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VINTAGE ALL OVER AGAIN / Call it kitsch. . . or call it vintage style, but beneath the retro craze lies a yearning for the comforting imagery of a bygone day

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

public.

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

player.

"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

styles."

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

store."

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'

circa-1950s furniture.

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

it."

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

Hampton.

"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."

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