a bunch of unkempt slobs and how in the ye olden days it was so much better.

Very nice, ladies, but a pair of wellingtons would  be more practical.

CBS reports that Professor Linda Przybyszewski from the University of Notre Dame teaches a course on how our cultural relationship with clothes has changed over the years and how clothes have become increasing more casual.

"Up until the 1960s, gloves were considered a requirement." says Przybyszewski. "You were considered slightly undressed if you didn't have a hat on."

Once upon a time, this was considered 'undressed'. 

That is probably true, but why stop at 1950s. If we go further back, a corset  was an essential part of a woman's outfit up until the 20th century. And if you go back far enough, stolas and chitons were a requirement. Why is it that mid-20th century dress has become the paragon of good taste to us modern slobs?  My guess would be nostalgia.

The mid-20 century is a well-documented period. There are films, photographs, fashion magazines in abundance, and there are still some people living today who remember those times. So it is a past not too remote to become irrelevant, but just remote enough to acquire a little extra luster. The nostalgia goggles make everything look better than it really was. The CBS report is illustrated with clips from old Hollywood films, where glamorous movie starts wore sequin dresses and furs while having breakfast. These images have no more in common with real 1930-1950s life than Hollywood movies of our generation have with our lifestyle. For better of for worse, most of us don't look like we've just stepped off the set of Transformers.

"And next, I'll put on some pearls and scrub the floors .."

Clothes exist as part of a wider culture and are often an expression of the social, political and economic norms. The mother from Leave It To Beaver is shown as an example of how well-dressed we all were some 50 years ago. But we mustn't forget that her sparkly appearance was an expression of the idea that a woman's role was largely ornamental. This was not the clothes she wore to work at the office, or the construction site or the police station. Her job was to be a good wife and mother and her clothes were just part of that job.

Mrs Bridge strives to be the perfect housewife. Photograph: George Marks

The clothes of the past were not particularly democratic, either. A clip from Dark Victory, which CBS uses without a hint of ironically, shows Bette Davis surveying herself in a mirror as a maid is helping her dress. And don't get me started on the ladies of Downton Abbey. Most of us today don't have maids. We can't afford custom made clothes. Dinners are no longer formal affairs. We have day jobs to go to or college classes to attend or workout at the gym. Our lifestyles have changed, our society has changed, and, naturally, our attitude to clothes has changed as well.

The maid doesn't look all that glamorous. Dark Victory (1939)

I applaud anyone who puts an effort into their outfit. It's great to see people wearing lovely vintage or handmade pieces. But that doesn't mean that I expect everyone to dress like that. The democratization of fashion has given us the possibility to dress for our own personal comfort and pleasure, and that's not a bad thing. I like that on a hot, sunny day I can go to my local park and lie on the grass wearing nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt and flip through illustrations of Modes De Paris, admiring their style, but not coveting their lives.

H&M Conscious Exclusive, 2013 vs. Horrockses Fashions, 1950

So whether you prefer yoga pants and tank tops or vintage dresses and gloves, the important thing is to wear what you like. And to quote Miss Galindo from Cranford (2007), "a cap that satisfies its wearer need appeal to no one else." She may be talking about caps, but the sentiment stands for all attire. 

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