Little House in the Big Cruel World: Nostalgia vs. History

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia because it’s fall, and even though our seasons in L.A. are marked by things like wildfires and traffic jams, fall always makes me a little wistful. I think it’s biological. Even when I was a kid, sweating in the new plaid flannel schoolgirl skirt I was determined to wear on the first day of school despite the fact that it was 85 degrees out, something about the shortening of days made me think life might not be eternal.

Still, I’ve never thought of myself as a nostalgic person. For every smart, full-skirted floral dress of the past (my favorite is the one in the background with the springy flowers sprouting over the bodice–and isn’t “bodice” the most old-timey word ever?), there’s a story of cruelty and oppression.

Yay! Racism!

(As an aside, will someone please write an essay, if it hasn’t happened already, about how part of the appeal of shows like Mad Men and its potential imitators, Pan Am and The Playboy Club, is that we can indulge in outrageous misogyny without technically condoning it?)

But as an adult who’s experienced actual loss, some of it recently, I’ve found myself dreamily meditating on my carefree college days or the summer I fell in love with my girlfriend. It’s mildly horrifying because I don’t want to turn into Al Bundy, always going on about that winning pass he threw in high school. Deep down, I believe—or at least I need to believe—the best is yet to come, even though the worst may be also yet to come.

So, nostalgia = problematic. Maybe Louis Vuitton doesn’t care that the only people who could afford their French maid fetish looks are those who actually employ a team of maids, but I do.

She doesn't do windows.

History, however, is a different beast. It doesn’t always speak the truth, but it’s not inherently idealized. I’ve always found history comforting. As a species, we’ve survived the bubonic plague, the Great Depression and super low-rise jeans, which gives me hope for our ability to tackle climate change, health care and super high-rise jeans.

When I was a kid, my mom read all the Little House books to me. I knew prairie life was hard—they only got oranges for Christmas! Not a My Little Pony in sight!—but I still wanted to be beautiful, blind Mary, probably because I was a lot more like imaginative, stubborn Laura. For my sixth birthday, my mom sewed me a prairie dress and matching bonnet out of pale yellow fabric dotted with rosebuds. I proudly wore it to kindergarten and was promptly ridiculed by my peers in OshKosh and Nikes.

They're smiling because they don't know those boxes are full of oranges.

One of the first movies I saw in a theater was The Journey of Natty Gann. I don’t remember much except that it was set in the bad old days, and it was about this little butch girl who wore a newsboy cap. I think she was my first crush.

A wolf: the ultimate accessory.

In high school, I loved watching the newsies of Newsies unionize in song and jaunty headwear. Even now, I swoon whenever I see anyone, male or female, in a newsboy cap.

An eyepatch: the next best thing to a wolf.

I’ve always been fascinated by the photos of Jacob Riis, who snapped sepia portraits of factory workers and tenement dwellers in turn-of-the-century New York City. These were the days when rich folks invented slumming—literally driving their carriages through poor neighborhoods to marvel at the less fortunate—so his popularity then, and for myself, is probably one part poverty porn. I’m not comfortable with the fact that seeing people who have it rough makes me feel better about my own lot. If I were a better person, these photos would only evoke sadness and outrage, right?

Guess who still makes your favorite clothes.

But besides doing some important muckraking, his photos are also a testament to survival. The creativity it takes to jigsaw an entire family into a one-room apartment. The stories and gossip these seamstresses must have shared—stories that did and did not save them. We love fresh-faced beauty because it reminds us of innocence lost. We love hardened beauty because it reminds us that life can’t ruin us.

And almost everyone finds a way to have a little fun. I love these…circus folk? (I could do a whole post on circus fashion, and I may.) Gypsies? Look at the chick in the doorway showing off her biceps and the drum major butch on the left. And the femmes in their robes and pearls. I believe they all just had amazing sex and are now enjoying coffee around the campfire, saying a big fuck-you to the race and gender norms of the time. I know I wouldn’t have been brave enough to join them if I’d lived in 19-oh-whatever, but because they were who they were, I get to be who I am today.

Water for Elephants was never this hot.

All of the present is informed by the past, and fashion is especially nostalgic, turning even the worst of times into beautiful fantasies, for better and worse, in a cycle that seems to get shorter and shorter (but probably doesn’t—I think I’m just getting old). It trips me out to see all this ’70s stuff in magazines because it reminds me of the clothes I wore in college in the ’90s, when actual ’70s items were still abundant in thrift stores. I had the greatest cords from the prehistoric days of the Gap, and an orange polyester mini dress I just recently forced myself to part with.

The Brady girls and I are loving these.

Fashion’s nostalgia is evidence of our complex relationship with the past—even of our attempt to heal. If the women of Japan in their cherry blossom kimonos had somehow merged with American women, with their square shoulders and sculpted hair, maybe World War II would have been shorter? Or maybe this Miu Miu dress just represents the war we’re always fighting with ourselves.

Or maybe big sprays of white flowers on red are just pretty.

This fall, I will party like it’s 1899, and be glad it’s not.

About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.

6 comments

  1. hollyhilgenberg

    Maybe, true to form, I’ll watch Mad Men three years from now when everyone is over it and then I will get super into it, but all the shit I hear about the misogynism that it inherently embodies, even if it is supposed to be a “reflection of the past,” makes me feel like I will throw up. Maybe I would think differently watching it, but it almost seems like presenting it in such a glamourous way is celebrating it. I could totally be wrong about this, of course, but I’d like to know what watchers think about it.

  2. hollyhilgenberg

    Also, Little House on the Prairie totally rules.

    • I’m intrigued by Mad Men and lacking cable, so let’s both watch it on DVD in three years and compare notes. But in general, seeing women treated like shit in the workplace gets old about as fast as seeing them slashed and avenged by heroic detectives on, well, every other show on TV.

  3. The article you seek RE: indulging in sexism without condoning it has been written: http://globalcomment.com/2011/mad-men-and-the-new-crop-of-retro-sexist-tv-shows/comment-page-1/#comment-74254
    Seek and ye shall find.

  4. Pingback: Would Jesus Get a Brazilian Blowout? « Ironing Board Collective

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