Mar 21, 2011

What Women Shouldn’t Want

The Age fashion section recently ran a feature declaring that our love of Mad Men-inspired fashion is on the way out. (We’re now heading back to the 1920s for our inspiration, apparently).

I think I am glad. Like everyone, I love the styling in Mad Men. But also, I am fed up with 50s and 60s retro nostalgia. We quite possibly need a break.

Pastel tin laundry peg baskets? Floral aprons? Giant $800 cake mixers? Over it. Over it all.

We need to remember what these things actually represent. Not some rosy, fake warm view of the past but the reality of what that past was like, especially (but not only) for women.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Mad Men, but you’re supposed to watch it and remember how crappy things used to be, not sigh over beautiful clothes and martinis at lunchtime. Or, at least do both.

Remember the flip side, sisters:


Retro style: Fantasy Vs. Reality

Husband = Don Draper
Husband = Don Draper
or more likely:
Husband = one of the way lesser guys with all their crap and crap salary too (You have no salary, remember)

Gorgeous clothes
Pantyhose. Every day.

People are slim without exercising
Cigarettes, alcoholism, diets

Whiskey in the office
You’re a woman. You’re not IN the office.

No crazy career pressure for women. You can stay home and manage your house and kids.
Crazy pressure to find husband early, and pick a good one. You pick wrong, you ruin your life.

Social norms – everyone knows the rules.
There were A LOT of rules.
Dinner party hostessing anyone?


The present is better than the past, in almost every way. And I’m going to skip over the serious stuff here (financial independence, access to birth control, equal opportunity at work, equitable divorce) and just look at clothing and style.

When I was a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s my mum, who was slim, stylish and clever (and always starving herself on diets) taught us tips and tricks on dressing and looking our best. Not in a bad way, just as useful asides in our everyday life.

And there were definitely rules to learn.

Every season, skirts were of a “type” (A-line, gathered with a yoke, straight, or wrap-around), and a specific length – above the knee, below the knee, calf, ankle. (Unfortunately the most flattering length, on the knee, completely skipped the 80’s and most of the 90’s). Every season my mum would adjust all our skirt hems up or down to the correct current length. If a skirt could not be altered to the correct length, you just couldn’t wear it. You’d look odd.

Make no mistake; this was not just my mum. This is how it was.

I still remember how refreshing, interesting, and faintly shocking it was, when my mum told me about a friend’s grown daughter: “Michelle doesn’t worry about length for daytime anymore.” Wow! Revolutionary! Could it be? Could that work?! We tried it – we never looked back.

And remember that? Daytime clothes and night-time clothes? Night was dressier. You had a day bag (just one!) and an evening bag (just one!). Daytime perfume and night-time perfume (daytime was likely a cologne; night-time was the full ‘spicy’ or ‘oriental’ eau du parfum).

And all this was just in the 80’s! For the 50’s and 60’s you can magnify that by ten.

So yes, the past was stylish. It was stylish because it was ruled by rules – norms that were, to current tastes, stifling, and admitted little variation.

It’s like visiting some European cities – I admire that people are gorgeous, stylish and well-dressed. But after a while I grumble that they all look the same. There’s much less individual style, experimentation or whimsy. No crazy dyed hair, kooky ensembles or ugly shoes. Those things may grate sometimes, but I find I miss them when they’re not around.

So take “inspiration” from Mad Men – and other sources – all you like. But don’t discount the wonderful things available right here in the present: freedom, individuality, self-expression, and the ability to wear track pants for the dash to the corner shop.

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