Thursday, 10 September 2020

Living in the past: lifestyles from bygone eras - thoughts and views



Living in the past: lifestyles from bygone eras

This is another blog post I've been keeping back for a while with a view to publishing it when I would be incommunicado in hospital but with things on that front still uncertain and the subject in question of particular interest to the likes of us I feel that now is the time to share it with the rest of the vintage blogosphere.

The two articles featured in this post are equally gratifyingly in-depth studies of an area of our lives that we are all very familiar with - the vintage lifestyles that we all wholeheartedly embrace to one degree or another.  I use the word "gratifyingly" as so very often pieces such as these incline at best towards the gently mocking and tend to make my blood boil with their inherent misunderstandings - often implying that we're all a bunch of rabid right-wing leaning Conservatives longing after the return of an imperialist yoke, of women "knowing their place" in the home, of a strict social order and a world that was generally far more hidebound than the one we live in today.  It is for this reason that I rarely feature such critiques on here and why the one in the Guardian was an especially pleasant surprise to read, as in my experience they have a habit of scorning anything old-fashioned - with the traditional being an anathema to that particular organ, which is more often keen to try and point out - however tenuously - the negative aspects of the past (as in this recent, rather meandering and largely specious piece on men's suits in [spy] films).

Indeed this frequently pervading attitude that I'm sure we've all encountered - that we're wearing rose-tinted spectacles and desperately trying to live warts-and-all in a past that never truly existed - is something that I have blogged about a couple of times previously (once in 2010 and again in 2011); both of which obviously struck a chord with my readers judging by the number and type of comments I received.  I don't intend to repeat everything I said in those posts here again as they remain as valid today as they were ten years ago, although in light of these two recent commentaries I do think it worth revisiting some of the overarching views I expressed at the time.

source - The Observer / Guardian

Both editorials (but the Guardian's in particular), whilst being largely positive about the subject, do touch upon the idea that by engaging in nostalgia and living a vintage lifestyle we are somehow embracing every aspect of our preferred era both good and bad.  This is a view that for the life of me I have never been able to understand - a myopic, one-dimensional perspective that insults us by suggesting that we are unable to recognise the reprehensible aspects of our favoured time or are more than happy to include them in our lives.  Within this is also the view that we should be grateful for all the changes - both social and technological - that have occurred in the modern age and that by supposedly turning our backs on the present we are somehow denigrating the achievements we have made in the last century or so.  (Which we're not, as I've said before - many of us, myself included, just want to take the best of our chosen era and marry it to the best the 21st century has to offer.)  This belief has always struck me as a something of a double standard - to accuse us of liking all aspects of a previous era while at the same time insisting that it is in some way unnatural of us not to look forward and embrace all that the present has to offer is in many ways just as deprecating to the memory of the past.  I made the case in my 2011 post that in many respects we do appear to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater over the last fifty years or so - a view echoed by at least one of the Guardian interviewees and one that I still stand by.  To use a further analogy, how is it seen as "weird" for those of us with a penchant for a certain era to dress in the fashions of that time - fashions that can be æsthetically pleasing, sustainable and sympathetic to all body types - yet perfectly acceptable for middle-aged, overweight men (for example) to wear the artificial, ill-fitting football strip of their favourite team?  Where is the difference?  Why is one seen as "normal" and the other not? 

This attitude is also reflected in the somewhat negative terminology used by these commentators to describe us, both in the Guardian article and elsewhere.  "Retromania[cs]" is a particularly derogatory phrase in my book, once again tacitly ascribing the characteristics of a mental illness to our choice of lifestyle.  "Refuseniks" is another term that seems to be gaining currency, which continues to suggest that we are being actively obdurate and vehemently opposed to certain aspects of modern life.  Here again we see the use of injurious language to describe a group whose perfectly harmless way of living is in some way incomprehensible to those keen to pass judgement.  What's wrong with a more unbiased term like "vintagista" - or why not just use existing nonpartisan words such as "vintage enthusiast"?

source - biggles.info
From my own perspective I am reminded of an ethos that is very appropriate in respect of the above; one I have always striven to live by, given to me by a most unlikely of sources but which has always stood me in good stead and should really be the credo of all right-thinking people:

"While men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else.  I've travelled a bit, and taking the world by and large, it's my experience that with a few exceptions there's nothing wrong with the people on it, if only they were left alone to live how they wanted to live."
Biggles, from "Biggles Delivers The Goods", 1946 

However I am pleased to see that - in line with my own encounters with fellow "living historians" - every single one of the interviewees in each column come across as intelligent, educated individuals who are as keen as we all are to put these misconceptions to bed.  I was particularly pleased to see more than one respondent explain - as I did back in 2010 - that many of us like to take the best facets from both worlds and how there is nothing wrong with that.

Vintage ladies breathing new life into auld claes

Indeed let's focus more now on the positive bits of these two news items - and they are many - from the pleasure of a dozen vintage enthusiasts happily discussing their lifestyles and fashion choices to the interesting and in some cases insightful socially scientific theories expounded by the scholars.  Although we may not entirely agree with all of the latter it is nevertheless thought-provoking to see them laid out in a largely unbiased fashion for a change and as hypotheses more than as accusations.

source - The Edinburgh Reporter

Then of course there is the pure enjoyment in seeing well-dressed individuals taking pride in their appearance and embracing the eras of their choice, one or more of which we can appreciate ourselves.  Unsurprisingly what especially comes across is the feeling of camaraderie and community that the entire vintage movement fosters - the support, encouragement and almost familial sense of togetherness that often results when a group of like-minded people share a common interest and which is thrown into even starker relief in the face of some of the more negative remarks we have to put up with.  It's good to see the benefits of modern technology also highlighted, particularly the positive aspects of social media which allow us to engage with other vintagistas maybe half a world away whom we might never actually meet - something that I have blogged about previously and which I'm sure we're all grateful for.  The irony in this is of course that it pours further cold water on the idea that we are all technophobes who use nothing more advanced than a Bakelite telephone (well, sometimes we do I suppose!).  And we haven't even touched upon the æsthetic and ecological properties of the clothing, accessories and furnishings that can be intrinsic to the vintage lifestyle, as mentioned in both papers.

To finish on that last point, as this is rapidly turning into another essay and I'm alive to the fact that it links to two other long-read stories, I will just add my own view to those espoused by several of the vintagistas on the subject of "mixing things up" and going for your own style over attempting a specific period-accurate look.

I consider myself to have been a vintage aficionado since my early twenties, so we're talking nearly 15 years now (yikes!), but my wardrobe actually contains precious few items that one would consider properly "vintage" (and in relation to clothing that is quite an elastic term, as we know - I mean some people are calling stuff from the 1990s "vintage" for goodness' sake! - but for the purposes of this discussion let's say anything that's over 50 years old, i.e. pre-1970).  Taking that as a basis I in fact have only one piece of clothing that I can definitively date to within that period and that is my 1940s Kaufmann wool overcoat (above) gifted to me by an aunt a few years ago.  I have a few jackets, such as a Harris Tweed job from Dunn & Co, that were picked up from vintage fairs over the years but of course that is no guarantee of age these days and I suspect they were probably made after my self-imposed 1970 cut-off.

The truth is most of my wardrobe is sourced from modern clothes shops - those found on the high street like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams as well as the various online emporia listed on the top left of this blog.  I realise I am fortunate, as a chap, that men's fashion has in essence changed little over the decades (and certainly since my specific era of interest, the interwar years of the 1920s & '30s) so I am able to approximate the period look I crave to my satisfaction without having to resort to purely vintage garments.  In other words, just like with so many vintagistas such as those in these articles, I mix and match modern - sometimes "vintage-style" - clothes with the few more valued retro items I own.  As an example (and at the risk of frightening the horses), this more recent photo (right) has me sporting what is perhaps my favourite look - a 1930s chappist vibe that is achieved using only one truly "vintage" item.  That is the jacket, which is a St Michael (M&S) job - an '80s-does-'30s type, I'd say - that I picked up in a charity shop in Canterbury a couple of years ago.  Everything else is modern - the trilby from Village Hats, the bow tie from Tieroom, the shirt from Charles Tyrwhitt, the trousers from BHS (sadly missed) and the shoes (brown Oxfords, unseen) from Clarks.  I hope this goes to show that one doesn't need deep pockets, nor have to spend hours trawling the likes of eBay (unless that's your sort of thing, of course, and I own it can be fun and rewarding sometimes), to get a look that will pass muster on the vintage scene.  This particular outfit has garnered many a positive comment at various events, if I do say so myself (as well as admiring glances from little old ladies, much to my fiancée's chagrin!) and I hope this positive reaction is encouraging to anyone just starting out on the path to vintage enlightenment; you don't have to go all-out for vintage items straightaway - everything is attainable if you know where to look and how to put various items together.  As the Auld Holyrood girls say - there are no rules and nothing wrong with throwing different things together to get a successful look as you work your way towards a fully vintage wardrobe, however long that might take.

source - Wikimedia Commons

The only difficulty in sourcing vintage-style clothing currently is the lamentable state of both high street clothes shops and some online stores - all of which are understandably struggling in these covid times but in the case of some like M&S and Debenhams are not helping themselves by making it unclear what market they're in, trying to go after the youth department in a misguided attempt to appear "relevant" only to alienate their existing [older] customer base and lose sales from both camps.  Interestingly there was an article in the Daily Telegraph recently that suggested M&S should reintroduce the St Michael label (defunct since the late '90s/ early 2000s ) in light of its popularity among the vintage set.  It is sadly rare now that I find anything suitable from either of these stores.  Unfortunately, as a result of covid hitting sales by encouraging people to work at home in their pyjamas (I mean why, for God's sake?!  If only more people would realise the [mental] health benefits of dressing smartly, especially in the middle of a pandemic - something that has also been highlighted in both stories and which has previously been commented on here and elsewhere) we are also seeing the demise or decline of several once-great men's outfitters.  Already T.M. Lewin have permanently closed all their physical stores and moved to online only, with Moss Bros. looking to follow suit (no pun intended!), while in America the likes of Brooks Brothers and Jos A. Bank have been teetering on the verge of bankruptcy for the last few months.  This kind of thing doesn't bode well for the future of more traditional menswear but I'm still optimistic that there will remain a decent selection of gentlemen's outfitters where one can find the sort of vintage-style clothes that we can employ in achieving the look we desire - it's just that many more of them will be online-only (which brings with it its own set of difficulties - getting the right fit, for example - none of which cannot be overcome however).

That's enough to be going on with for the moment, though, I think.  I'm not normally in the habit of doing that many massive posts but something about these articles has again clearly had an effect on me and I hope they have made an impression with you too.  If you've made it this far - well done! - and I'd be delighted to read your comments, whether you agree or disagree with what I've written or not, and what you think of both commentaries.

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