Friday, January 27, 2012

The '50s weren't always nifty

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — Were the ’50s really nifty?
It seems like every generation adopts its own pet retro era. It shows up in enthusiasms for period fashions, food, movies and books.
My parents had romantic notions about flappers and the 1920s.
When we weren’t reveling in our own hippie/flowerchild/psychedelic fun, we Baby Boomers seemed fascinated with strange (to us) stuff from the ’30s and ’40s: Bonnie & Clyde, World War II literature, Polynesian things, shoulder pads and Frank Sinatra (Mia Farrow era).
The last couple of years, the 1950s seem to be enjoying a vigorous reincarnation. A lot of Katy Perry’s looks seem to be wacky takes on ’50s pinup queens, with a few nods to Madonna, who purloined a few ’50s trends herself.
We’ve seen fedoras for a few years now, for both men and women, and worn them with the suave cockiness of Frank Sinatra (in his original wife Nancy and Ava Gardner eras).
“Mad Men,” which purports to be the 1960s, is more like what I remember about the 1950s: guys in gray flannel suits, three martini lunches, chain-smoking, unrepentant sexism, women in gloves and veiled little hats. The illusion that advertising was an art form, a fulfilling and noble creative battlefield and even a great service to mankind.
If you doubt me, kids and scholars, check out Sloan Wilson’s 1956 novel, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” or the 1956 movie of the same name starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones.
It wouldn’t be a bad starting place if you’d like to get a clearer look at what was not so nifty about the ’50s. At least, it’ll give you a little more realistic look if your ’50s world view is based on nostalgic homages like “Happy Days” or reruns of period TV series like “Ozzie & Harriet,” “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show.”
Our moms really didn’t vacuum in heels, immaculate shirtwaist dresses and pearls. But I do remember my grandmother debating with my mom about whether a lady could go to town — even a quick run to the grocery store — without gloves, and a tailored little dress or skirt and blouse.
And skirts were required for women (no exceptions) at nice restaurants into the ’60s. Pedal pushers (later referred to as capri pants) were the sportswear of choice, and I was convinced that there was no woman on the planet who really looked nice in them, with the possible exception of Audrey Hepburn.
I spent my tot to pre-teen years in the ’50s and I never owned a poodle skirt and can’t recall seeing any of my friends in them. I do remember making a circle skirt, minus the poodle, in elementary school home ec, where our teacher admonished us to refer to our garments of choice not as “tight skirts” but as “straight” skirts.
Even what we now consider the fun stuff was a source of controversy. Marilyn, Elvis, James “Rebel Without a Cause” Dean, the beat poets and rock ‘n’ roll were not popular with parents in middle class, middle American homes.
There were viscious political fights, McCarthyism, the everyday reality of racism and the first glimmers of civil rights and feminist movements, the ever- present shadow of the atom bomb, “keeping up with the Joneses” consumerism gone wild and an explosion of the military-industrial complex so ominous that even President Eisenhower offered cautionary speeches.
When you’re rockin’ out and sipping your root beer float, tip your fedora to the fun, but spare a thought or two to those who bravely fought what was not so nifty about the ’50s.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at (575) 541-5450. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

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