Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In Defense of 'The Sixties'

I'll admit it. I used to hate 'the sixties.'

Do you know how rough it was growing up with parents who lived through the sixties? Parents who constantly had to rub it in your face just how great their youth was. My mom was more mellow about it, but my father would go on and on about the British Invasion, the Chicano movement, Bob Dylan, the socio-economic changes occurring at the time, blah, bleh, blah, bluh. Man, as a kid, all I wanted was to be left alone with my Transformers cartoons (which could never stand up to the cartoons they had growing up), my G.I. Joe action figures (not as cool as their G.I. Joe action figures), and my own music (my Top 40 could never match their Top 40).

And you know the worst part? They were totally right. Sure, it took me some time, and early on it did bother me to admit that, yes, The Who were totally amazing and that, yes, Bob Dylan was worth raving about. Heck, even my favorite Mad Magazine issues were from the 1960s!

But when I first got into the Mod thing, it wasn't necessarily built on an appreciation of 'the sixties'. That developed over time. For me, at first, it was just the general idea of 'rebelling' against 'society' by walking around in sharp suits no one else was wearing. But, in time, this began to center so much more around a 'sixties' look and lead to an obsession with sixties music, style, culture, and history.

In fact, there was a period when my friends and I were so obsessed with the sixties that we wanted to get all the details right in our clothing. "Well, they didn't really wear their trousers like that in the sixties, it was more like this." Or, "Hmm... that shirt's too 1968 for me. I think I'll pass." We were obsessive kids, but we were also learning the roots of our look (and the differences between what actual 'Mods' wore and what Carnaby Street shoppers wore). Truth be told, we were kinda more into the colorful, patterned Carnaby Street garb.
My crew and I, circa 1995-96. (Imagine the photo in 'Carnaby color'!)
Over time, we loosened up on trying to get our 'sixties' look just right, instead incorporating what we had learned into a growing, evolving look that we felt suited us (no pun intended) as we grew older. But for me, and a few of my friends, our look is still very much steeped in a sixties aesthetic, with a touch of modern elements thrown in... on occasion.

And that brings me to the big question people often throw around: "Isn't Mod about moving forward? Why are you still into all that retro sixties stuff? That's not modern."

And that's not a bad question. In fact, if you have a copy of the third issue of Sussed, Noel Kavanagh actually addresses this topic in the article, Post Modernist Mods. But here's my take on why so many of us still can't let 'the sixties' go.
Have you ordered your copy of Sussed yet?
First off, yes, from what I've heard, Mods in the sixties were definitely always 'moving forward.' Their styles changed rapidly, sometimes on a weekly basis. Their music was evolving and 'moving forward' with changing technologies in production. Mods did look forward, not backward.

But can you blame them?! Look what they were moving forward and away from:
Image of Teddy Boys taken from The Nifty Fifties website.
England was finally escaping the lingering effects of a post-WWII society and economy. The people there were leaving behind food-rationing and starting to find more money in their pockets. Heck, I'd be looking forward, too, and trying to escape the recent past as quickly as possible! Plus, that post-WWII culture was starting to bring in so many new and fresh international influences and it was exciting. There was actually something to look forward to!

Here's the problem though. What happened in the 1960s (starting in the late '50s really) was revolutionary in terms of design, fashion, music, art, and literature. That post-World War II boom led to so many changes in how people viewed the world. Heck, not to bring it back to that, but look at the show Mad Men (which I am finally caught up on!). From season to season, you can see how the characters' attitudes change in response to their social environment as it evolves.

We really haven't seen a rapid cultural shift like that since then. You can spot the major differences in a person's dress from 1964 to 1968. I challenge you to spot as marked a difference in a person's dress from 2004 to 2008. Heck, if I was watching the 1990s show Friends today for the first time, I wouldn't see that much difference in many people's dress today. (Granted, it could just be an ironic hipster thing.)
Have mainstream styles really changed much in the last decade?
But it's not just those changes in the sixties that attract some of us. Nope, it's the fact that so much of those changes were amazing! Midcentury modern furniture, Vidal Sassoon hairstyles, David Bailey's photography, The Beatles' studio work, Stax and Motown soul, new wave cinema, Mary Quant miniskirts... do I need to go on?

The Sixties raised the bar on Western culture to a pretty high level. And it's why so many of us continue to look back to those designs, which have become timeless. Unlike original 1960s Mods who wanted to move away from an era of food rationing and grey hand-me-downs, many of us look back to an era of colorful styles and sleek, sharp designs that have stood the test of time. Some of us are obsessed with Eames, Saraarinen, and Noguchi furnishings or John Stephen, Mary Quant, and Courrèges stylings. And let's not get into the '50s-'60s music we can't get enough of. Yeah, it might be 'vintage' but I think most of us hunt that stuff down because of the beautiful designs, not so much its retro-ness.
Just a few designers who helped shape the mid-century look that remains coveted today.
Let's face it, what happened in the 1960s set a standard some of us don't need to move away from. And a majority of people have caught up to us. Once, you could find midcentury furniture for dirt-cheap at a thrift store. Good luck with that today! (But you can settle for mid-century-inspired pieces from companies like West Elm and EQ3) Men are walking around in slim-tailored suits and women are walking around in bold, patterned dresses. "Retro"-soul acts like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley are selling out venues. Television networks were scurrying for their own Mad Men-style shows based in the 1960s. (Anyone remember Pan-Am or The Playboy Club?)

Look, I'm all about moving forward and all that, but it's hard to move forward from a look that was done so well the first time around. Sure, we can add a twist here and there to put a check mark in the 'modern' box, but nothing beats a vintage, slim-fitting, tailored 3-button suit; nothing beats a mid-century Tulip Chair; and nothing but nothing beats a tender 1960s Otis Redding vocal.

I'm pretty comfortable with where I'm at, aesthetic-wise. I mix in vintage with some modern and I'm okay with that. I like a lot of contemporary things including clothes from Ted Baker (a little out of my price range, granted) and Thomas Pink. I even like some contemporary (probably non-Mod-approved) songs, like that new Justin Timberlake track (after the 0:45 mark, that is), which ain't half bad.

But I'm not scrambling to find something 'modern' for the sake of its 'modern'-ness. I don't care to have any tattoos etched into my skin, even though everyone and their moms are doing it today. I don't need to like the new Daft Punk CD just because it's modern music. And if I was a scooter guy, you better believe I'd be hunting down a classic, vintage bike instead of a modern one (can't beat that design!).

After all, like Dobie Gray once sang, 'the originals are still the greatest.'


  1. Another thing that keeps me going back to the sixties is the quality of the workmanship. Simply put, things were well-made and lasted.

    Take clothes for instance. The quality of the fabrics, the craftsmanship doesn't even compare with the mass-produced,short shelf life, cheap clothes we find today. I dare anybody to put a used 60s Ben Sherman side by side with a brand new Ben Sherman from this season's collection.

    Speaking of scooters, do you see a lot of Honda Spree's still roaming around? They sure were "modern" for their time, plus a Mod wouldn't be caught dead riding one. Scooters from the 60s can still be found quite easily and they were produced 20 years earlier. Why? Because they last. Just to further make my point, even today, a lot of scooterist would rather use a genuine 60s used part to repair a Vespa or Lambretta rather then buying a new part made in China or India.

    Quality is something a lot of the Modern World has lost sight of these days.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

    2. You're right about that. You still just can't beat that quality or the attention to detail given to clothes from that period. Whenever I find a vintage piece, there's always some detail that separates it from the rest of the items in the closet.

  2. One of your best posts, well said my friend.

  3. There is nothing to defend. I've heard it too: "You can't help but be influenced by experiences." Yes, there have been significant movements since then. Technology, our environment and the economy affects us, but artistically, we choose our influences.
    "Modern" is just a term, often misused. So is "retro". I just cringed typing that. Can we kill that word? There is simply no denying the wave of influence of the era known as the 60s were powerful because what it inspired, and we still feel it today. There is a fallacy that being so into the 60s ignoring other eras is "closed minded" because all eras have equal cultural validity, if we divide up the decades, like the 70s, 80s, etc. The people who accuse others of being closed minded for doing so, don't realize their own limited perspective. It's not about purposely looking back nor about ignoring what has happened since. If you are doing it now, then it is about now.

    1. Dang! I almost want to copy your comment, delete it, and then re-post it in this blog post!!

      Very, very well-said.

  4. Great, well-reasoned post. I just found your blog while drafting something up on The Style Council for my blog, I also linked your site to mine under Blogs I'll Cocktail With. Hope you don't mind.

    Keep up the good writing!

    1. I'm taking a look at your blog now and adding it to my feed. Great stuff!

  5. Totally agree. Mostly. Until the Timberlake comment. It's a good thing he's funny.

    Keep up the good work on the blog!

    1. Hey man, just take it on down to Omeletteville.

  6. This is my First visit to your blog, and I'm already quite impressed!
    It's like you'd got inside my head, stole my thoughts and typed them up here... Thank you very much for this article, absolutely agreed with you!
    I'll definitely follow you via Email...
    Cheers from Argentina!

    1. Awesome! Thank you, Gisel!

      See, I knew I wasn't the only one thinking like this.