Why We Costume, Part 3: A Dream of The Past

There seems to be a fading of memories, after about thirty years, that turns otherwise horrible decades of fashion into inspiring vintage goodness, causing the fashion industry to launch revivals and thrift stores to become meccas. This is a late 20th and 21st century phenomenon – we look backwards for our trends, and somehow then twist these fashions of the past into completely new ones that define our current mode.

Remember when 1950s style dresses were all the rage (2005-ish)? Remember when bell-bottoms were back in (1998)? How about the 1980s revival that’s splashed all over strip-malls right now? These are our Dreams of The Past.

Simply put, it’s “Romanticism of Fashion,” or “Fashion through Rose-Colored Glasses.” Costumers take this to the extreme. We not only want to wear the clothing, we want to feel what it *might* have felt like to live a day in the life of a woman of the distant past. However, many fabrics that were used in the past are no longer manufactured today, or they have changed considerably. We do not have the same constrained and deformed bodies of women who were made to wear corsets every single day from a young age. We have neither the carriage, the bearing, nor the poise (no offense, ladies!), and our societal infrastructure does not support this type of dress anymore. Despite all our knowledge, learning, experimenting, and portraying, we are simply incapable of fathoming how women in the past lived in these clothes.

So we are left to our dreams. BBC productions of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens novels provide us with a visual smorgasbord to base our dreams upon, while literature, fashion plates, and history fill in the gaps. What we create with these sources is a far more enjoyable experience than the *actual* past. It is an amalgamation of modern convenience and antique style, creating a pleasurable experience to be looked back upon the next day as we lounge in jeans and t-shirts.

Our Dreams of The Past involve things that seems lost to our modern society: chivalry, romance, always being beautifully attired, a grace of behavior we no longer see today, a slower speed to life, and an appreciation of nature, philosophy, poetry, and calmness. We seek to revive these things by dressing in the manner that inspired them. And, indeed, they ARE revived! Gentlemen seem to act much more like gentlemen; romance (or at least harmless flirtation) crackles in the air, and a picnic with friends becomes the best possible use of a Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps our dreaming all together is what keeps us sane in our fast-paced, ruthless, modern world; it allows us to believe that beauty, grace, and good manners are not completely dead, and that there is hope afterall, that doors may still be opened for ladies, that gentlemen will still offer their coats, that men are still men and women are still women.


  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    February 9, 2010 at 3:26 AM

    I feel very old. In the late '70's and early '80's there was a big 1940's revival-straight skirts with kick pleats, waisted jerseya with gather sleeve heads and little pearls smocked into the shoulders, that kind of thing. That seguéd into the '50's thanks to the then huge number of gorgeous New Look inspired dresses available in thrift shops. At this time, 'rags to riches' was a big fashion look, and this opshop raiding influenced fashion as strongly as a skate-boarrder's need to have freedom of movement has influenced our young men to wear their pants on the groun'! Look at Cindy Lauper and Madonna in their full skirts and fitted bodices. So it does amuse me (ok, it makes me feel old!) to read that the 50's revival was in 2005 😉 Not that I disagree at all! 🙂 It just illustrates what you're saying, Duchess, that we constantly reference the past. For myself, I was able to put together a fairly passable 1785 man's court costume from my wardrobe – all I had to add was some lace at the wrist of a shirt (it's still on said shirt) and a jabot. Which is another point – while I also agree about men being men and women being women, when it comes to influences on fashion, male costume of the past shows up just as much in women's modern fashion as women's costume of the past does.

  • Duchess

    February 10, 2010 at 2:58 AM

    Mrs. C, you are completely right! I often hear from my illustratios mother, "it wasn't good the first time, or the second time, and not the third time!" in reference to some revival. I was watching some Cindy Lauper videos the other night and also noticed the big skirts and fitted bodices. I think we just continually go back to shapes that flatter women, usually after a period of designer trying to make women as ugly as possible!

    As far as men's clothing influencing women's I could not agree more. This has been going on forever – look at riding habits in the 17th century, even before then, 16th century women's doublets, when it was considered uncouth for ladies to wear men's garments (which actually covered their decolletage MORE!).

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