A New Introduction
Okay, I admit it! I made what my dad would call " a right royal cock-up" with this post! But I'm leaving it up, as it's good to look at your mistakes every now and then, and the discussion in the comments section is worth five minutes of anyone's time. So what was my mistake? Well, I tried to write a post on morality whilst simultaneously ignoring my faith, but my morality is my faith and my faith is my morality. I'm a Christian woman to the very core, so the post ended up as an ill thought through mish-mash, simply because I didn't want to mention the dreaded "wifely submission". So here's the thing, here are my conclusions (many of which dear old Mrs Sarah Blythe prodded out of me). First, we look to the past for an idea of moral "goodness"; self-control, duty, service, honesty, gentleness, simplicity, modesty; we imagine that people in the past held these ideals, as surely as they wrote about them, as surely as they made films about them. However, these are Christian concepts (some of them are indeed the fruits of the spirit) and Western society is built (in a flawed and sinful manner) on the idea of Christian justice and Christian morality. And, in my country at least, there were far more professing Christian writers, filmmakers and journalists in the past than there are now. Also, the "vintage" media were making films for a groups of people who were essentially church go-ers, whether they believed or not, so the norm at the time was one of Christian moral values. Now, the point of this is not to get all angry and rant about secular media, because I'd be a hypocrite if I did. My essential point is that when I look to the vintage media I love so much I am recognising eternal Christian values. These values aren't "vintage" they are simultaneously the ancient past and the far distant future. They are eternal, they are Christian. Now, these good ladies in the programme, are recognising some of the "goodness" in these eternal truths, but aren't women of faith, so they frame their morality (and sometimes it's bit higgledy-piggledy, nods to Mrs Pea) entirely as something which belongs to the past. But it doesn't, it belongs to now, right now, and in the future and forever. Praise be to God on high.
Time Warp Wives is a UK documentary which followed the days of three different women, who had built their lives around their enthusiasm for the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s... their love of vintage far surpassing the buying of the odd flowery pinny and liking swing music: these girls lived and breathed their chosen era. Many of the women admitted to not buying newspapers or watching the television, simply because the media reflection of modern life was depressing and distasteful. Their enthusiasm was also shared by their husbands, whom they met at vintage events, and by their friends, with whom they primarily socialised. If you follow the link you will see that these girls do vintage very, very well. I'm a vintage enthusiast and I can see that the detail they have in their homes is excellent, their clothing is spot on and their make-up is just right.
However, what is most interesting about the piece is not perhaps the spiffy 1950s kitchen or the elegant New Look outfits, but the way the women justify their choices. Not one of them have said "I do this becuase I like the "look" of my era and this is the only reason" not one of them said "this is just an extension of a lifestyle I had as a teenager when I loved swing music", they all justified their, frankly, rather unusual choices by declaring (like Blur) that modern life is rubbish! Moreover, the reasons they gave for being a living reenactment of the early twentieth century were moral rather than cultural/subcultural. Here's what 1950s enthusiast, Debbie, says about the modernity:
"I admit I am in retreat from the 21st century. When I look at the reality of the world today, with all the violence, greed and materialism, I shudder. I don't want to live in that world."
Here's what another Debbie (this time a 1940s girl) has to say about modern fashion:
"When I see a girl walking down the street wearing next to nothing, I think: 'Why don't you have more respect for yourself?' "
"I really believe that women today have lost their way, with bingedrinking ladettes and children as young as 11 going out in tiny tops."
Again, she claims that an "old-fashioned" marriage is a happy marriage:
"I think I have a far happier marriage than many other people I meet, because we have strict demarcations in our roles. I do all the cleaning, ironing, washing and cooking, and Martin puts up shelves and looks after the car. He's the breadwinner and I create a lovely - and loving - environment for him. I met Martin when I was 17 - we lived in the same village - and he has been my only serious boyfriend. It's so much more romantic only ever to have been in love with one man. My obsession with the 1940s really began through Martin, as he was already going to Forties events when we met. "
And, 1930 enthusiast, Diane, also has a few choice words to say about marriage:
"Men and women knew their roles in society and there wasn't all this pressure on women to have to go out to work and try to be equal to men. I do work part-time, but only because we need the money. However, we still have clearly defined roles in the home and I am the one who does most of the cooking and cleaning. "
Again, one of the women (Diane) talks about femininity:
"The pace of life today is so hectic and I think there is so much pressure on women to be like men. It is all wrong."
So, these girls abhor materialism (you'll notice that they're married to men in working-class jobs, yet manage to survive on one income, or on one and half incomes); they're concerned about modesty in dress; they believe that a traditional marriage, with a strong demarcation of roles within the marriage on gender lines, is one which work best; they feel that life is too pressurized and they worry that women feel obliged to behave more like men. These are moral reasons for adopting a counter-cultural stance against the prevailing moral climate, the nice dresses are, if not a smokescreen, simply the icing on the cake. That is to say the vintage "look" is the creamy dessert and the moral choice is the meat and potatoes of their lifestyle.
Now, I have a question for all of my blog-chums. How many of you love Mrs Minniver, or Helen Herriot (from All Creatures Great and Small), or the Andy Hardy movies from the 1930s, or Meet Me in St Louis? Do we love this vintage because it is so very pretty, or do we love it because it offers an alternative moral universe? If I were honest with you I'd say that I am enthralled by the "goodness" of the vintage universe: strong happy families; sit down suppers; adults acting like adults; moral lessons to be learned: and it all sounds really po-faced of me and a trifle airy-fairy. However, my pleasure in "vintage morality" is no longer a vicarious Sunday tea-time treat, but a life-lesson, a how-to instructional DVD, because let's face it, the media has an all-pervasive learning tool, and how am I going to learn to be a good wife and mother by watching Desperate Housewives? Will I learn anti-materialism from Tony Soprano? I love Mrs Minniver more for her gentleness, than for her chintzy, forties, summer dress and I love Helen Herriot more for her womanly practicality than her lovely country kitchen. I can look at the past, in books, in films and on the television and learn from it, learn about relationships and marriage and motherhood from the past, because as a wife and mother these are the things which are of utmost importance to me now.
But am I a time-warp wife? Well, I have deliberately chosen a moral position which is more akin to the 1938 than 2008, and I am a wife. So I suppose I am a time-warp wife without the trappings of vintage phone and red lipstick. However, I know enough about social history to realise that few periods of time should be idealised as moral halcyon days and I am inclined to get a little angry we the "it was oh so lovely then and I'll have no argument about it brigade"...my grandfather told wonderfully, hair-raising stories about what it was like to live in a mining town in the 1930s and my granny, God bless her, had a hard, hard, life, largely due to the poor moral choices of other people.
We modern women have far more opportunities and freedoms than our grandmothers ever dreamed of and I am idealistic enough to foresee a better time, when we have the comforts and freedoms of the modern age, but have learned that moral relativism spells cultural decline. We can take from the past what is good, and be thankful for the progress that our current age beholds. We don't have to be a time-warp wives to thoughtfully declare a moral alternative, we can be thoroughly of the present and reject materialism, embrace motherhood, enjoy wife-hood. We don't have to be like Mrs Minniver to be gentle, strong and good, we can be plain old Mrs Domum and be all of these things, because modern life doesn't have to be rubbish, modern life can be as good as we make it.
EDIT: Here's the Brocante Home post about the same show. I think her points about it were valid; that the play-acting part is somehow disrespectful to women who are doing it for real, that there is something fundamentally unhealthy with not wanting to engage in the culture into which you were born, that it was more about life-style than about morals (as the 1950s woman's attitude towards children shows us). However, I still maintain that the women used the morality of their chosen eras to justify their counter cultural choices, and this in itself is interesting.