Romanticizing the Past

image from ww2db.com

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?

image from media.tumblr.com 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.

image from media.tumblr.com

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?

Author

Mena Trott

Mena Trott started The Sew Weekly to document her attempt to sew all of her own clothes in 2010. Since then, she's made over 125 outfits and has way more clothes than she needs.

21 Comments

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  1. It seems to be controversy week here in vintage land!
    I still admire her outfit, it is clothes.
    A photograph is a moment in history captured…that is all. It isn’t a biography of the person, it tells you NOTHING at all about them. It shows you what they LOOKED like for a fraction of a second in their life.
    This is a problem I have always had with the idea of a “role model.” No person is perfect. Everyone has flaws. Blogs are a good example of this in that we all post what we want to post…we choose what version of ourselves the internet gets to see. For Coco Chanel, her fashion designs were her work…they weren’t HER. The same goes for Eva Braun and even for Hitler. The things we know them for, isn’t necessarily all that they were. Even the most even of people have moments of light in them, no matter how much no one ever wants to admit it. And the same is true vice versa.
    As it is said, history is a foreign land. You can’t take it out of context…but you can enjoy different aspects of it. You can enjoy the picture just for the image they present and not have to include the history behind it.

  2. Hi Cee, Thanks for your thoughtful response! I do like your analogy of blogging. In 2 or 20 years, the stuff we post online can’t stand alone as who we were.

  3. Doesn’t Eva Braun look so young? She first started a relationship with Hitler when she was 17. And now I’m romancing because I’m imagining a young girl dragged into doing something she didn’t want by a manipulative older man and I have absolutely no idea if that’s the truth.
    I think that the camera never really tells the whole truth. Like a oil painting you can enjoy reading a story into it, but unless you know/knew the person in real life, it’s always going to be a story more about you than them.

  4. Thank you for posting about this! The vintage esthetic so frequently focuses on white women (did you happen to read the post on Flint Knits this week?), and it’s so important to look at fashion and culture from all angles and colors, not just those that are white.
    I agree with Cee – you can still admire the LOOK of something without knowing the context. Beauty does not necessarily mean a bad or good person, despite our culture associations.

  5. Ooh good post, reminds me of good old debates from my philosophy A level. I’m with Cee about a picture simply being a moment in time – in fact, I often prefer anonymous pictures as you can just focus on that visual moment without being distracted by the rest of the story. Because, as much as we try, we are always affected by the background knowledge (even if we then manage to conciously override it). On the other hand, if I’m reading about someone’s life or experiences, I do like to see what they looked like – so perhaps it works the other way round as well.

  6. Great thought provoking post! Of course another current example is if Galliano’s recent remarks make the Fall Dior runway show any less beautiful. I think Dior was smart in clarifying that the House of Dior is a machine full of talented people, but it’s hard to separate the cohesiveness of theme from the same brain that spewed hateful remarks.
    In our compartmentalized society, it’s far too easy to separate presentation from heart, and I would like more of the weight of responsibility put with people’s actions regardless of whether they’re aware they are being observed.

  7. great post- I’ve been thinking about this a lot between Galliano, Mad Men, and my thoughts on vintage…I feel like my take on 40′s through early 6o’s American fashion is marked by how I feel about those decades in history…and by how “white” those fashions feel to me (obviously they weren’t necessarly only worn by white women, but that’s the dominant picture we get-from pattern evelopes, ads, and other media of that time.) Great pictures, Mena!

  8. What a great, thoughtful post. I think we who appreciate the vintage aesthetic sometimes do fetishize it to the point of being unrealistic about how things really were back then. It’s still fun to look at old photos and admire the clothing, but sometimes I do have those thoughts in the back of my mind, wondering about what was really going on with that woman, that family… (And my first thought – whenever I see an animal in an old photo or movie – is always, always, “Well, that poor thing is definitely dead by now!” :) Also, I probably would’ve died from asthma before adulthood, so 50, 60, 70 years ago definitely wasn’t some sort of utopia. Maybe I’m just morbid. Ha.)
    I love that Of Another Fashion exists. It’s easy for some of us (me!) to forget there were people having very difference experiences than the cheery white women in vintage photos and advertising. Very cool idea and a great reminder for us all.

  9. Wonderful post!
    I don’t think I romanticize the past, but I do love fashion history. I am very happy to live today, in my present life. Vintage fashion is not escapism for me, but rather a visual representation of where we came from. It’s a wearable social history. Really, it is just another art form. And it can be a billboard or subdued. But it’s art that was lived in, day to day, and followed people throughout their life. Homes say a lot. Cars say a lot. Clothes say a lot. But all is just a snapshot of time and a representation of what that person thought about themselves (or arguably, in some cases, what the person footing the bills thought of the person they dressed).
    It is a hard line to draw, when you start stepping back from photographs and looking at them objectively instead of subjectively. We tend to tie the whole together as a package, but I think what makes clothing unique is that they are separate entities, but can be combined into something else and when they are that is when our perception of them change.
    It is interesting to me that a lot of time clothing can be subliminal messages we might not even be aware we’re drawn to because it projects something within ourselves. Who I am now can see what I was trying to say about myself ten years ago, even if I was ignorant of it at the time. I think the same is true of a lot of people. That’s fascinating to me.
    There is a book called “Nazi Chic” that examines clothing in relation to the third reich, and what led up to it. Very frightening, but fascinating. I still haven’t been able to get through the whole thing as I find it rather overwhelming.
    I came across a large group of German photographs from the turn of the last century through the 1960s. They are rather eerie. Not in terms of what they were wearing, because the clothing is not so very different than other European countries (though somewhat more tailored in some cases), but because of what you KNEW was going on in the background and at the time. In some cases old photos are hard to look at, especially in terms of snapshots of everyday people. When you look at them so subjectively sometimes you forget the back story, or possible back story. That they actually were REAL people, not just phantom images from a storybook from long ago.
    Thank you very much for this post!

  10. Absolutely stunned, impressed, and titillated by this subject you’ve brought up. I do wonder sometimes about all the nostalgia and fondness over vintage fashion. Obviously these fashions are absolutely adorable, but you’re right, there is so much background that is ignored. From the perspective of equality and its historical evolution/vacillation, one has to consider that not only did many women have (relatively) more money with which to buy fashions from those who had to sell it for less (the underclasses, including minorities, which again included women), but that women themselves were the commodities of men. Women were invariably housewives, with much time to stay home and sew, with the sole purpose of being pleasing to the eye. I have homemaking and needlework books published clear into the 1960s which demonstrate this cultural norm. Women did all this… not appreciated as intelligent, creative, or even as handy with a needle mind you (except maybe to her fellow female friends, who granted would be much more competitive than friends are today). But only to be appreciated as “birds.” In proverbial cages! No wonder they gave up, took off their bras, and took to wearing polyester bags in the 1960s!

  11. A discussion of great merit. One reason I’m not crazy about the 50s, is, in addition to the ridiculous silhouettes, the 50s was a racist, sexist, conformist era. What’s to celebrate?
    If you want a laugh, read a notorious article by Homes an Gardens on Hitler’s mountain retreat. It was before people realized he was a monster, but still….
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/germany/graphic/0,5543,1075414,00.html

  12. This is very thought provoking, and I have enjoyed reading everyone’s responses.
    Photos focusing on fashion and styling are simply that – fashion photos. If it is the writers/photographers intention to represent the “personal” life of their model then a wider range of styling and or text is required. If there is a picture of Evan Bruan with Hilter I believe most of us wouldn’t even notice what it is that she is wearing. However, if it is an image of her on a fashion page then what she is wearing and the styling is the focus of our attention, and that is all it should be – a picture of a woman wearing clothes (no matter what our views are).
    I see nothing wrong with romanticising the past. Through this we can see who was not equally represented, or not represented fairly, and demand changes so that when future generations are reflecting on our legecy, there is no disparity.

  13. Coincidentally, I discovered a photo of one set of my grandparents, which I assume was taken in the 30s, when they were young adults. Both in white summer suits, they are the image of chic.
    To look good was one of the few things that people of color could do to express themselves back then. I wish they’d had additional avenues.

  14. On a similar note, here’s a recent critique of Vogue Magazine’s glamorization of Middle Eastern dictators’ wives. As I become more interested in sewing, I do find that sometimes I have to remind myself of the superficiality of focusing on clothing.
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704506004576174623822364258.html

  15. thought provoking yes…………..
    I feel that history is subjective, it is very hard to look at the bigger picture particually when looking at something like a photo.An example of this is in the UK advertising, images, books and slogans are about the ‘dig for victory’, what they all fail to remember is we were a nation struggling during and after a world war, romantasizing, I think so, but for those that take a true interest will delve deeper into theese subjects.
    I try to remember that even in hardest and harshest of time people can and do find joy and love.
    Yes I can also admit and think wow look at that lovely dress without a single thought to the era or worlds state at the time.

  16. I think fashion and design is just about the only thing that should be romanticized about the past. Every era (including now) has examples of absolute beauty and extreme horror- regardless of country, race or sex. What is important is that we do not adopt the ideals of the past that we have worked so hard to try and overcome.
    Having said that, are the fashions from the 40′s, 50′s, heck, 1700′s symbols of women kept as proverbial birds? Certainly. But you know what? As much as we try to equalize the sexes, men and women ARE different. And fashion has and always will be influenced by current events and social norms of the day. How can a designer not be influenced by their environment and life experience?
    I for one enjoy looking at fashion history as a proud lineage of how far the role of women in society has progressed. Personally I take pleasure in celebrating my sex by accentuating my feminine qualities in fashion, whether that be a vintage or modern aesthetic. We are fortunate enough to have earned the right to express ourselves in fashion however we want. And that is beautiful.

  17. Well said :)

  18. I don’t know how much more I can add into the discussion (Lauren–Wearing History–summed up pretty neatly what I would have said). But I want to commend you on bringing up this topic. There have been a lot of “heavy” posts in fashion blogland this week–especially revolving around the idea of romanticizing the past. I know I have thought long and hard about many of these things (especially in relation to my love of early to mid 20th century fashion, and the fact that this was such an ugly time period historically in many respects), and I am so glad to see people who are far more articulate than I broaching these topics. I think so often we get caught up in the mentality of “ooh! pretty dress!!!” that we forget to consider our fascination in a bit of a deeper manner. Not that we need to make our collective love of vintage styles something deep all the time (beauty for the sake of beauty is not always a bad thing), but digging a bit into things is never a bad mental exercise.
    (Hopefully this makes sense… My brain is all a muddle today!)
    ♥ Casey

  19. I agree with Casey that beauty just for its own sake isn’t a bad thing. I guess the reason I love vintage is because its unique (in a culture where everything is mass produced and looks alike)and also because the color of the day/year/last 10 years seems to be black, everything is black anymore. It is very interesting to think about though, my reaction was very similar to what you were saying, it totally changed by thoughts to know who she was. However,I think that I would still rather be somewhat idealistic, its just my personality and how I look at the world.

  20. I’d like to thank you Mena for this great post and all the commenters for their well put comments. So I’d like to add some thoughts of mine, too. Personally I draw inspiration from other eras mostly because I am able to look at them from a distance. This means I wear the kind of clothes I wear, because I like the silhouette/style/colour on me and not because all the other people around me wear the same. Being too close sometimes clouds the eye. I don’t want to recreate the past, I like to see the present as something where I can actively choose and this includes styles from bygone eras. After all it’s “just” fashion. (I want to add that I know there are clothes that are used as symbols and that are put to eternal rest for a good reason. I’m German, this is just something we grow up with. There are no-goes and political statements, but I guess this is not the kind of fashion we are discussing here.
    My other trail of thoughts, that hits me everytime when I hear people are connecting looks of a certain time with a time, is: Do they ever think this through? Because if you are aware of all the injustice/pollution and all that is worse in our world today, why do you still support it be wearing the clothes of that era!? So how dare you cloth yourself at all… Let’s face it: we have to wear something. Why are there people trying to put a ranking on the clothes each one chooses?

  21. Eva Braun is not the name that would have sprang to mind had I been asked to guess who was in this picture. Her name causes me to recoil and has spoiled the image for me. The dress is lovely and I would have loved to see it standing. Still it is hard for me to separate a life time of accounts and images of one of the most horrible times in history from this picture now. When I see her name I see Hitlersgirlfriendevabraun I do not see a separate woman and so the picture is spoiled for me.