Monday, 18 March 2013

Dieselpunk Manifesto: Art Deco, Bond and the Cool Curve pt 3.

Depression era aspirations – the beginning of a habit.

One of the most enduring images of Depression era film is the rise of the musical, a somewhat bizarre cultural artifact trend for such a horrendous time if you only take it on face value. Musicals, in general, are considered a celebration of life. That’s what they do – take life and give it song and dance, no matter how mundane the topic actually is. So why were they so popular in the years of the Great Depression?

The easy answer is escapism and the ability to teleport into another world for a few hours. Moviegoers, through the lens of the musical, could experience the decadence and splendor of a lifestyle none in the crowd could actually attain, all for the price of admission. There they could sing and dance and indulge themselves, projecting their ideas of the high life and what it would be like up onto the silver screen. The creators of these films therefore became accomplices in shaping what it was that people aspired to.
There were many culprits responsible for the glamour-in-the-midst-of-hardship escapism of the film musical during the 1930s but perhaps the most culpable was a bloke by the name of Fred Astaire. One of the most enduring images of the era, not to mention Art Deco itself, is this bloke gliding around on the screen in top hat and coat tails, an image that was burnt into the consciousness of movie goers in the 1935 smash hit Top Hat. It wasn’t the first time Astaire would inhabit that famous persona, and certainly not the last, but the film established Astaire and his dance partner Ginger Rogers as top billing performers and created an archetype that still resonates with movie lovers today. He would glide around the screen effortlessly, she would appear to be having a ball wearing those stylish gowns, and together they not only saved RKO with some of the biggest box office hits of the decade but also helped define the era, the genre and set the bar for elegance and style.

All this deep in the Depression.

My argument in this series of posts is that the Astaire/Rogers films and others of a similar ilk created in the minds of cinema goers an idea of ‘living the high life’ that took on an aspirational life of its own. In a world where people were starting to reach for and adopt Art Deco style for themselves, it was brutishly ripped from their grasp by the stock market collapse, leaving a longing that turned into an oft sought Art Deco wonderland in the minds of cinema viewers everywhere. A world of fancy suits, ritzy places to hang out in exotic locations, glamorous women of a sparkly dress-wearing persuasion, all set to an Art Deco design palette. The sort of world the upper crust apparently existed in. And it was a set of ideas that spent the better part of two decades simmering and seeping into the collective cinema vocabulary.

But with the easing of the Depression and the rebuilding of the middle class in the late 1930s (neither projects being completed before the outbreak of World War 2) the early adopter cycle restarted with a vengeance. The march of Art Deco continued but now people weren’t content to simply add decoration to their Modernism. Technology had continued to develop in that lost half decade of consumer stasis and the most Modern thing you could do now was streamline things, a natural progression of the ever-present ‘speed lines’ of Art Deco. This streamlining craze thus marked the ‘late phase’ of the descent of Modernism from the elitist pursuit of academics just as the rise of the middle class was changing the face of consumerism for the next fifty years. Passing via the rich and fashionable young decodents, Modernism had morphed down to the upper middle class via an aspirational technology-based consumption that then reached its final stage with people streamlining everything they possibly could, including toasters, radios and other middle class objects adopted by an enthusiastic new middle class after the War.
The humble radio: an object that (technically speaking) does not require an aerodynamic profile.
 By the 1940s Art Deco was finally starting to reach middle adopters, now that it had been synthesised down into something palatable for wholesale mass consumption, but it is was also in the 1940s that Art Deco would cease to be a force in design.

By the late 1940s America and the rest of the world had changed. What had started as a gradual process of the rising middle-class became a veritable stampede with the post-War boom in America and the new popular culture it began to produce. Cultural products were no longer being produced from the top down. In a remarkable historic shift, culture was now being set by the middle class and a previously invisible cadre of leisure-lifestyle beings, the ‘teenager’. Where the upper classes previously dictated fashion, now the middle class with their casual wear and popular music were setting the cultural zeitgeist. It was new world, the affects of which cannot be understated.
Paris had little influence on the fashion choices of these gents.
 So the Diesel era was a transitional period which marked a remarkable shift in power from the upper class taste that dictated the cultural vanguard at the start of the century, only to lose their cultural authority to the middle class who from the 1940s took on the mantle of trend setters for the rest of the nation and the world. By the 1950s music no longer came from the music hall, now it came from young guitar-wielding fiends ceaselessly playing a four beat bar. Fashion innovation was no longer solely from Milan or Paris, now it was funny boy band haircuts from England or bell bottom jeans from America. Academic disciplines were now dominated by enthusiastic middle class kids pouring into these once exclusive institutions, bringing with them ideas that originated in their own lifestyle and class. Now everyone had an automobile and no one went to the opera because they could stay home and watch Gunsmoke or The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Soaking in some culture.
 But ideas don’t die, they just get reused. Although the mantle of cultural authority shifted to the middle class in the 1950s it didn’t kill off the ideas formed in the 1930s. In fact, in a world dominated by casual wear and popular music, the past with its upwardly-focussed aspirations could be quite appealing for those who were not completely sold on the idea of rock music or t-shirts worn without a shirt. Some people preferred ‘Easy Listening’ music and a well dressed man with class. In a world beset by all sorts of problems, both at home and abroad, some people were looking for a different sort of hero, one that not only embodied the old-school values that rejected all this crass nonsense that immature, ignorant people were indulging in at the time but a hero who would focus on the real dangers facing society, namely those pesky Soviets. What they wanted... was someone who drank dirty Martinis, not someone who smoked pot.
Hard to believe, but many people in the 60s didn't think people like this ^ were taking the 'Soviet problem' seriously enough.
 Did the people get what they want? Did someone step up to save the nation from both the Russians and a descent into casual wear hell? Stay tuned next post as our hero is revealed... and it might not be who you think it is...

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