Off the Cuff: July 2010

I’ve been accused of harping on the past, and complaining that things were better a long time ago, when all men wore hats and women sported white gloves and children had manners (adults too, for that matter). It now seems that I’m not alone.

Everywhere I look there is broad anxiety and fear — and rampant anger — over where we are headed as a country. It’s not so much that we’ve gone through a horrendous time; it’s that we have no faith that our institutions, especially our government, are capable of pulling us out of our malaise and into a brighter future.

When we feel so much stress, we look for comfort and security in old ways. A few weeks ago, the New York Times noted how fashion is harking back: “Brands are combing their archives in the hope that old clothing styles with a classic feel will assuage consumer anxiety. … ” Certainly, Philadelphia could use a jolt of comfort, not to mention a helping hand from the world of style and fashion.

Clothing brands have found that dipping into their archives is smart business. Eddie Bauer jackets that World War II pilots and mountaineers sported in the ’50s are being reintroduced; a ruffled halter bikini that Jantzen made, pinup-style, in the ’40s is showing up on beaches. A global market researcher explained to the Times why old styles comfort us: “It’s when people are discontent with the present that they really start appreciating or having a nostalgia for the past.”

Given all the gloom and doom, I’d like to dip into the summer with some sense of hope. For Philadelphia, given our obsession with looking as informal as possible no matter whether we’re digging in the garden or headed to the Academy of Music, the retro fashion possibilities are rich. For example, Keds is introducing shoe designs from each decade of the 20th century. A sneaker from the 1920s, with black and white details, could pass for a dress shoe. Presto! Philadelphians still get to dress like slobs and look like they’re not.
Really, though, we do need a dose of optimism wherever we can find it. We’ve reached a point where our economic problems aren’t a matter of mere numbers, but of faith, which is getting harder and harder to muster. For every Obama administration claim that we’re climbing out of it, we get news like this: In May, retail sales fell off, after months of doing better.

The Times noted that we’re reaching back with other products besides clothing. Lucky Charms and Cheerios are being sold in vintage boxes by General Mills. Pepsi and Mountain Dew are sporting limited-edition retro labels.

Our funk must be pretty deep when sneakers and old soda labels are front and center as harbingers of hope. Though I do understand why, when it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in everything that’s wrong.  

Barack Obama’s failed leadership. Unemployment off the charts. Businesses afraid to spend or project into the future. The deficit growing out of sight. Health care a mess. And, as I gaze out at the Atlantic Ocean, which I can glimpse from my home in Margate, I can see the specter of oil in the water.

Yet as Eddie Bauer’s chief executive told the Times: “People want to believe in things that are American and want to be part of things that have longevity.”

Maybe what we need more than ever is a break. We need to sit on the beach and try out the new bathing suits and remember not just the way things were, but that we will return to better times. Can we? No one knows. What we all feel, more than anything, is the inevitability of change. And maybe it’s not such a bad idea that part of change means reaching back to the way we once were.