A few years back I took a class on fashion history. One of our text books claimed that fashion trends change dramatically every ten years. (Duh.) But their point was that whatever was in style ten years ago is at the height of being out of style today.

Not long after I took that fashion class I read an article bemoaning the fact that we were in fashion limbo. Nothing was new or fresh. Hemlines, once the bell weather of style, were meaningless. Maxi dresses, miniskirts, no one seemed to care what length they were at. They cited the same fashion rule of thumb my text book had; only now look back ten years and the clothes and hairstyles don’t seem all that different.

Which brings me to Vivian Maier’s photographs (see last post). Even though she took pictures well into the 1970’s, the photographs that are prominently showcased in articles and websites about Maier appear to be from the 1950’s, or at least mid-century. (Diane Arbus’ photos have a similar feel.)

Oh mid-century, how we love thee. We seemed to fall madly in love with it almost as soon as it was over. The 1970’s were a resurgence of 50’s pop culture. Shawn Cassidy sang, The Doo Ron, Ron, while American Graffiti and Grease played in the theatres. Meanwhile Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley played in tandem on TV. It was a tidal wave of nostalgia from a culture exhausted by the social upheavals of the swinging 60’s.

The 1980’s took some time off from 50’s fever, but then Madonna showed-up reinventing herself as the icon of the 1950’s glamour, Marilyn Monroe. Now that I think of it at the same time Madonna was cavorting around as the nouveau Marilyn, James Dean was showing up on everything from calendars to eye glasses. Miami Vice delivered Don Johnson in a 1960’s corvette, prowling the streets of art deco Miami. (Miami Vice was a hodge-podge of mid-century.) Recent waves of nostalgia include Betty Paige and Madmen. (I even recall hearing about a resurgence of interest in old Doris Day recordings in the UK.)

What is it about the period that holds our attention? And why do we attempt to preserve and recreate it?

The question arises, would Vivian Maier’s photographs create such a buzz if she was roaming the streets of Chicago today? It’s inconceivable that they would. The glorious subject matter just isn’t there. (How much of her appeal is her genius, and not their style?) Sure there’s the gritty street imagery, but not the working or the privileged class that Maier witnessed. No longer can we identify the worker by his uniform. No one really wears uniforms today, unless you include jeans and a t-shirt. Today’s tycoon, say a Mark Zuckerberg, doesn’t dress any differently than the guy next door.

The 1950’s were the last gasp of that dinosaur, of gender roles and class identification. Seeing photographs from that era are like watching the old world pass away before our very eyes.


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