Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Vintage Ethic: Mad Men and the Mid-Century Consumer Craze

Here's a copy of a paper I just presented in Sydney at the 'On Mad Men' conference at Sydney University. While it seems only tangentially related to this project at present I'm keen to work many of these ideas about vintage to a larger project examining the reuse of vintage books, in particular. So, for that reason I'm posting it here. Also, lots of people like Mad Men, right? Forigve the absence of footnotes or full citations, should anyone be really that interested I'm only too happy to oblige, but for now, you just get my working copy...

Something old, something new: “Mixing period and style gives you the best of all possible worlds and lets you create an individual look,” says Mark Conway, whose quirky collection of vintage and enamelled wares are available in his shop in Paddington, Sydney. “A key antique piece can set a tone of quality and craftsmanship. New things add life and sparkle. The blending comes naturally when well-designed and charming objects from any period compete for attention.” In contrast to the contemporary streamlined and all white look, a vintage-style bathroom holds tremendous nostalgic appeal. It’s an easy style, allowing for idiosyncratic touches and pieces of sentimental value.

Vogue Living, Aug/Sept 2002

Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Would I complete myself without the things I like around?

Animal Collective, “Taste”

This paper is my attempt to work through a couple of interests of mine that have been conceptually linked in my head for a little while now: those being Mad Men and vintage shopping. It’s been especially pressing on my mind in the last few weeks because I’ve just moved into a new apartment and have had lots of time to reflect on the strange significance of objects in our lives while I stood unwrapping yet another ceramic bowl or glass vase or kitschy animal portrait. In between this, I’ve also been reading a book of essays about the hipster culture of the 21st century, and this too has also had an influence on my thinking about the ideas I’m putting out here today. But, I flag this just to give you a sense of where I’m coming from – let’s see where we end up…

In the past 12 months, I’ve noticed that Mad Men, while being the latest example of ‘zeitgeist TV’, was regarded differently to other popular cable shows like The Wire and The Sopranos. “Ohmigod Ilovethatshow!” someone would say, when I mentioned Mad Men, and then they’d tell me all about a favourite dress worn by Joanie, or the triptych of cats that sits off to the left of the lounge in Trudi and Pete Campbell’s apartment. They weren’t the only ones, on fan sites and comment threads viewers left little love notes to these tiny details:

“I get totally absorbed by the blonde furniture, the wardrobes, hair styles, thick plastic-lensed glasses, and make-up”

“what also makes the show brilliant is the art direction, even the sound. Those typewriters, those cigarette lighters, the clicking of the heels”

“that’s one of the pleasures of the show – the tiny details that are just so perfect”

Mad Men solicits you to watch harder, like a striptease. And like a striptease, when it’s over you’re left wanting more; not just more of the story, but more of the stuff. And AMC know it: on the Men Men website you can find a ‘fashion file’, a cocktail guide and an entire page with instructions on how to ‘Madmen yourself’. If that’s not enough, you might want to buy Man Men-themed nail polish, or a Banana Republic Don Draper suit Now, correct me if you have evidence to the contrary, but I’ve never chatted to anyone who expressed a deep desire to kit themselves out in Carmella Soprano’s leisure wear or ‘Wire-ise themselves’…

It’s the drive to reanimate the 60s, to bring Mad Men into our homes and our lives, that interests me. Certainly it explains part of my appreciation for the show. I ‘like to watch’ it in the same way that, when I was 10, I loved old TV reruns from the 60s – Bewitched, in particular. –Appropriate, given it’s also concerned with the life of an ad man.

I loved those reruns for their colour saturation, their lounge settings, their lawns and their lamps and myriad details of the 60s mise en scene. This material world was as much ‘the show’ to me as the dramas that took place over the course of their 23 minutes. And, in many respects, Mad Men is no different. It isn’t, for example, just that Don Draper has bryll-creamed hair and that this makes his character seem ‘authentic’ and ‘old-timey.’ It’s that his bryll-creamed hair looks shiny and grooved, like old 45s. Which is to say, his hair doesn’t connote ‘authentic period drama’ alone, it also connotes ‘period object’ in all its glossy glory. It’s often said that Mad Men’s sets and props are the show’s real actors, but I also think the reverse is equally true: its actors are like objects – dolls on film. I’m influenced in my thinking here by the work of academics like Pam Cooke, Sue Hopkins and Stella Bruzzi, who’ve given excellent readings of costumes and props in melodramas, noting how they offer an alternative narrative to the main action. As Bruzzi says, “when costumes are looked at rather than through, the element conventionally prioritised is their eroticism.” Hence, my description of Mad Men as a striptease. It asks us to ‘look at’ not just through.

It interests me that it’s this feature which has come in for the most criticism in Mad Men. Writing for the London Review of Books, Mark Greif (who also happens to be the editor of that collection on hipsters I mentioned) objects to the show’s over-investment in its sets, suggesting that “the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks, and geometric ceiling tiles” are shiny decoys distracting us from the plot’s inadequacies. At the excellent online Slate TV Club for Mad Men the critics are similarly worried that despite the pleasures the show affords, it’s more like a glossy advertisement than a real period drama. It doesn’t so much make you feel, as it makes you feel like going shopping.

Given the show’s global popularity you can find the raw material to ‘Mad Men yourself’ quite easily at the local mall, but the real pleasure – as the show demonstrates – is to be found in the collection and curatorship of originals… And that means circumventing the mall in favour of urban boutiques and furniture stores, outer suburban op shops and trash n treasure stores, and of course, online sites like eBay and Etsy. It means going vintage shopping.

The rise of Mad Men occurs in tandem with the mainstreaming of vintage shopping as a new middle-class lifestyle habit. And, as Ann Deslandes, writing for New Matilda early this year, noted, Mad Men is “the exemplary current pop culture platform for the vintage aesthetic.” More recently, Lorin Clarke, in an article in the November Big Issue, asked,

“Sure the clothes, the coffee tables and the cigarette holders [in Mad Men] are gorgeous details, but what makes them penetrate the part of your brain that drives you to visit op shops?”

Over the last ten years vintage consumption has been appropriated into middle-class culture in a way that was unimaginable perhaps even twenty years ago when second-hand goods were still largely tainted by ideas about poverty and life on the fringes. There is now even an entire magazine devoted to the vintage aesthetic and vintage cultureFrankie (which, incidentally, is the only Australian magazine to boast growing circulation figures in spite of the current publishing crisis). “Vintaging” can now be said to be akin to “antiquing” as a cultural habit; and I think it’s time for a discussion regarding the meaning of this cultural practice. ‘Vintage’ confers status on old and also on its many youthful practitioners. Because of its associations with the charity shop, second-hand retail, recycling, and preservation, vintage is all too easily linked in popular discourse with other words of the moment like ‘fair,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘local,’ ‘creative,’ ‘hip,’ and ‘honest’.

Thus, vintage is celebrated as demonstration of a ludic attitude towards consumerism and as a stand ‘against’ the evils of globalisation, and the destruction of the environment, and ‘for’ good ideas like fair labour and feminism. If it were possible, vintage goods would come with the label ‘organic’. This is what I’m calling the ‘Vintage Ethic’: a position that allows an individual to substantively distance oneself from the problematic aspects of consumerism in favour of a stance that appears ethical, or at least, less ethically compromised. I think, however, that a greater interrogation of this discourse is warranted. One need only look at the disapprobation that surrounds the figure of the Hipster (who is popular culture’s current apolitical poseur par excellence but also one of the most exacting and rigorous vintage practitioners) to see that vintage is not ipso facto a politically engaged habit. It is, however, all about habitus. By seizing on overlooked aspects of an older culture (things like music, fashion, design, furniture, cuisine, and pastimes) and re-introducing them in the present, vintage consumers participate in a global conversation about themselves, and their relationship to other kinds of consumer practices, both present and past.

Most obviously, vintage consumption takes the anxiety and liberal guilt normally associated with consumerism and replaces it with discourses of pleasure, creativity and self-congratulation. But, this doesn’t always accord with reality… Vintage culture involves a set of increasingly standardised styles and trends and an ever proliferating, globalised ‘upcycling economy.’ The best example of which, that I know of, involves buying vintage clothes cheaply overseas and having them tailored and customised in Vietnam and Thailand to bring to market in major cosmopolitan centres). Far from the naively benevolent images of vintage life you see in Frankie magazine this practice seems to me to be positively neo-liberal. Despite the cheerful, harmlessly self-approving ethos involved in the vintage ‘recycle, revamp, repurpose’ aesthetic it’s useful to ask oneself what else is being ‘bought’ when you buy someone else’s stuff. In that same New Matilda article, Deslandes notes,

“That we in 2010 have acquired a passion for things that in another context or time marked the curtailing of women’s lives, the treatment of economic hardship as moral deficiency and the cheerful endorsement of non-white people’s inferiority bears thinking carefully about as we wander craft markets and vintage frock shops.”

Returning to Mad Men, what strikes me is that aspects of the critique of vintage shopping accord with critiques of Mad Men and its reliance on a species of self-congratulating nostalgia to win audiences. Greif calls it “now we know better” storytelling. It’s the fictional place where all those smoking mothers, closeted homosexuals, hard-drinking drivers, black lift-operators, Jewish merchants and frustrated housewives live. It’s Mad Men. But, is there another way to address these criticisms? Is there more to Mad Men? Is there more to “vintaging,” than just an exercise in back-patting reassurance of liberal ethical standards with little engagement with the political past or present?

Nostalgia is, by definition, premised on the experience of a past to which one hopes to return. We hear, for example, Don Draper give this definition when he pitches to Kodak in the final episode of season one. But, it is possible, I’d suggest, to get access to the past not through experience but via representations of that past. That is what gives vintage stuff its appeal. And it’s what Mad Men is all about. During that pitch Don shows his audience (and us) a ‘past’ made up from representations (family photos) of life in the Draper home. That New Year’s Eve looks happier than any moment I’ve ever seen Don and Betty ever share in the ‘real life’ of the show…

Mad Men’s audiences don’t revisit the 60s but are given representations of it. Memories are just another kind of mantelpiece, a mental one; where we put out what we like to see. And it’s here that that quote from Animal Collective seems especially appropriate:

“Am I really all the things that are outside of me? Would I complete myself without the things I like around?”

All the items that sell prodigiously at vintage stores: old magazines, photos, books, clothes, and furniture expose the textuality of the past, its construction from bits and pieces, history as bric-a-brac.

I want to turn now, very briefly, to an essay by Martin Hipsky called “Anglophil(M)ia: Why Does America Watch Merchant-Ivory Movies?“ which examines the popularity of British costume dramas of the 80s and 90s and which, I think, helpfully articulates the practice of consuming representations of the past. Hipsky describes the appeal of Merchant-Ivory in terms of their “circumambience” – this is not an escape from the present into a nostalgic past but an access point into a self-created space of ‘affordable luxury’ particular to the present moment. Merchant-Ivory films are signifiers of elite, but easily accessible cultural capital; what he calls “a specifically middle class habitus.” Hipsky defines this audience with pinpoint specificity: those with a liberal arts education. Twenty years on from Hipsky, and the once fashionable Merchant-Ivory films,I’d propose that a similar thing is happening with Mad Men. Says Hipsky,

“[these texts] appeal to people who want their increasingly expensive college educations to pay some cultural dividends. It is no accident that the films exert this… at a time when the traditional ends of an expensive college education – guaranteed upward mobility or the reproduction of one’s comfortable class privilege are fading out of the American Dream like a lingering after-image of the mid-twentieth century.”

Today “the lingering after-image of the mid-twentieth century” is the very object of our analytical affection and the cohort of individuals that possess a liberal arts education and a deep knowledge of taste regimes is ever larger. Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner, endorses this expertise and obsession himself, advising audiences,

“When I spend three seconds showing you a prop, that is for your delight. I am not telling you that the Relaxacizor is going to be used to murder someone. I am telling you, ‘Look at this strange underwear that she’s going to put on!”

Look at it, he advises, not through it.

Set as it is in the world of advertising, Mad Men makes a case for consumption as a meaningful, if ambiguous, act. Despite discussion of Don Draper’s archetypal mid-century ennui, he is in many respects a man of this moment: a compromised ‘creative’ in the capitalist society. Second to stealing another man’s identity on the battlefield, there is probably nothing worse than a liberal arts education to make you sense your own twinned poverty and privilege. It makes one hyperconsciously aware of the opportunities available because of social and cultural status and yet, equally despairing, because access to this capital demands capitulation to the system. What else can you do in this situation but pay attention to ladies’ underwear?

I wonder whether the critical resistance to the significance of d├ęcor in Mad Men is part of our own self-hating impulse with regard to our investment in consumer practices. We’re veteran consumers, but hate ourselves for it. There is, as Peter Brooks notes in his essay on melodrama, “a drama of morality” attached to objects. We trade them for emotions, for freedom from guilt, for self-esteem, for a sense of identity. Weiner knows this and uses this tension to create the moral landscape of his show.

To finish, I just want to offer one very quick example. Episode 3 in season 3 sees Betty Draper make a big decision that seems intended as a larger message to the how’s critics. The antique fainting couch that catches Betty’s eye looks like frustrated female sexuality in couch form. It also seems to be Weiner’s way of saying that far from being superficial, his props matter.

Discussing the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Thomas Elsaesser notes how the objects in Sirk’s films “become more real than the human relations or emotions they were intended to symbolize.” The objects offer emotional articulations inaccessible to the characters themselves but available to audiences. And so it is with Betty… That enormous pink monstrosity is the elephant in the newly re-decorated living room. Here is an example of the mix-n-match ‘vintage ethic’ advocated by Vogue Living gone horribly wrong: “A key antique piece” they say, “can set a tone of quality and craftsmanship” but in the Draper house it seems pretty clear nothing “comes naturally.”

“We discussed this for months and we decided antiques were ‘expected,’” says the decorator. Betty’s error, according to the expert, is that she’s made a conformist choice. Yet, this couch is obviously a rebellion. By the time we see it again in season 4 it has better blended into Betty’s surrounds and her new life with Henry. So, in the end, what Betty wants, Betty gets. But, the ‘morality’ of that couch, the possibility of her ‘bad judgement,’ will always hover over it.

I think it’s a mistake to see Mad Men as some large exercise in empty Jamesonian nostalgia. It seems to me that, despite criticisms like Greif’s, Mad Men attempts to make objects, sets, and (particularly with regard to race) colours ‘speak’ the morality and ethics of past and present for characters and the culture. This is a more nuanced and subtle ‘visual elocution’ than the sometimes shrill “now we know better”-isms that Greif identifies. The problem is that, when it comes to the economy that Mad Men inspires –– the world of modern vintage consumption practices –– it is not enough for objects to speak while their owners stay silent. Our own lives may be like melodramas, our histories like our living rooms, but we don’t have an audience. I see our modern vintage shoppers, so cosily celebrated in magazines like Frankie, or Vogue Living, like Betty Draper: acting on impulse and enamoured to an aesthetic which contains unresolvable ambiguities. The question then is always left hanging: A good buy? Or just bad taste?

1 comment:

  1. Caroline, your article voices exactly what I have been wrestling with lately: that rampant vintage consumerism is very different to other fashion trends; and the nostalgic aesthetic present in Frankie and now even Sportsgirl is deeply significant.

    I'd love to know of anything else you come to write on this subject.