Past as Present

By Michelle

The internet makes accessible the very latest in music, art, fashion, and film, and helps give us the tools to easily share our own new creations. It also gives us easy access to a vast archive of pop culture products. What do we do with this massive amount of media available? Many have responded to this by producing media that appropriates or references the pop culture of the past. What does this approach to production say about our culture? Perhaps referencing the past creates pop culture with a dynamic relationship to its own history. Or this approach may be a way to reject the belief that society is always moving forward and newer is better, and an anti-consumerist rejection of planned obsolescence. Or are we merely pillaging the past due to lack of ideas and out of refusal to move forward?

Vintage and vintage-inspired clothing, objects, and aesthetics are imbued with a number of assumed characteristics. Ideally, in a culturally and historically literate society, the meaning of the object or aesthetic appropriated would be informed by its historical place and ideology, and given new meaning from the new context in which it is placed. Such appropriations, however, often only convey a vague sense of past-ness and associated qualities of being from another, prettier place and time. Nostalgia isn’t history, and appropriating history is not the same thing as understanding history.

Vintage and retro objects and aesthetics evoke a sense of integrity and trustworthiness. This is informed by nostalgia and the vague concept of history as a simpler/better/more magical time rather than any understanding of history. This manifestation of this form of vintage appropriation can be seen in packaging that references or imitates older versions of a product or otherwise designed in a way that references past design movements, as well as in Instragram filters than transform digital photographs into something that evokes the warmth and history of vintage snapshots. (If you want to read a well-written piece on Instagram and the meaning behind pseudo-vintage photography, check out this)

While the previous connotation of vintage imagery had more to do with the quality of the product than the consumer who purchases it, vintage and retro aesthetics are often read as saying something about the character of the consumer. This is most salient when the consumer wears vintage or vintage-inspired clothing, as clothing is already constructed as indicative of the wearer’s personality and values. Depending on how much the clothes deviate from current trends, some vintage appropriations may be read as ironic, for example, young people wearing ugly sweaters and other clothes that are seen as more appropriate for old people than young trend-followers. The irony is dependent upon the youthful, conventionally attractive body of the wearer; on the body of someone deemed unattractive, much vintage clothing would likely be read as dowdy or old-fashioned.

Vintage clothing often implies that the wearer sees themselves as an individual, someone who breaks with expected patterns of consumerism by rejecting trends and conformity. In age where everyone is expected to be a producer of content as well as a viewer, being a passive consumer certainly isn’t hip. Vintage shopping is the perfect manner of consumerism in that it allows one to shop and feel anti-consumerist. Vintage items are constructed as being one-of-a-kind, something that no one else will be wearing, even though vintage clothes are typically the mass-produced items of another era. Even mass-produced, pseudo-vintage clothing, such as those sold at ModCloth, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie, still come attached with a sense of anti-consumerist rebellion and individuality. The high price tag attached to pseudo-vintage, vintage, and most thrift store clothing in general shows how much this supposed rebellion against consumerism is integrated into capitalism.

Perhaps the most honest approach to historical appropriations would be a rejection of the idea of originality. Every cultural product has drawn from its own past, and nothing is completely original, so why not be upfront about one’s lack of originality? When one is pressured to keep up with the latest in pop culture as well as given access to a vast back catalogue with which one is expected to be familiar, perhaps the best response is to rebel and focus more on the past than staying current.

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