Romanticizing the Past
Let's admit it. For the most part anyone who sews vintage, romanticizes the past to a certain extent. Whether it ranges from a "life seemed so much simpler then" to a "why don't people dress up anymore," our fascination with past styles often overlaps into the lives of the past.
Take the above photo. If I told you this was my grandmother, there would certainly be countless comments about how happy she looks or how cute her outfit is or how adorable her hair is styled. I will say that all three of those statements are true. She does look happy, her hair is enviable and her outfit is really quite nice.
Now, when you know that this isn't my grandmother but, in fact, Eva Braun — Hitler's mistress and forty-hour wife, your impression probably changes. She still seems happy, but happy on the backs of so much misery and horror. Her outfit was no doubt bought with Hitler's money and her hair was most likely styled by a Third Reich-supported salon and stylist. Rationalizing Hitler and everything connected with him is a pretty impossible task — Eva Braun included (Eva Braun is on my mind since Life recently published some unseen photos from her collection .)
When it was Coco Chanel week here at The Sew Weekly, I posted about Chanel's involvement with the Nazis during the war. My opinion about this all was this: "We can't strip her influence from history and fashion based on her actions, but we certainly can add it as a footnote to the person." With someone like Eva Braun, however, her Nazi involvement can't be just footnote.
So how do we a view a photo like this? Can you admire the outfit while still condemning the person?
Chanel and Braun are extreme examples, of course. Daily life is romanticized too. Whenever I see a photo of a cute unknown couple looking seemingly happy, I wonder what was happening behind the scenes. Was he abusive? Were either of them stepping out? Did they love each other? Were they truly as happy as they look? Was life truly simpler and easier? Did their smiles fade immediately after the lens closed?
Yesteday, via A Dress A Day, I discovered Of Another Fashion: AN ALTERNATIVE ARCHIVE OF THE NOT-QUITE-HIDDEN BUT TOO OFTEN IGNORED FASHION HISTORIES OF U.S. WOMEN OF COLOR. Amongst the many beautiful photos are many of Japanese women interned during World War II. In almost every photo, they're smiling. Not because they're happy but because that was what they were supposed to do. When you know the context of these photos — as well as the historical context of the experiences of women of color in the 19th and 20th centuries, these pictures are viewed quite differently. However, I think that knowing how difficult life was for these women actually makes the photos truly more beautiful.
What is your take on all this? Can images and beauty be admired without the truly known context? Is it possible to not romanticize something when we do not know the truth? And when we do know the truth, can we possibly look at objects and people with an uncritical eye?