Why the ‘50s are back in style

May 14, 2012 - 06:33

Something has changed in contemporary culture: the focus has shifted from the future to the past. This is exemplified by the 1950s taking up a lot of space in today's cultural landscape.

The 1950s are currently in retro-fashion. The 1970s and the 1980s have also been around the block more than once in the past two decades. The retro phenomenon illustrates how society has started to take an interest in the recent past. (Photo: Colourbox)

Elvis hairdos, horn-rimmed glasses, cupcakes and fluffy skirts: currently, many people look to the iconic American TV series ’Mad Men’ for style inspiration.

The series describes the shift from the conservative 1950s to the chaotic 1960s.

One almost gets the impression that the dedicated fans of the ‘50s are trying to bring back to life an age that is long gone.

However, according to Kristian Handberg, who researches into retro-culture at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen, this is actually not the case.

“People today wear the ‘50s styles in a way that wouldn’t have been seen in the ‘50s,” he says.

“Even though they genuinely love the style and the music and may well find it authentic and real, they maintain an ironic distance. The women’s fashion and the macho style, for instance, are pushed to grotesque extremes.”

Retro is a new phenomenon
A string of retro shops have emerged in recent years. ‘Rockahula’ (pictured) is a popular gathering place for retro fans in Copenhagen. (Photo: Kristian Handberg)

Kristian Handberg is one of the first researchers in the world to look into this sudden urge to revive the music and fashions of the past.

Fifteen years ago, the Swinging Sixties were in style. Then came the 1980s and kitsch. Today people decorate their homes with 1950s furniture.

The most dedicated of retro fashionistas even spend their spare time on the rockabilly scene, where men swear by sleeveless shirts, sideburns and hair gel, women wear bright red lipstick, dresses and updos, and everyone dances to music from the American South of 1954.

“The retro phenomenon only materialised a few decades ago,” says Handberg. “The term ‘retro’ emerged in the late ’70s and didn’t enter the mainstream vocabulary until around 1990.”

The future is so last year

The retro-phenomenon illustrates why 30 years ago our culture slowly started to change noticeably. Towards the end of the 20th century, fantasies about the past suddenly grew more important to culture than fantasies about the future.

“During most of the 20th century people were preoccupied with the future: space, pace and progress. Modernist art and the great political and totalitarian movements strove towards the future,” says Handberg.

People today wear the ‘50s styles in a way that wouldn’t have been seen in the ‘50s. Even though they genuinely love the style and the music and may well find it authentic and real, they maintain an ironic distance. The women’s fashion and the macho style, for instance, are pushed to grotesque extremes.
Kristian Handberg

But towards the end of the 20th century a sudden change of interest emerged and people started looking to the past.

For instance, he says, an interest in the preservation and reconstruction of historic town centres started to emerge. Earlier in the 1900s the aim was to identify the style of the next century.

In this way, the retro-phenomena are examples of a growing interest in the past that influences all of society.

In 1958, films, TV series and newspaper articles offered predictions and speculation about futuristic cities on the moon. In 2012, culture is preoccupied with 1958.

Retro is a new longing for the past

Rockabilly and the other retro movements are historically quite uncommon because they play with a style and aesthetic that is relatively new.

“There are plenty of examples earlier in history of people having submerged themselves in the past. In the 1800s, classicism looked to the Antiquity for inspiration. But the new retro-phenomenon differs from this”, says the researcher.

The retro phenomenon only materialised a few decades ago. The term ‘retro’ emerged in the late ’70s and didn’t enter the mainstream vocabulary until around 1990.
Kristian Handberg

Classicism was all about taste. It aimed to revive the aesthetic ideals of ancient Greece. The two main ingredients of retro-culture are an altogether different matter:

  • Irony – fans of the retro style maintain a certain level of ironic distance to the style
  • Nostalgia – they long for a past that seems more wonderful and more manageable
Irony created retro-culture

Irony played a particularly important part when retro-culture first started emerging in the 1980s. Back then rockabilly experienced its first revival when it was mixed with punk culture.

“In the 1980s, retro was in stark contrast to other styles. Retro was carried by irony because the style was perceived to be so out-dated that no-one believed that anyone would seriously consider taking it up again,” says Handberg.

The ironic streak has faded with time and today retro has become increasingly mainstream.

“Right now the 1950s style is a good example. A lot of fashion is inspired by the TV series ‘Mad Men’, which takes place in the early 1960s. An entire industry based on the retro trend has emerged, with a wave of shops, cafés, clothes boutiques and many other businesses.”

Nostalgia can be ironic

Nostalgia is another important component of the retro-culture. The Russian nostalgia researcher Svetlana Boym has identified two different types of nostalgia:

  • The nostalgia seeking to recreate a past that has been lost in history. This type of nostalgia is often found among nationalists and right-wing political movements seeking to recreate a past they imagine was better.
  • A nostalgia that merely dwells on a longing for the past. This type of nostalgia does not seek to recreate anything, but accepts that the world is constantly changing and that this means the past cannot be recreated. For this reason, it’s easy to adapt an ironic attitude to this type of nostalgia. When it cannot be recreated anyway, it is simply easier to keep it at arm’s length.
Rockabilly-retro is nostalgic

Facts

The word ‘retro’ is used about a style or a thing that is reminiscent of something from the past – or about outright copies of clothes, cars, furniture, or any other item from the past.

According to Handberg, both of Boym’s definitions of nostalgia ought to be used in any analysis of the concept of retro.

“Retro-culture flirts with both types of nostalgia. This is especially true for a sub-culture like rockabilly culture,” he says.

“Basically, people attempt to live in the past at the cost of the present. But they do so in a reflective and critical way. They revive a past they believe to be better. But they do so with a certain level of ironic distance.”

Retro leads the way to the future

The rockabilly babes (ladies) and the rest of the retro gang actually adapt a critical attitude to the present when bestowing their love on the past.

However, even sideburns have limits. The disciples of the retro movement risk getting stuck.

“Retro risks losing itself in nostalgia. Either by being utterly consumed by the impossible longing for the past, or by simply believing too fervently that the past was uncomplicated and right”, says Handberg.

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Read this article in Danish at videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Iben Thiele
How research into retro is conducted

Kristian Handberg is an art historian and cultural researcher and analyses different styles in art and culture.

He can tell whether a work of art, a film or a dress contains characteristics from or references to classicism, the Swinging Sixties, the Nazi regime, or something completely different.

Handberg uses this knowledge to analyse the retro-trends of the present. He can tell precisely which styles have inspired the different trends.

Even though the retro phenomenon takes up an increasingly large part of modern culture, not much research has been conducted in the field.

This means that Handberg is entering unknown research territory. He not only needs to find good examples of retro-culture; he must first explain what retro is.

The internet is a good source of information about the variety of retro-cultures that exist around the world. Furthermore, Handberg has just returned from a trip to the former East Germany where he researched how the cultures from the former GDR have now been subjected to retro and revival culture.

In his analyses of retro-culture, he employs theories from the more well-established academic field of memory and memoir culture.

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