[Written by Kate Moody (she/her)]
The past is in vogue: vinyl sales have grown in the last 12 years, flares are in after a long hiatus, and there is now an alarming number of people sporting mullets. This might strike us as odd because it seems unique to our time.
For the 60 years prior to 2010, it’s been possible to define an aesthetic composed of styles and technologies that are characteristic of, and unique to a particular decade. The 70s feel like a legitimate fancy-dress theme, but when we try to define an aesthetic unique to the 2010s, it gets much harder. A quick scroll through Pinterest suggests a confused bungle of Macbooks, smartphones, 70s record players, 60s make up, and 80s music.
We try to explain this by saying that all of these aforementioned things are good and worthy of liking; there’s a sense of ritual in using vinyl, flares are flattering, photographs taken by a film camera have a warm tone. This explanation might be convincing, striking many of us as true – a photo taken using film is both softer and avoids the horrific detail of a photo taken on an iPhone. But I don’t think this gives us the whole story, because it doesn’t explain why we want all of these bygone things now. It doesn’t explain why my Mum chucked out all of her records in favour of CDs, and why I lament the loss of those records. It doesn’t explain why these items went so completely out of fashion, only for 20-somethings to decide that they are worth having decades later.
We could say this enthusiasm for past styles and technologies is just a trend like any other – someone did it, we thought it looked good, that they’re pretty cool – so we all did it too. It’s hard to define this trend in relation to a particular group, aesthetic, or vibe; our interest isn’t confined to the style of one decade or item. In fact, we’re indiscriminate about what styles and technologies we adopt and the time in which we garner them. The only criteria for their popularity seem to be that they originate in a time recent enough to be relatable, and that they’re not from now. That’s what’s crucial here.
What seems characteristic of our generation is that our future feels uncertain. Of course, there have been other times in recent memory when this was the case, the Cold War being an obvious example. But what’s unique about now is that it often feels like there’s no one who’s really in control, we can’t just lobby one person, one group or country. Rather, there’s a sense that we’re hurtling towards something. We’re struggling to get a grip and that’s because, in some respect, we’re all to blame.
When talking about VE day, Princess Margaret described going out into the streets and joining the crowds of people celebrating. She characterised it as a great sea of people, everyone permitted to go whichever way the amorphous blob dictated. This seems analogous to life now. Technology is proliferating at a rate faster than ethics can keep up with, the climate is on the verge of irreparable damage and it can sometimes feel as though we’re powerless to do anything but go along with it. We go to the shops and forget our bags for life, we buy that cheap top ‘just this once’, and when the notice pops up that our data is being collected, we click ‘accept’ and move on. Even if we don’t do these things, we know that the rest of the amorphous blob probably does, and so we’re pushed along with it.
I am not trying to say that the future is unsalvageable – this would be defeatist. But I do think it often feels both uncertain and out of our control. Maybe this explains the sudden zeal for all things retro; when the present feels so tumultuous, it can be comforting to take refuge in the past.
What can be comforting about the past is that it’s static, it has happened, and we can’t change it. It gives us something to hold on to. Of course things were far from perfect, and if I could live in a time, it would be now. But at least with the past we know what we’re getting, and there aren’t going to be any nasty surprises. What’s more, controlling the past is easy, as it can be imagined in a very real sense. So we can dress up as if we’re living in the 70s, document our nights out in the style of the 90s, and take comfort in adopting facets of the past without worrying about how things really were.
I don’t think that our future is any sense beyond repair, but I do think that it often feels uncertain and out of our control. And when it does, it’s reassuring to surround ourselves with objects from another time. It’s reassuring to take refuge in something solid, from which we can extract all those good bits.