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Retro

When I was a child, my world was pre-made. It just was. There was no such thing (for me, anyway) as fashion. Automobiles had a certain look to them. My mother’s clothing had a permanence about it—and the way she rolled the tops of her stockings and twisted them into a little knot to keep them up over her knees—that’s what one did, and had always done. She was tall and slim. What I learned was how the world worked, and had always worked and would always work. The house we lived in was made when the world was formed by God out of the primordial Chaos.

I, on the other hand, was always changing and growing. There were conversations about “when I get big” but that eventuality was always, like heaven, something mystical and the stuff of dreams.

This morning I was watching my daughter-in-law practicing calligraphy for a class she is taking, drawing the alphabet along a ruled line using a Speedball pen, trying to maintain a perfect stroke angle and line thickness on each letter, and it reminded me of my early school years, when the alphabet was printed across the top of the blackboard so that we could see what our own clumsy characters were supposed to look like. And of twenty years later when I was introduced to the craft of patent drawing, which required similarly perfect lettering on pristine white Bristol board. It had always been done that way, and to strike out on one’s own, to be “creative” in the manner of drawing or lettering was tantamount to blasphemy or, at least, heresy. But Debra is not trying to do things “the way they were meant to be done,” but to actually be creative. In her professional work she uses a computer every day, writing to people around the world, her messages made up of characters designed by unknown programmers, all precisely the same, all exquisitely functional. Craft is something else, something ethereal, something from another time, to be tasted and enjoyed for its own sake. She takes a class to learn how to experience the satisfaction of personal skill, like an amateur athlete.

My first awareness of the changing nature of things was probably when my great-grandmother died. She had been a fixture in my world—not that I saw her all that much, but still she was something permanent—and then she was gone.

Later, my friends and I played a game, while sitting on the curb in front of our house, watching cars go by. We’d compete with each other trying to be the first to call out the make and model year of each one. I knew, without thinking much about it, that this year’s automobile was different from last year’s and that of the year before, and I could remember when those “old” cars were once new. Permanence was becoming less real and more a figure of speech.

Last week I met a young man, a musician, who worked as a disc jockey for parties and other social affairs. His specialty was music of the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, and he genuinely liked that old music. A generation ago, swing was obsolete and forgotten, a cuneiform art that interested only a dwindling number of codgers like people my age and historians who dwelled in musty archives looking for patterns by which to understand early cultures. Now, it is a profitable career for people whose grandparents jitterbugged to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman before they were old enough to drink.

A few years ago, Chrysler Motor Company introduced a model that reminded us (or those of us who could remember) of the modified cars of the 1930s, old Fords and Chevy’s with rear ends built up for drag racing, which caused the cars to tilt forward. And only a couple of years ago, several manufacturers came out with boxy designs reminiscent of delivery vans even older. The “retro look” had become commercial.

That fashionable borrowing isn’t exactly new, of course. The art deco design fashion of the 1930s has been copied and restored periodically ever since. Women’s skirt lengths go up and down regularly. Red lipstick comes and goes every few years. This morning I noticed that the sheets and pillow cases I had been sleeping on were printed with blue and white stripes, almost exactly the same design as pillow and mattress coverings I remember from my childhood—which were always hidden within plain white pillow slips and sheets (embellished, perhaps, with a bit of embroidery). Now, the stripes cover the plain white.

Design creativity spirals on. Forty years ago I wondered how automobiles—which were, for men at least, the epitome of fashion—could be improved. Given the constraints of having to accommodate some number of human occupants of unchanging form, and of needing to transport those occupants over only slowly changing roadways, it seemed to me that the possible variations in outer shape were becoming fewer and fewer. Still, the exigencies of modern business required the planned obsolescence of current design fashion, in whatever trends might sell more products.

Nostalgia drives a lot of fashion, of course. The clients of that swing disc jockey are likely to be—or at least to include—people who remember the music from the time of World War Two. And nostalgia has less to do with the accoutrements themselves than with the personal, private, emotional memories of those affected.

Some retro fashions, on the other hand, spring from rediscovery. The best art deco not only relates to memories; it also reflects a remarkable style that retains value through decades of lesser fashions. The old masters still move us.

Donald Skiff, October 13, 2006

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