You know I like old movies, movies from 1925 to 1980. Not to say I don’t watch newer ones.
I have a few problems as a result. I’m whacked over the head constantly with decades-old views of how men and women should behave. I get old habits, old styles of cars and dancing and singing. Lots of smoking and a sea of fedoras and Panama hats at the ball game. Some of this I love — I love songs from the 1930s and ‘40s, for one thing.
But I don’t see clues that would be obvious to people seeing these movies the year they were made. In 1946, Katharine Hepburn starred as a dorky spinster in “Undercurrent.” She dresses the way she dresses, and those of us watching now see nothing wrong with her clothes — no, she doesn’t dress like we do, but we don’t expect her to. However, it turns out she feels out of place because women look down their noses at her nothing clothes. But to me, they look great. But what do I know, now, in the 21st century?
Or: In “My Favorite Wife,” from 1940, Cary Grant’s missing wife is declared dead after seven years, and he gets married again. The moment he does, his first wife shows up — she was in a shipwreck, see. And she races after the newly married couple to stop them from consummating the marriage. In a dress seven years (eek!) out of fashion.
Watching this movie today, we don’t know this — she looks clean and decent and in this dress, not torn jeans and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, for pete’s sake. But as she waits for the couple to appear, she sees a woman staring at her hem. They exchange glances. Wife goes to the restroom and returns with her skirt five inches shorter. And we get it. Because — of course — hems will be worn shorter this year.
You don’t need me to tell you that things have changed. Although nobody I know would consider wearing poodle skirts, and I haven’t seen saddle shoes off the golf course in a long time, it seems I can just shut my eyes and reach into my closet and wear anything I want. Long skirt, short skirt, tie-dye, leggings, pedal pushers, tight top, loose top, whatever. Wander into Marilyn’s or Sun River Clothing and you see an impressive variety of styles.
This of course makes things very easy, but it also seems very strange. Because we know it hasn’t always been this way.
Look at pictures of your great-grandmother and her friends. What are they — 60-ish? And they look like old women, in those black, old-women’s shoes, with their saggy dresses and their hair all styled the same.
Look at pictures of businessmen from 60 years ago. Look at what a college student was supposed to look like in those old movies. Pretty much, if something was the style, people dressed in that style. And — in my memory — they paid close attention to what was stylish for that year. You were made to feel out of place if you dressed otherwise.
Remember (if you’re of a certain age) Jackie Kennedy’s suits? And Coco Chanel and Edith Head? And endless discussions of the maxi, the midi and the mini? And how much it mattered, or seemed to?
But now you dress however you want, and you have tattoos or not, piercings or not, and you wear your hair up or down, multicolored or not, long or short, braids or ponytail. Shave your head? OK. I see bright shirts with varying hems and tight black T-shirts and scarves and jeans (both torn and un-torn) and khakis and running shoes and hi-tops and sandals and teetering 4-inch heels and long dresses and short shorts — and on and on.
It’s a great relief. We can do what we want, and that’s all there is to it.
Of course, I’m of a certain age — nobody cares what I wear. Yes, when I speak to a group, or attend an event (depending on the event), I dress more formally than usual.
But what’s reasonable attire? And what attracts undue attention and what doesn’t? What’s conservative these days? What’s radical? What’s sexy? I know what I think is sexy, but I’m probably all by myself here. But, see, it doesn’t matter, does it?
And I wonder: What about movies 50 years in the future? What if someone like me wants to talk about them and focus on the styles and what they say about the person? Will classic movie lovers be in the same fix I am now — and just miss the clues?
Probably not. Nope, I predict it won’t be the clothing, cars, hair, shoes, skin decoration or piercings that future viewers should pay attention to. Instead, what do you want to bet style will be defined by the size of a person’s tech equipment? The smaller it is the more stylish you are?
Or maybe it’ll be the opposite. If you’re dragging your tech equipment around in a wagon, THAT will mean you’re the cat’s pajamas. Or swell, or woke, or dope, or whatever.
To quote the magnificent Cole Porter: “In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. But now, God knows, anything goes.”
Susan Rushton’s opinion column appears regularly in the Auburn Journal. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.