17 July 2011

the 1940s and nostalgia


I've always been a '60s girl.  Everything about that decade appeals to me so strongly, I have to wonder if I was born into the right era. I love the fashion from the earlier parts of the decade. I dig all Sixties art, theater, film, music, and humor.  I'm intrigued by the British influences, the climate, the passion, the excitement, the festivals of the later years.

But lately I've found my mind turning to the 1940s time and again. 

People seemed to take such care with themselves. They dressed well and walked and spoke so elegantly. And of course, there's the whole there-was-no-internet thing. No videos, no reruns. Pleasures were simpler. Boys and girls alike could dance. Crooners sang about polka dots and moonbeams.

In particular, I dream about my grandmothers and how they lived then.

My father's mother was a teenager in Wisconsin, gearing up for college, where she'd cheer on football games with her girlfriends in their plaid skirts. She'd join a sorority, where my chemist grandpa would one day start working as a waiter and eventually sweep her off her feet.

Meanwhile in Puerto Rico, my soldier grandfather was working as a translator, and my beauty queen maternal grandmother was a typist in the same office. One day in exasperation she painted her fingernails shocking colors just to get the shy man to look up and finally notice the gorgeous woman handing him his paperwork. The first time they kissed, he startled and fell down her front stairs!

Their photos from that time are so beautiful. I admire my grandmothers' dark curls, their bright smiles. I admire their courage as they went back to school, taught, moved, sacrificed, and raised their children through the tumults of mid-century America.

But the big band music of the 1940s invariably reminds me of my parents. They'd always play World War II love song cassettes as they cooked dinner, singing the words to each other over glasses of red wine. I still think of those as some of the most beautiful love songs I'll ever hear - melodies written for dear ones far away, in a way only some of us today could understand.

I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day
In everything that's light and gay
I'll always think of you that way
I'll find you in the mornin' sun
And when the night is new
I'll be looking at the moon
But I'll be seeing you

However, I know it's far too easy to romanticize the past. For Pete's sake, look at my infatuation with the Sixties, at the ways my whole generation idolizes those years. "They actually cared about issues back then. They stood up for civil rights; they protested unjust wars."

It was also one of the scariest, most violent decades in American history.

War in film is romantic, but as we know all too well, the realities are far from it. Our grandparents faced not one, but two wars within 20 years of each other, along with a depression, a Holocaust, and other horrific challenges that changed the world's psyche forever.

Social mores were also still so uptight. I doubt any of us would really want to have lived then, in a white-bread U.S. that was still too unforgiving in many ways.

I also can't stop thinking about Jerry Saltz's words on nostalgia as it relates to art:

"...This generation of artists is the first to have been so widely credentialed, and its young members so fetishize the work beloved by their teachers that their work ceases to talk about anything else. Instead of enlarging our view of being human, it contains safe rehashing of received ideas about received ideas. This is a melancholy romance with artistic ruins, homesickness for a bygone era. This yearning may be earnest, but it stunts their work, and by turn the broader culture."

Does idolizing the past really "stunt" the way we live in today's world? Does knowing about and quoting the masters keep us from thinking for ourselves?  I'm also thinking of the film Midnight in Paris as I say this, and its theme of appreciating our own time for its virtues instead of lusting after the past. Of course  I understand that it's important to focus on what we can do with our future, and remember the bad things that have happened; we must try to keep ourselves from repeating the same mistakes.

But when I look at these breathtaking images from the 1940s, I feel like I'm embracing and honoring the lives of those who came before me, and the beauty they found even among the world's ruins. Innocence seems to beam from each frame, with a purity they somehow maintained through it all. There's a comfort to be found within that decade, because my grandparents were my age and our parents were being born and people found a way to create happiness.

So commemorating vintage fashion, music, photography and art by letting their influences merge with our own inspiration is almost an homage to what came before, and even an acknowledgment that we won't forget. And who knows -- maybe someday our children will feel the same way about this decade if we live our lives well, and embrace the unique beauty of our century.

What do you think? Do you ever feel wary about getting swept up in the glamour of the past? What times  most appeal to you, and why?



  1. what a lovely post! i absolutely adore Life photos of america, especially in the first half of the 20th century.

  2. Love your blog! Come on over and join in on my Giveaway!

    xo, Strawberry Moth

  3. I love this post, especially the story of your grandmother attracting your grandfather with her shocking nail colour! I agree with you about being inclined to romanticise the past, though I always find it refreshing when people are asked what period they would choose to live in if they were able to time travel, and they answer that they are happiest living in today's world.

  4. Thanks for the beautiful reminder, Hannah. We really are so lucky to live in today's world for many reasons. When I realize it's all a matter of balancing admiration the past and appreciation for the potential of the present (and future!), I feel much better about my vintage addictions, haha!

    Jacqueline and Strawberry Moth - thank you both. :)

  5. love these photos! would be great to have that sweater with the elephants on.. so cute!