Thursday, November 18, 2010

If another and later species should ever come to reconstruct the human being from the evidence of our sentimental writings they will conclude man to have been a heart with testicles; that is, passionate, and male. - Georg C. Lichtenberg

Saturday, November 13, 2010

oh Vintage, up yours.

(or, how I learned to stop worrying and love domestic bondage)

So, like many of my peers and contemporaries, at some point in the none-too-distant past, I really got into “vintage” style. Not just vintage as in, genuinely old clothing, “retro” antique furniture and 1950's music and hairstyles – but “vintage”, as it has come to mean. Now covering a vast variety of eccentric, quirky but undeniably contemporary products such as quirky rose scented soaps, modern clothing with a 20s/30s/40s influence, adorable cupcakes, cakestands, teapots, tights with seams, red lipstick, big full skirts that circle around your legs like brash petals around a fragile stem – all of these things are now covered by the umbrella term “vintage”, which now, if we are honest, is often used to refer to a current fashion trend rather than a genuinely charming anachronism.

I am going to avoid making any sweeping judgements as I write down my thoughts here because, apart from anything else, I am very aware that I would be condemning myself – and indeed, would be in great danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater as well; aside from the fact that aesthetically I find something very pleasing about the “vintage” look, I also think there is an argument to be made in favour of the ethics of re-buying and re-wearing old clothes, jewelry and knick-knacks. In our society of Primark and, we have created a culture based on the conspicuous consumption of whatever current trends the Fashion industry shovels into our bloated cuckoo mouths. There is something curiously satisfying about buying a dress made 30, 40 or even 50 years ago that has already been out dancing many times, and yet has kept it's youth and beauty, if anything growing better with age. Admiring the stitching on an old, full skirted red dress I own I am struck by the genuine quality of the garment – it sounds trite but, clothes just aren't made like that any more. Mostly because now they're often made in sweatshops by children in developing countries overseen by companies who value increased output over stringent standards, cutting corners over fine craftwork, and indeed, companies in whose interest it is for clothes to wear out quickly – after all, they're so cheap we will just go and buy new ones anyway.

Yet when I look at my wardrobe and the various vintage styled garments held therein, I am struck by the fact that not all of them (by a long stretch) are genuinely vintage, secondhand, or even boutique made. Some of them are of course; yet others are from H&M, Topshop, Juice – the usual culprits, even some from (dare I say it) Primark. Clearly, the 'ethical' facet is merely masquerading as justification. So it is obviously something beyond this concern which attracts me to this style, so quaint and pretty, elegent, sophisticated. So feminine...

And this, I think, is at the heart of it. A month or so ago, I found myself spending a rather ridiculous amount of money (I am too embaressed to admit how much) on a matching cakestand and toast rack. When I get paid, I will probably go back and buy the tea pot. They are red with white polka dots and they are all adorable. Similarly, like so many girls, I love baking – I love cooking, actually; I don't even mind giving the house a good vacuum, I find it very therapeutic. But, I have noticed, over the last year or so, because I have started paying attention to such things, that there is a curious tendency ( even – perhaps, especially? Amongst intelligent, independent women – worryingly, in my eyes) to fetishise behaviour that is considered to be traditionally feminine. Suddenly, the same women who fought to be allowed to wear trousers are eschewing them in favour of skirts more reminiscent of Gaultier's 40s 'New Look” than power dressing. Suddenly, we all seem to want to convey the image, at least, of a construction of femininity that is very much of another age. Ballet lessons are popular. We take up hobbies like cakemaking, or burlesque for the more risque of us ( – yet still, somehow, snobbishly considered acceptable whilst stripping is exploitative – have you ever tried to poledance? It's really hard, and requires considerably more general skill than wearing seamed stockings and thinking you're Dita Von Teese … sorry, tangent; I don't have a problem with Dita et al at all, but it annoys me when the same people who think she is “just divine” will go on to make sniffy remarks about page 3 models.) Suddenly, I am aspiring to a fantasy of womanhood based around a kitchen, darling little biscuits, a nipped in waist and gentle little footsteps on the stairs just – like – so. And I am not sure that I feel ok with this. Because as much as I would like to be able to distance these sweet little stylistic touches from what they represent, from whence they sprung, the fact of the matter is I spend a lot of my time trying to look like a woman from an era in which we were regarded in the eyes of society as being fundementally less capable than our male counterparts of fulfilling

Yet now, suddenly, because we're far away enough to have donned rose tinted spectacles, we celebrate as 'kitsch' this era of restrictive social stereotypes, no contraceptive pill and few options for many women other than to stay in the kitchen cooking all day – not cupcakes, either. This was a time when many women felt so restricted by their lack of choices that they stayed in loveless marriages for years, they drank and numbed their pain with valium, or simply lived dutiful lives in quiet, humble despair. People who really should no better talk fondly of a time in which men were “real men” and women “real women” - as if, today, our gender identities have collapsed into some kind of indiscernible grey mulch, so fragmented and uncertain of ourselves as we all must be without glaring uniform signifiers to reassure society that we are conforming to its ideals. “Real” men, “Real” women – fictional representations held up as being the standard all of us living, breathing creatures of flesh and credit should aspire to. “Don't worry, I am a woman, I have a flower in my hair and a tiny nipped in little waist. And you, you must be a man – so big, so strong. When you hold me in your arms, I feel so fragile, like glass, I could snap in half.. Carry on as we were.”

I am not by any means making any sweeping generalisations here. But I do think this is something that we should perhaps examine a little further, or at least be more aware of. At the end of the day, I can't say that I will stop dressing the way I do, because I like it – but I feel that I should be honest about my misgivings. The best possible spin I can find to put on it is that there is something subversive about it; that we are “reclaiming the domestic sphere”, but really, how the fuck is that a good thing? We fought for years to escape the rigid confines of four walls, two-point-four children, school runs, daytime tv, quiet desperation. The bars our mothers railed against, we have painted a darling shade of red with white polka dots, pronounced desirable. We have made “Housewife” the ideal again, by playing house. And this sits uncomfortably with me, a quiet tugging sensation somewhere in my bosom, and will do so every time I stroke the crinoline-and-lace fabric of dresses from all yesterday's parties. Because I think, maybe, we need to be a little more careful when idealising a past that's not so distant as it may first seem.