Saturday, 21 August 2010

Why don't black people do vintage?

A provocative title, no? But it's inspired by this article in the Guardian, titled: "Why don't black people camp?" Having just read it, and looked at a whole bunch of images from the Vintage at Goodwood festival (in which there were very few black and Asian people), the two together got me wondering about the current mainstream tide of nostalgia for all things '40s, '50s and early '60s and how black and Asian individuals might relate to it.

In no way am I trying to suggest that "vintage" is racist. I really enjoy looking at retro-blogs, particularly the ones that are very faithful to the periods they choose. But the reason I enjoy them is that they allow me to indulge in a form of visual escapism, into another, simpler, more beautiful world. I'm particularly struck by some US vintage lifestyle blogs, where women not only embrace the aesthetics of the 1950s in terms of fashion and interior decor, but also the "domestic goddess" code of conduct too, in terms of baking, cleanliness, housewifery and motherhood. Some people really think they want to live in the 1950s.

Which is fine if that makes them happy. But all the while it makes me just think back to one of my favourite films of all time, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven. This sublimely beautiful piece of cinema recreates in breathtaking precision the atmosphere and visual qualities of Douglas Sirk's sentimental films of the 1950s. However, it does this with a contemporary critical eye focused upon race, gender and sexuality. Whilst the film, set, costumes and music are all lush and beautiful, we see 1950s American society as stiflingly conservative, homophobic, sexist and racist. It's not a place you'd want to escape to, but out of. (Pleasantville, Hairspray and Mad Men of course, also explore this tension).

It's hard for me, therefore, as a woman, from an ethnic minority, to fully embrace the nostalgia for the 1950s in an all-encompassing way. I love elements of it: the dresses, the jazz, the flicked eyeliner. But something about filling my house with Coronation memorabilia and flocking to conventions just jars. It's not a heritage I can fully embrace without the awareness of how different life would've been for someone like me in Britain back then (actually, I would hardly even know what it would have been like then, if not for Rozina Vizram's pioneering book Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History).

I wonder just how many black and Asian young people are faithfully recreating Victory Rolls and subscribing to The Chap. Perhaps it is in part due to the vintage movement's close links to the indie scene. But it might also be that racism and chauvinism sometimes get in the way of nostalgia. They're party-poopers like that.

So, to end, let me present some images of the same period - but of an alternative visual nostalgia:


  1. I loved this post - really interesting and made me think. I love elements of the vintage style, but I couldn't imagine wanting to live my life in any generation other than this one, even as a caucasian woman.

  2. What a fascinating and thought provoking post. I make no secret of my fascination with all things vintage but I often stop and think about similar issues, particularly in relation to women's rights. I mean, I have chosen to stay at home with my children and I do aspire to the whole 1950s housewife 'domestic goddess' thing but I'm also very aware of the fact that I've been able to go to university and that I'll (hopefully) get a decent job one day and be treated with a degree of respect women of the past might not have been afforded.

    I love the images you posted too, especialy the 3rd one, what a stunning woman!


  3. Funny, I've never thought about the past that way before. I completely see where you are coming from. I love old indian movies, thanks for putting up the photos and posters! x

  4. What a brilliant post, i've never even thought about it before but you are right in what you're saying x

  5. I am going to agree with Em that I've never event thought about it before and how right you are!! gem of a post!! I am a big Sharmila fan..she looks so impish in that pic..

  6. This is a very thought provoking post and I only came across it NOW.

    When my father and his parents came to England, they came with their own style, a style at home in Africa but totally out of place in England so if I were to look back on photos of that time, they still wouldn't be authentic "English" vintage.

    I suppose it is hard to fully involve yourself with the vintage scene when your ancestors themselves were always outsiders looking in.

  7. And how apt, I read an article on the BBC website today entitled "Why can't black people swim?" or something similar. It was the story about some black children in America who drowned because they were unable to swim.

    The writer of the article researched the topic and found that a lot of children didn't swim because their parents didn't swim..their parents didn't swim due to segretation.