Monday, September 14, 2015

Period piece

As long as I can remember, I have never pined for past generations. (The closest I’ve ever come is saying that I could have been born in 1970, given my taste in pop culture. But then I’d be 45 now, and I’m not ready for that just yet.) For every good thing about the past, there is at least an equal (or exponentially greater) number of terrible things that would remind you why subsequent years involved massive sea changes.

This is especially true in our (relatively) more enlightened age, when we’ve (relatively) come to terms with the shortcomings of our past. Our fond retro memories have become more nuanced in recent years. For example, we continue to remember the 1950s for its diners, car fins, sock hops and middle class, but now stop short of saying it was a better time, due to segregation, cigarettes and terrifying gelatin molds. And segregation.

Every era for which we pine shares the dubious distinction of being terrific for mainly one group: well-off Caucasians (Chris Rock and Louis CK say this way funnier than I do). So it’s no surprise that’s who is most likely to embrace such period cosplay.

Historic gloss aside, another criticism of the aforementioned cosplay is that participants can dabble in and out of it whenever they want. Even if they are truly committed to the lifestyle, it’s still just that — a lifestyle. They’re not going to die of polio, or ride their (admittedly badass) bike-vehicles cross-country. But even if they did, they don’t have to, and that’s what makes it attractive to its fans.

In fifth grade, I embarked on an optional project offered by my social-studies teacher, called “Modern-Day Pioneer.” Our challenge was to go 24 hours without modern-day comforts and chronicle them for extra credit. The rules were loose: For example, I could read the joke book I’d just checked out of the school library, because books were a thing in the 19th century. They’d had food too, so I could chow down on chips. I was practically a pioneer already!

That afternoon after school, I read my joke book at while eating generic cheese puffs by the overcast light of the sun. When it got dark, Mom lit a candle for me, which sat on a saucer on my bedroom’s shag carpeting (which, in retrospect, was amazingly trusting of her). Eventually, I got bored of the whole thing and flicked on a lamp, thus ending my five- or six-hour flirtation with pioneerdom. (My house, though very nearly of the same era, did not burn down.)

I enjoyed my brief brush with not-technology, but knowing it was temporary was part of the draw. The fact is, a lot of the conveniences that some thumb their noses upon exist precisely because the quaintness we so revere today was tolerable at best for the people who had to live it.

In that sense, the Victorian couple aren’t living in the period; they’re living in a hybrid era of old and new. What the Queen herself might call, Victorian 2.0. More power to the happy couple. I listen to ’80s music on an iPod, so really, who am I to judge?

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