Using the Past for Present Gain

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Jeff’s recent post, and some fruitful conversation during its development, rekindled an old flame. Yes, I am interested in the cultural associations that objects retain. In their life span objects become vehicles for a society’s value system, and are useful tools in uncovering bits and pieces about the past. Can I pick apart heritage based products and uncover our value system? No, at least not very effectively. For now, I want to explore the topic in a slightly different manner – by contextualizing how today’s heritage based products fit into a larger history of looking back. How does heritage sooth, or attempt to malign fear in a fast paced world? What is the yang to the ying of “remember that syndrome?”* These questions and an extended anecdote drive the following:

Several weeks after 9-11, I was in a professor’s office wondering if the event would mark an extended period of retrenchment in American culture. The burgeoning trend for retro jerseys was on the mind, being as they relayed an interest in even the most minor memory. Beyond being fashionable, I was consumed by the notion that privileging some (relatively) obscure sporting hero might actual mean something.

Why was I thinking about that? I had been battling with a senior thesis (titled “Revisiting the Past: Stereotyped Advertising and the Harlem Renaissance”) framed around two advertisements by the Green River Whiskey company. One was from the 1870s, the other the 1930s. Same image, same story. During the 60 year span between an ink blotter and a tavern lithograph, the Green River Company had undergone enormous change. For one, it moved from Kentucky to Newark, New Jersey. More importantly, it had survived prohibition. In reviving an image of the antebellum south, the liquor company wasn’t doing anything totally unique, but it was attempting to remind consumers of a long standing history. And, in exploiting stereotypes, they were expressing an explicit longevity.

In contrast to the stereotypes common in American marketing, artists of the so-called Harlem renaissance were refiguring their own heritage for social uplift. In particular, the influence of ancestrialism on the painter and printer Aaron Douglas proved a valuable counter point to the Green River advertisements. Utilizing a monochrome palate and the flat figures of ancient Egypt, Douglas’ vision of African American life drew inspiration from an undeniably affirmative past.

There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with memory, or more aptly the manipulation of memory in the name of preservation or as a method for soothing fears. The colonial revival rose alongside modernism. Precisionist painters, like Charles Sheller and Charles Demouth, transposed American vernacular architecture to a modern idiom. The most cutting edge buildings, think the Wrigley and Tribune towers in Chicago, were cloaked in historical style. Each of these examples allays fears in face of a rapidly changing technological landscape. Most aptly, the notion of the “usable past” that arose in the 1920s fits cleanly in our current debate.

So where does that leave streetwear? Sure, the cataclysmic event that was the crashing of the twin towers spawned my questioning, but I would be better suited in wondering how the full integration of the internet forces some degree of retrenchment. For a community so versed in exploiting new technology and modes of communication, is it not comforting to know that the goods it peddles are easily recognizable? Funnily enough, while streetwear denizens are enamored with modernism in its multiple forms, what actually happens is somewhat closer in spirit to the colonial revival. To be blunt, rather than take influence and inspiration to create something new, streetwear exploits the new (technology) to sell an idealized version of old. And really, until we come to terms with what all this newness means, there is nothing wrong with that.

*I am indebted to Rob Heppler for this phrase (“remember that syndrome”).

As an aside, Thomas Hine, author of Populuxe (1988) believes that the interest in nostalgia driven product began in the 1970s. Since this argument is pushed forward in his upcoming book relating the period immediately following the dates (1950-1964) he discussed in Populuxe, I will stick to my guns until I get a chance to read through his notions. But, there was a rather interesting blurb about the popularity of the 1950s aesthetic in Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer that mentioned Hine, so I figured as it relates, I would add a note.


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