Look beyond retro

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When the bells chimed in 2011 this January and critics looked back on the decade that had been the noughties, one of the defining characteristics they picked up on was the trend towards vintage and retro.

Stylistically, fashion and design borrowed from the 50s and 60s, while artists like Amy Winehouse incorporated their sounds into her music and image. Old-fashioned pursuits like tea drinking, cupcake making, and knitting suddenly became kinda cool; cars like the Mini were reinvented.

I’m all for a blast from the past: my wardrobe is filled with prom dresses, I like some gentlemanly manners, and I’ve been known to talk like an aging antiquarian bookseller. But I want to argue that being nostalgic for a time or a place you’ve never even lived in is an unfortunate (and curiously British) malady.

It’s a trait particularly noticeable in St Andrews. Five days in to Fresher’s week and I’ve already seen enough boys dressing like their grandfathers, and too many living rooms that look like a scene from Brideshead Revisited.

The owners of these rooms and outfits can often be heard waxing lyrical about ‘back in the day’, and maybe it’s true that they would do better in a different age, where students toasted the Queen before every dinner party instead of downing vodka in a badly-lit corridor.

But the problem goes beyond an individual preference for the traditional. Britain is steeped in a culture of reverence for the past. As A. A. Gill points out, the word ‘nostalgia’ only came into its common usage in the 1930s – the first period of marked decline in the British Empire. Nostalgia is institutionalised by organisations like the National Trust and English Heritage, and manifested in programmes like Downton Abbey. Studies have shown that, when asked in which time we would most like to live, we tend to prefer the time about twenty years before our birth.

In other words, we listen to our parents’ tales of youth and promise and internalise them, creating our own rose-tinted image of the near past.

This is all fine, but up to a point. We have to remember that an age considers itself as modern and as deplorable compared with a previous one. It might be nice to escape into a 1950s Hollywood movie, or an episode of Mad Men, and wish myself into that cosy, romanticised world, but then I remember: America in the 50s was actually pretty politically and culturally sterile. My husband would be 5 times as likely to cheat on me, and 20% less likely to see anything wrong with it.

Or, thinking about my own family’s past, I’m often tempted to picture a wholesome and perfect mining village of smoking chimneys and perfectly content men returning home after an honest day’s work. Not only is this a twee simplification, it does a disservice to people who have had complicated and fascinating lives, and from whom I can still learn.

Sugar-coating the past renders it infinitely less useful to us. Even worse,  romanticising it in the name of national cohesion is dangerous and covers up the multitude of complex and conflicting stories to be heard.

Societies can be defined by whether they see utopia as being in the past or the future: most belief systems include an afterlife, but also hark back to ancestors, prophets or an Eden-like paradise in the past. A culture of nostalgia places utopia firmly in the past, skewering our view of time as the onset of regression, and weakening our optimism and belief in progress. We have to believe the best is yet to come, or it won’t.

So have fun playing with the fashions and mores of the past, subverting and reinventing them in exciting new forms. But just don’t try to use them to escape from where you are now, and don’t long for a time or a place you’ve never even been.

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