{the life} Modern nostalgia

by Rachel on August 28, 2012

Yesterday, I came across this slideshow Rare color photos: Women at work in the 1940s on CBS News. It features photos from the Library of Congress that show women at work, mostly in World War II factories, in full color.

I loved the slideshow, and as I was clicking through the photos, I began to realize how unusual they are. When looking at old photos, it can be hard to see past the black and white tones and the different clothing and relate to the people in them. We typically only see people from the past in full color if they are portrayed actors in movies or TV shows — and, for me anyway, the effect is completely different.

Growing up, I loved anything to do with recreating the past. Along with my deep love for American Girl books and dolls, I also loved the TV show “Homefront,” which ran from 1991-1993. My mom watched every episode (and I’m betting all the VHS tapes of episodes that she recorded off the TV are still in our basement) and I apparently watched many myself. I don’t know how many episodes I saw, but I watched enough episodes to develop a childhood girl crush on the character Ginger, who was a wannabe actress and the “Lemo-Tomato Juice” pinup girl. (I also developed a long-lasting love for Kyle Chandler who was so endearing — and so young and not yet the Coach Taylor we know and love today! — on that show.) My mom actually made me a Lemo-Tomato Juice girl costume to play in. I alternated the 40s pinup look with Samantha Parkington’s frilly pinafores from Victorian America (also sewn by my mom) and Addie’s cowrie shell necklace and braids.

So yeah, I was really into history and nostalgia and dressing up in historical costumes as a kid,when it was easy enough for me to believe that I would have had a great life at any point in history — I would be the pinup girl, the rich girl, or even the slave who made it to freedom. But as an adult with a History minor, I can’t help but think what it would have actually been like for me at all these different points in history.

When I started taking all of my history classes in college, I began to find myself getting really uncomfortable when people glamorize mid-century America (or any era in history). More recently, this happens when people are discussing “Mad Men.” While I love the drama and the characters, and can fully admit the costumes are gorgeous, I stop short when it comes to going to Banana Republic and buying the whole “Mad Men”-inspired line, or having a “Mad Men” wedding. Because as much as I’d like to focus on what I’d look like wearing Joan’s awesome dresses, I’m distracted by thoughts of What would that time period really have been like for me? I definitely wouldn’t have the job I have now; if I worked outside the home, I’d be waiting on other people. I wouldn’t be marrying Eric. I wouldn’t necessarily be in good health. I wouldn’t have the choices I have today (however threatened they may feel right now). And I probably wouldn’t have that awesome of clothes.

Liking the way things looked in the past and wanting to live that life are, of course, very different things, and I don’t think it’s a big deal to like a certain aesthetic just because you like it. Still, I’m surprised by how many people blur that line and how easily “I love Betty’s dress!” slides into “Being a housewife looks awesome…it was just such a simpler time!” Yeah, maybe it was a simpler time for some, but…I don’t know. I like my iPhone. And my Civil Rights.

For me, these color photos of women from World War II make it easier to see how women in the 1940s were both like us but also had lives incredibly unlike ours, something that — no matter how good the costume department is — is really hard to do when watching a TV show.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 looloolooweez August 28, 2012 at 11:10 am

I think that when most people feel “nostalgic” for mid-century America (insofar as it is possible to feel nostalgia for something which one has never experienced/don’t remember) it is really a longing for what we think of as… I don’t know, wholesomeness. Victory gardens, affordable suburbia, figure-flattering fashions, slower news cycles, and cute little variety shows are contrasted with supersized fries, ridiculous HOAs, imported clothes in questionable styles, social media gone crazy, and reality TV. But it is all too easy to forget the *good* changes that time has brought us, too. Admiring vintage fashions and cars and homes is all well and good, so long as we can remember that the aesthetic is generally lovelier than the actual past in many ways.


2 Sarah August 28, 2012 at 11:50 am

“I like my iphone. And my civil rights.” Spot on, love it.
We, as a society, didn’t get to the place where we are by accident. We built it, and we did it for a reason (especially for women and POC!).
I know everyone in the world loves Mad Men, but I have had a lot of trouble trying to watch it. I feel like in order to enjoy it, I would need to feel farther removed from the adorable vintage sexism. It seems to me that people think this way even if they don’t talk this way as much, and it just makes me mad.


3 Dallas August 28, 2012 at 11:55 am


Downton Abbey drives me nuts with this, too.

“Oh, I want to be Lady Mary!”

Okay, but let’s be real. Unless you’re the modern day rich girl Mary, you wouldn’t have been Lady Mary then. You’d have been a scullery maid.


4 Mary August 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm

About a year ago, I was walking with a group of friends and one of them asked what time period we would live in if we could choose any one. People blurted out various eras and while I was very tempted to say maybe, the 50’s or the 20’s (solely for the ‘romance’ of those decades), I concluded that there was no time and place I’d rather be than here and now. My friend was pretty frustrated at my answer, but I wouldn’t move on it. She wanted us to make a decision based on the few things that seemed cool about the era, but I couldn’t let things like equality go (not to say that we live in a world of equality….but at least it’s not as bad as, say, the 20s).

I remember feeling semi-bad about it but really being unwilling to budge.

I mean, like, I remember really wanting to have travelled the Oregon Trail when I was a kid, and even as a grown woman there’s something alluring about the mystery and adventure of it all. But let’s be serious, I probably would have drowned while crossing a tumultuous creek. I’ll just take the computer game, thanks.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.


5 Rachel August 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm

This SAME thing happened to me at the HLS a couple weeks ago actually; one of our ice breaker questions was “If you could live in any time period in history, which would you choose?” It’s a seemingly-innocuous question and most people had no problem answering it, but I just…couldn’t, because thoughts like these came to mind. I didn’t make a big deal out if it (because it was an icebreaker after all); I just said, “Jeez, I don’t know!” and we moved on. But…yeah.

Also, the Oregon Trail came to mind as I was writing this, but I actually felt like they made the trail look tragic and awful enough that I never wanted to live in that time period. I loved playing but…cholera? Dysentary? No thank you!


6 Emily Susan August 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm

“If you could live in any time period in history, which would you choose?”

I am getting a PhD in history and people are constantly asking me this.exact.question. When I say that I will always prefer the modern era, they are skeptical, but I say that in the millions of years of human existence, computer, modern medicine, air conditioning, and most of all the indoor bathroom are better than anything, fashion, home decor, or “glory” of the past.


7 Erin August 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm

“Yeah, maybe it was a simpler time for some, but…I don’t know. I like my iPhone. And my Civil Rights.”

This is dead on!

I think people confuse simpler with slower. With less technology to deal with, things moved slower, but I don’t think it made anything simpler, especially for women and people of color.


8 Quiana August 28, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I used to adore American Girls Collection (or Pleasant Company, as I knew it!) but felt conflicted too as there wasn’t yet Addie for me to have when I was a girl – I chose Samantha instead. I love history as well and coming from an advertising background do like watching Mad Men, but have heard your sentiment expressed by others of color when I share with them how much I like the show. While there was definitely hardship for people of color being brown had it’s own privileges and the sense of community and togetherness I hear from the elders in my family is definitely something I’m envious of. And about fashion – my family wasn’t rich by any means but they really knew how to dress. Although they weren’t Mad Men types, I like looking back at old family photos. The women made many of their own clothes and knew how to look good – the men too! I feel pride when I look back at the old pictures of my family and feel blessed to come from such a strong heritage.


9 Rain August 28, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I agree with the comments here….you know every era has it’s romantic aspects…even the present day does….but you have to take the good with the bad.
Beautiful pictures of hard working ladies, thanks for sharing.


10 Kiki August 28, 2012 at 5:06 pm

Funny enough, I’ve always thought of this whenever a history teacher had us write a paper on this, or used it as some kind of writing prompt. What I find interesting is that boys don’t think twice about the question, because for them, it really bears no difference, their responsibilities and rights were different, but not lessened (specifically white males – durr). There’s nothing like looking at the past to appreciate the present. Even though I am appalled by the bizarre political attitude towards women’s rights at this moment and will not stop resisting it, it puts in perspective my reality. My reality as a woman in the United States is pretty awesome.


11 Chelsea A. August 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm

I think about this topic a lot actually. I was obsessed with Little Women. My little sister and I would dress up in old school looking dress-up clothes and play “Olden Days”. While I love the idea of the hollywood version of what my life would have been like in the 20’s or even the 50’s, the fact is that without rights, choices, pants, tampons, and my own career I would have been absolutely miserable.

PS, Dallas: “Unless you’re the modern day rich girl Mary, you wouldn’t have been Lady Mary then. You’d have been a scullery maid.” LOVE. Think there’s a war on the classes now? 100 years ago it was a million times worse. At least now we have the ability to move up in class and don’t have to live our entire lives as the farmer’s daughter…


12 Lori August 29, 2012 at 10:45 am

Huh! Never really gave it much thought. I was always obsessed with ancient Greece and the Middle Ages in Europe, but mostly in the romantic way you mentioned. I don’t think I’d actually want to live in that time period for the social stuff, just the lifestyle I guess… Huh. Good topic to chew on.


13 julie August 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

I LOVED the show Homefront! I wish I could get it somewhere and watch it again


14 Jenn August 30, 2012 at 11:16 am

Thanks for sharing the link! I also feel put-off when people glamorize the past, always assuming they’d be part of the 1%, as opposed to starving on the streets, or at least working really hard for subsistence. Yeah, it’s fun to imagine the lives of people as shown on Mad Men, but…seriously! You can’t confuse it with how your life would have been back then.


15 April September 18, 2012 at 12:13 am

Just wanted to chime in and say that I loved “Homefront” too, and that the show was also the catalyst for my Kyle Chandler love.


16 Susie Ostrowski October 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I’m the bride from the Mad Men wedding post you linked to. I’m sorry if our wedding made you feel at all unpleasant — we certainly weren’t saying the 1960s were a perfect time or better time to live in. We simply like retro styling and Mad Men is a show we love to watch as a couple. Our original venue was mid-century modern and it looked like it was straight out of a Mad Men set, which is actually what inspired the theme. That’s really all that went into it. I would *never* have wanted to live in the 1960s and I wouldn’t want the lives of any of the characters on that show. I believe you can like the design and aesthetic of the clothing, furniture, etc. of a time period without endorsing everything that happened in that era.


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