The Art of Vintage Manliness: Introduction
Dear readers, this is the introduction to a new series of articles I’m writing, possibly for future publication (who knows) but mainly just for myself. I’ve toyed with this introduction a lot, and will continue to do so. It’s a bit long and overambitious for what is essentially a project to do a bunch of things people in the 1930s and earlier did. Anyways, as I continue to tweak it, your comments are welcome.
To some extent, most of us confront the brash and blunt aspects of modern life by retreating to the comfort of a nostalgia. The past–whether our own personal childhood past, or the world’s past–implies a time when things were simpler, better for you, and in general had a lot less commercial advertising. In this sense, the past can seem “real,” like the idea of an old-timey farmer working the land, your grandmother’s recipe for fried chicken, or the comradery of a group of soldiers fighting in a just war. However, it isn’t “real,” at least any more real than the modern time. The past, just like the present, was simply a time when humans were humans and did human things for human reasons.
Its also important to remember, though, that the modern times are not necessarily better than anytime before it, they are simply different. If one looks at all the facts, then one doesn’t necessarily see an overall upward progress. Sure, we are at the height of history’s technical and medical achievement, but just ask an environmentalist if we are better than we were a hundred years ago, or ask a homosexual if we are more tolerant than they were in Ancient Greece, Rome, or the Aztec empire. On top of it all, recent research has lead some to argue that because of the grand aspect of everything in today’s world, people were actually much happier in times when they didn’t have so many choices, or so much technical capabilities to make great demands on their attention.
What is great about living in the modern times is that we have the entire past to inspire us. What is bad about the modern times is we don’t. Occasionally, though, someone suddenly has the new idea of looking back into our past, and sadly it’s usually a only marketing person that wants to capitalize on the people’s love for nostalgia. Good things can come of this, like when popular culture is reintroduced to Lindy Hop by a Gap Ad, or thick wool sweaters suddenly come back into fashion. The problem, however, comes when people look back simply for the sake of looking back, or for ironic reasons, and taste is nowhere in sight; that’s when we get the rebirth of the worst 1980s fashions, which people recently don’t seem to know if they’re wearing for a joke or not.
However, outside of marketing, when was the last time we saw a true retreat to the past for the reason that it might actually serve an important purpose? For instance, when was the last time someone sent you a long, hand-written letter, not because email doesn’t have it’s incredibly useful uses, but because a hand-written letter is an intimate way to correspond with someone, and requires care and attention on both the writer and the receiver, and a chunk of time that represents how much effort someone is putting into that relationship? I’m not suggesting hand-written letters should be the norm. But I am saying, they do serve a new purpose today, and hold even more power in that purpose because it is so rare to see one these days. Also, one’s own handwriting is a part of oneself that few people see these days. In a sense, a hand-written letter can make both a sender and a receiver happy in a small way they aren’t these days. So, now we have certain aspects of the past being even more powerful than they were at the time.
Or, most importantly to me, why aren’t men today the way they apparently were in the past two hundred years? (Particularly middle-class and upper-class men, for the sake of this discussion.) Take a founding father, for example. Throw a brick at a crowd of them, and you’ll more likely than not hit a man who not only studied law and philosophy, but also knew his way around a farm and a podium, a politician that wrote their own speeches and slammed their fists on lecterns. Benjamin Franklin somehow had time to have countless illegitimate children across the world while still discovering electricity and freeing nations and writing almanacs and being witty at parties. Or, take the ideal Victorian gentleman, Jane Austin’s Mr. Darcy. The social expectation for such a person was that he be well-read, polite, charming, a great boss to all those in his employ, a man who stands up for what he believes, a man who endures hardships with bravery, and an athlete. Then there is Fred Astaire, of course. Astaire worked very hard to be an incredible dancer, actor, singer, gentleman, family man, and well-dressed man, and succeeded in all of them.
The Strange Limbo of Modern Manliness
I believe that these men, to some extent, full-filled their culture’s definition of what a good and great man should be. However, I can’t think of a modern definition of a man. Manliness, in our time, is a schizophrenic idea. At some point, the modern man became the brunt of a joke, and, at first, he probably deserved it. Just watch a cleaning commercial–dopey husband has no idea how to clean the house or look after the children and it’s a wonder he can wear shoes with laces; luckily, his smart, with-it modern wife knows just what product will get the job done. (And isn’t it darkly ironic that these women-empowering commercials are almost all concerned with selling women cleaning supplies?) (Also, could you imagine a commercial where the roles were reversed? Picture it in your head, it’s unbelievably sexist.)
Then came a point where a large portion of modern man seemed to say “Okay, if you think all we do is act stupid and care more about football more than our kids and drink beer and sit on the couch half the night, then YOU GOT IT.” Almost out of spite, it seems, modern man accepted the image of himself that would make The Man Show on Comedy Central a big hit.
The backlash to this image is that of the late 90s and early 2000s metrosexual, which, at its best, offered a sensitive man a chance to take pride in how cultured he was and how well he dressed, and, at its worst, produced a lot of snobbish modern fops who took masculinity to mean base and insensitive. (Which was part of the definition society was giving them.) Today, we are coming back to a neutral point, I think, and for me personally, at least, it’s a great time to to try to ignore what the world thinks I should be, and decide my own definition of masculinity.
We, however, don’t have a lot of modern men to look up to. Early America had the founding fathers to look up to, but today, even many of our favorite politicians are still recognized as being part of “The Man” and don’t have enough of our trust to be looked up to. Victorian England had the standards of “the gentleman,” but the middle-class and upper-class equivalents today are only expected to do their jobs and feed their families like everyone else. The Depression had the every man Fred Astaire, as well as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, etc, but today Hollywood stars are seen in a different light, perhaps a more realistic light (the same with our politicians), since their private lives are now an open book, and they don’t really inspire us to imitate them in any way but fashion.
Today, we seem to only look down to people. For instance, there’s a large amount of “Ha! What’s this idiot with millions of dollars going to do?” when we look at the outside world. Flavor-Flave, the Hiltons, and tons of other “reality” television shows are geared at showing off what happens when millions of dollars are spent on an idiot. Some would argue the entire Hipster subculture is based on looking down on almost everything. A good man is truly hard to find, especially in any books or films put out these days. And I think it’s not unconnected that, overall, there’s very few times I’ve heard people talk about people they really admire, and why they admire them.
I’d like to mention that I’m not saying we should necessarily have a definition of manliness to dictate us. (Perhaps it would be healthier for people to not try to define themselves by a social definition.) But I am saying the one we’re being subjected to is not, as far as I can see, a positive one to have. Therefore I have decided to explore the options of the past. It also might be good to mention that I have chosen some definitions of masculinity that I personally admire, or think will make my life better. There are many past definitions of masculinity that were upheld at a certain time, and might be upheld again, such as the Spartan idea of masculinity, where the only worth of a man was as a soldier, or the viking idea of masculinity, where my skill in raping and pillaging would be paramount.
Over the next year, I will explore various “arts of vintage manliness” and see what daily life was like for a man in the golden age of manliness, the 1700s to the 1940s, especially the 1920s-1940s, since that time was perhaps the zenith in men’s fashion, and, more importantly, since Depression and World War II made a lot of what probably passed for “real men.” I won’t be able to see how a stock market crash would effect my lifestyle, but it’s alright as I’m pretty broke as it is. Though I will explore some grand themes like the second world war, and chivalry, I’ll also explore a lot of the small things, like shaving, hair cuts, and creating an overall personal sense of style, something that truly is an art of vintage manliness.
You are probably now thinking that me trying out vintage ways of shaving won’t do much to make me a vintage man, and you’re thoughts are just. It is through such small experiments that I hope to explore the greater ideas behind the vintage man, or, failing that, gaining a better understanding about why we have replaced these small things in modern life. As a person interested in the past, this project is on the surface simply a way for me to write about doing a bunch of old things. However, as far as nostalgia goes, it’ll be interesting to see which of these things still has a place in the modern world for me, and isn’t simply an old-timey thing to do for the sake of being old-timey (which I am certainly guilty of). And, as far as the vintage idea of manliness, it will be an opportunity to attempt to touch such an ideal through the general parts of their daily lives.
I’ll start at the men already mentioned above, and add my grandfathers, one a farmer, one an architect, both Depression survivors and World War II veterans. They will be my personal guides, for they, unlike the founding fathers and Mr. Darcy and Fred Astaire, were regular men, but vintage men nonetheless.