Sarah "Dixie" Feldman likes to think she lives in the
apartment of a film noir heroine from Key West, Fla., 1946, although she
suspects it looks a little like "a Vietnamese bordello from the 1930s." Her
Manhattan studio is crammed with objets from the 1920s through the 1960s, from
the faux leopard upholstered ice cream parlor chairs to the '50s beauty parlor
chair and hair dryer on a stand. Friends say "it looks like my brain threw up."
Feldman, 40, the editorial director of Nickelodeon's Noggin Network, has
been obsessed with the 1930s and '40s since adolescence, when she found her
soulmates in the strong and saucy heroines of old black and white movies.
"There's something exciting and celebrational about the past," she says. "It's
a whole package for me: My home looks like that, I look like that."
Neal Blangiardo looks like that. Blangiardo, 32, is a swing dancing fanatic
with 75 vintage suits from the 1940s in his South Hempstead closets, a vintage
BMW motorcycle in his garage and the fondest of memories of his grandfather,
who once dressed to the nines to go out dancing when America was most itself.
"I would kill to go back in time. It feels warm, it feels safe," he says. "It
just feels good."
In a digital age pulsating with microcircuits, anxious with the dread of
looming war, at the tail end of America's most powerful, innovative and
optimistic century, that feeling is one apparently shared by a vast consuming
Retro style is enjoying yet another 15 minutes on the pop culture
whirligig, with designs from the Jazz Age through the Reagan years showing up
everywhere from Tiki bars to car showrooms.
Old Navy commercials and television programs such as "That '70s Show"
celebrate - and parody - icons of bygone days. There are vintage gowns on movie
stars and vintage T-shirts on hip youths. Cocktail shakers and reproduction
Bakelite radios are going 'round again. Desk phones, mid-century furniture,
retro wall calendars, toys, comic books, toasters, kitchen mixers. Restoration
Hardware's bestselling holiday gift item is a 1950s-styled portable record
"Retro is everywhere," says Leslie Rosenberg, who three years ago
co-founded Atomic Magazine with Jeff Griffith (wearer of $3,000 custom zoot
suits and spats) to cover retro culture "from the 1920s to the early 1960s,
from Prohibition to Camelot." It now boasts a circulation of 50,000 among
"young urban professional hipster types," she says.
There's a certain kitschy, tongue-in-cheek appeal to the retro look, she
says, but its popularity goes beyond that: "I think people need a sense of
balance. You can balance the excitement and novelty of modern innovations with
the comfort and aesthetic appeal of what was revolutionary 50 or 60 years ago."
Of course, past styles recycle through the culture periodically: In the
1970s, the '50s enjoyed a fashionable moment with the success of the musical
"Grease," the TV show "Happy Days," the movie "American Graffiti," and the
rockabilly music fad. Dior's full-skirted New Look after World War II looked
back at 19th century ballgowns, and the theme of the 1939's World Fair
(harbinger of much innovative design) was "colonial revival."
But today's sampling - which cuts a swath from the '20s to the '80s,
transmuting with each fashion season - is like a high-speed strip-mining of the
past for fresh imagery to sell.
"The last couple of decades has proven we are not necessarily evolving to
the better always, which has given us great license to look backward as well as
forward," says Barbara Bloemink, exhibitions director for the Cooper-Hewitt,
National Design Museum, who agreed that retro is in the air right now.
"Everything is cyclical, but the cycles just seem to be getting much faster.
All of the past is an available vocabulary to borrow."
In past centuries, she added, fashions were far slower to change, and rules
of proper dress and behavior far stricter. "Now the world is far more
democratic and individualized, and individuals are picking and choosing from
the vocabularies of the past, present and future ... to create individual
Today's recycling differs from past revivals in its apparent lack of
philosophical content, says Cooper-Hewitt curator Donald Albrecht. "I don't
think [fashion designer] Marc Jacobs is saying we should go back to the values
of the '50s" in his '50s-flavored spring collection, he says. "It's a style."
And it's one that has caught on with teens and 20- and 30- somethings, who
see in the vintage clothing they find at secondhand stores and thrift shops an
individuality they can't find at the corner Gap. Karl Aberg, director of
menswear for Marc Jacobs, says that at least half his own wardrobe is vintage.
"It makes a more personal statement if it's not hanging in every mass-market
Yes, it's style, but there's also an emotional resonance in these designs
of the nation's collective past, whether it's a swing-era fedora or a Howdy
Doody doll. Bloemink says there's an especially great comfort and nostalgia in
trying to re-create the past during times of stress and anxiety, even if it's
"a past that never existed.... It's our memories of what the past should have
been or childhood memories that were positive."
That certainly holds true for Asher Siegal, 41, a technical director at a
medical conferencing firm who dresses in vintage clothes from the 1950s "24/7."
He was first drawn to the era as a child, admiring his grandparents'
His midtown apartment is '50s style, from the chalkware harlequin dancers
on the wall to the Philco television and chairs with vintage fabric in the
living room. He eats on '50s dishes on a formica and chrome table in a kitchen
painted pink and chartreuse.
"It's a little over-the-top, but it's livable," says Siegal, who is active
in the New York swing dance scene and contributes to a retro Web site
www.tommywhitetie.com under the handle c1950sboy. "It's something I really
enjoy. It's creating an environment for yourself that is not like the one
you're surrounded with outside all the time."
Feldman, 40, formerly of the Oxygen Network, explained she was drawn into
retro as an unhappy preteen in 1970s Florida who felt far more at home in the
world of classic films.
"I became smitten - some might say besotted or obsessed with - the black
and white shows I saw on television," she says.
As a teenager, she made money collecting and selling movie memorabilia,
lived and breathed the "zeitgeist" of the 1930s, and dressed in nightgowns cut
on the bias, paired with cowboy boots. Instead of the Eagles, she loved Billie
Holiday. Kids threw rocks at her. She thought she looked cute and built her
Clara Bow collection.
"I don't think I romanticize the past, but there are things about it that I
find charming and enchanting and amusing," she says. "I think life can always
use more charm and whimsy and wit."
That said, she notes she also listens to Nirvana and Eminem through her
computer, and some days wears modern clothes. "People assume I wouldn't have a
computer or CD player, but, no, I like the present, I like the Internet, I like
a lot of things. You don't want to get stuck in the past; you want to play in
Bonnie Maslin, a 55-year-old psychologist, has been collecting objects from
the '50s for 30 years, but her interest doesn't extend to the era's movies,
clothes or dance. It's a collection, not a lifestyle, she says, but it's one
that fills the weekend home she and her husband, Yehuda Nir, own in East
"I probably have the largest extant collection of lazy Susans," she
laughed. She genuinely admires the inventiveness of the things they collect,
the 10 different appliances used to make eggs, each in a different way; the
optimism and democratization of taste of post-war America.
"We're intellectually fascinated with post-war America, how the technology
was going to make everything better, how even the average person would have a
house full of pretty things."
Sarah Liston, 28, opened a vintage clothing store called Tallulah Vintage
last year after leaving her job in the press office at the Manhattan district
attorney's office. The women who step down into her shop at the corner of East
88th Street and Second Avenue include some who may not have thought about
buying vintage clothes before, from "ladies who owned it the first time around
to women who would usually go to a Banana Republic and pick up the latest black
dress. I've even had designers come in and sketch vintage designs."
She herself is "all vintage, all the time," from her outfits to the movies
she watches to the '50s jazz she plays at her store. For her, vintage isn't
kitsch, it's classy - the finished seams, the bound buttonholes. "People are
realizing it's really spectacular. Instead of 'The Brady Bunch,' they're
thinking Grace Kelly."
For her and her husband, David, and fellow retro fans, the big day each
year is the Easter Parade.
"It's huge," she says. "Usually right after it ends, you start thinking
about your hat for next year."