You know the feeling: watching a period film and ending the movie thinking, ”Wow, if only people talked like that” or “Damn, I wish people still dressed like that.” I’ve done it. You’ve done it too. And I’m here to tell you that you’re completely wrong. We have been glamourizing the decades for quite some time now. Watching or reading something set in some time period suddenly makes the plot glorify the year, or era, it was set in.
Everyone has at least heard of Shakespeare in Love. It’s a film with probably the most gorgeous William Shakespeare I’ve ever seen – and if you think about it, we don’t normally associate wonderful appearances with that of William Shakespeare. It tells the story of how one man supposedly became Shakespeare (because every English major out there knows that this story is still unknown). Shakespeare is in search of his muse, Viola de Lesseps, who loves the theater, but is unable to act because she is not a man. Viola pulls a Mulan and dresses like a boy. When Shakespeare finds out, he takes this opportunity to fall in love with her, beginning one of the best onscreen romances. I love to watch the movie and I do end it with thinking, “Wow, Shakespeare was hot. Man, I really want to live back then.”
However, this isn’t the case. In the Elizabethan era, if you were lucky enough to marry for love, you were not part of the majority. Marrying for money, or so you wouldn’t die of shame or starvation, was common. Family ruled the community and you don’t want to look like an outcast. Let’s say you marry the love of your life and you decide to have children. Modern medicine isn’t here, ladies, so those 16 kids might impact you a little or kill you. If you do manage to survive childbirth, you or your husband, but most likely your kids, will die from the Plague. Yes, the Black Death from Monty Python is real. And so are the death carts. If you catch the Plague, the Watchmen will patrol your house and make sure you were locked in there, alone, until you die. Hopefully you develop telekinesis to say goodbye to your family. However, if you survive all of this, and you get the common flu, you’re left to medicine based on superstitions to save you. Have fun with that black market Therma-Flu made from a witch tooth and the toad she found in her yard.
So let’s say you never saw this movie, but you have seen Downton Abbey. This is a show about an elite family and their servants, living in the 1910s. Face it. Who doesn’t want to look like Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) and waltz around with rich men? And if simplicity is more your style, Mr. Bates is too adorable for words, so Anna wouldn’t have been a bad person to be. However, mixed in with the snark and the beautiful faces is a fake reality for these fictional characters. If you’re Lady Mary, daughter of the estate, you can’t inherit. Since you don’t have a brother, you should be next in line. But you’re not, your unknown future husband is. And if you’re Lady Mary’s sisters, either way you’re screwed. You prance around showing off your back-breaking-corset-wearing figure in order to hopefully be found attractive by some man who your grandmother will like. But let’s say you’re not Mary; you’re Anna (a woman who entered service – maids and what-not – for life). If you were fortunate enough to start off as a maid, a poor woman’s dream job, your day begins at 6 am. Guess staying up until 2am wasn’t a good decision. But it wasn’t your decision; it was your employer’s decision. However, you’re lucky because the scullery maid who has been up since 4am wakes you up. Your day consists of dressing your employer, (in this case, Lady Mary). You beckon to her every call and need. By the end of the day, you are doing more chores until late in the night. If you do fall in love, guess you’re going to get fired. In Anna’s case (because Downton Abbey is a TV show and she’s a series regular), she’s not fired. However, this is not common. Normally, if a maid is seen flirting with the opposite sex (forget it if you’re gay, you were killed because it was a crime against the king), you were immediately fired without a reference (the key to getting another respectable job).
Let’s take you away from the innocent stigma of Anna and say you are just an ordinary maid. This means you are subject to harassment, and sometimes assault, by your employer. But don’t think about speaking out; that will get you fired, and as a woman, you have no rights in court – especially against a man. So, let’s say you’re not a maid, you’re a regular person living in the village. Women, good luck finding a job; you’d better marry. And marrying that cute farm boy might not be the best decision – who is going to take care of you and your 10 children when he dies under the plow?
Okay, so maybe life is getting better when we reach the 1920s. Women have the right to vote and wear skirts just above the knee, if the glaring look from your elderly neighbor – or her staring husband – doesn’t bother you. Maybe you want to be a flapper. Well, cut your hair and put on your skirt because you’re going to the speak-easy! Just, go find a bra that ties your boobs down because smaller is better. Forget the corset, the shapeless-body look is in. Don’t forget your blinding red lipstick – it’s kiss proof so make out with EVERYONE. Hope you don’t mind jazz music. If someone invites you to a “petting party,” be sure you’re okay with being felt-up by random men all night. But, if you do have sex with that cute bartender in the corner, just make sure you don’t get pregnant because the depression is right around the corner. Do you like drinking broth? Oh, and the war is very popular at the moment. So get your Rosie-the-Riveter denim on and go support your men! Just don’t marry one because, if they don’t die over in Europe, then the returning Lost Generation is going to be super fun to help. This might all sound better than the Black Plague and the dead farm boy, but, in reality, having your iPhone and a working shower sounds even better.
But, what about the 1950s? Everything looks awesome on Mad Men – if the sound is off. And you’re only looking at the fashion. But, ladies, the same fashion is at your local mall. In the 50’s, unless you were a white male, chances are life wasn’t the best for you. Forget being a different race; that would just succumb you to a very harsh reality. If you like TV, then the white family with the two children, one dog, and a white picket fence is going to be very entertaining – because it’s the only thing on. But most were not lucky enough to have a TV yet. Instead, you are going to go to the local theater with your date and then you’ll both get sodas at the diner afterwards. Don’t even think about wearing jeans. They are just not for girls. Instead, dig out that hoop skirt and a ponytail and start singing around a swing-set. Sounds awesome! Until you want to dance to Elvis. Your mother is going to hate it! Maybe you can listen to it in secret in the bomb shelter in your backyard. The Commies are coming, but you wouldn’t know it because people aren’t telling you much on your radio. When you go to school tomorrow you’re going to learn how a single, wooden desk is going to protect you from your sudden death from nuclear warfare. Oh, and you didn’t do your math equations? Well, brace your butt for a whip from the paddle your teacher is carrying around. Oh, and Jimmy sneezed next to you? Let’s hope he doesn’t kill you with the flu like 20 percent of America right now. Maybe smallpox will just get you instead.
Overall, decades are decades. We can glamorize them all we want, but in reality, they are simply time periods. The people in the 50s dreamed of the 20s and those people dreamed of a better time as well. They looked to the future with concern, when really it was just time continuing. We have our cell phones and our iPads. People can hate them, but that’s essentially what the people in the 1950s said about television and microwaves – and what would you do without them? As The Dowager Countess (Downton Abbey) once said, “I couldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors seeping about.” She was talking about the birth of electricity.
Photography credited to: Bedford Falls Production/Universal Pictures, PBS, Village Roadshow Pictures/ Warner Bros. Pictures, AMC. No copyright infringement intended.