Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Romance, true and false

I didn't mean to revisit the topic of romance and romanticizing so soon, but Lindsay at My Symphony has written a very thoughtful, interesting post, which I think deserves some sort of response here. I'm "thinking out loud" as I write, so please forgive the rambling nature of this.

To begin with, I'd have to answer her post's title question, "Is it wrong to be a romantic?" with a resounding and hearty, "No!" Romance is necessary to our lives, just like fiction is necessary to our lives. When we see certain things through the veil of myth or mystery, poetry or romance, drama or pathos, we see some truths even more clearly than they can be seen with the pragmatic eyes which refuse to see pink castles in the evening clouds, and see only the promise of good weather. Truth, in this fallen world, is hidden in many things, and it can be draped in the lace of a fairy tale, richly cloaked with the velvet of romance, or stand revealed in bareness, depending on what sort of truth it is, and what sort of seeking we have been doing to discover it.

But for romance, and even romanticizing, to be good and beneficial, to be capable of drawing us toward some truth we might otherwise miss, it has to be true. There has to be, at the heart of it, something veritable, honest, and real, because whatever romance is, it ought not be something false. If we see pink castles in the clouds, what sort of heavenly majesty is revealing itself to us in this tiny, earthly, fallible glimpse? Whatever it is, it is something true, and that is what makes it so very romantic.

False romance does exist, of course, and we've all seen it or known it in some way. Beyond the stereotypical story of boy and girl who aren't, after all, meant for each other, false romance in our present age takes up its greatest residence in the thing we call marketing, or advertising. Advertising creates false romance on purpose, to manipulate us into buying things we don't really need out of a misguided sense that these things will create for us the mythical existence the people in the ads seem to have. That toothpaste will suddenly make us popular; those jeans will suddenly make us thin; that makeup will suddenly make us startlingly attractive for women of our ages; those clothes will suddenly give us the aura of wealth and success, and on and on it goes.

But although false romance has its greatest presence in advertising, it lurks elsewhere, too. I've seen it in homeschooling circles, when someone becomes convinced (for example, and I'm not drawing this from a specific real life situation--just a composite of things I've heard about) that all her problems with homeschooling so far are because she didn't have this one crucial book or curricula--but now, now it will all change, because she has found the Right Program! But what if the problem really is that Dad doesn't support Mom's decision to homeschool, cuts her down in front of the children, and is, by his attitude, encouraging the children to rebel against it?

Or what about the person--and it's usually a woman--who is truly convinced that her weight loss issues have nothing to do with calorie consumption (why, she hardly ever even eats dessert!) but must be a genetic or body-type problem. The Right Diet is out there, though, and she'll find it! (I resemble this example greatly, by the way, except that I'm too honest to pretend for long. It's not the genes, it's the calories, and my stubborn inability to stick to a sensible eating plan.)

But in each of these types of examples, the person who wishes to embrace a false romanticism thinks that the key to solving a problem or issue they might be having will come about when they manage to gain or grasp some secret knowledge, or some mysterious talisman that will help them fix whatever is wrong or dissatisfying in their lives. The unpopular person thinks, "Toothpaste!" while the homeschooling mom thinks "Classical Curriculum!" and the would-be weight-loser thinks "South Beach!" None of these "solutions" are likely to solve their real problems--not that toothpaste, Classical Curriculum, and the South Beach diet can't solve some very real problems, but because in each case the person is grasping at false romanticism and choosing a solution which does not even address the underlying problem he or she actually has.

Was the original article that these posts have flowed from deliberately creating a false romantic view of the past? I really don't think so; I think the author sincerely believes that women used to possess some sort of special knowledge about clothes that made it possible for them to appear always neat, well-dressed, modest yet alluring, etc. Unfortunately, as others beside myself have pointed out, that really isn't true. Some women had access to some clothing which they wore on some occasions which might be "better" in some ways from clothes we have now, but it's just too sweeping to claim that women generally possessed this secret knowledge, lost it within a generation, and can only reclaim it by studying what our ancestors did.

For one small example, someone left a comment under the original article about how women could wear such dresses and still look neat and clean all day. Someone else came in and suggested aprons, but I smiled--because I remember the housecoats/housedresses my grandmother had in her closet (which, believe it or not, are still sold). It was a custom for many a woman to do her housework in one of these, and to hurry into that immaculate dress and high heels just before her husband got home from work; or, if she had to go out during the day, she changed from housecoat to street suit and then, upon returning home, into the dress she planned to wear for dinner.

And yet, I've never really seen anybody wax poetic about the housecoat, or wish that they would return to common use (though there was a time when I thought it was a great idea, back when my girls were little--something that could be spit up on or spilled on all day, and then hide in the laundry hamper). And I've never seen anybody wish that we had the opportunity to change our clothes three or four times a day, either, like our grandmothers did.

So what's really going on here? Are there problems with modern dress? Of course there are--there are many. We struggle, most of us, to find decent, modest, well-made, affordable, feminine clothes that are not boxy shapeless tents on the one hand, or too tight, too low, too high, too revealing on the other. We struggle as much with the lack of rules for how one ought to dress as our grandmothers probably did with the many and strict rules of their day; many's the time when Thad has informed me of a work-related invitation, only to have me cry "Business casual? Business casual? I don't even own any business casual clothes! I have "Mom Around the House, Mom Running Errands, and Mom at Church clothes. None of them are even remotely akin to business casual!" We sometimes become tempted to see the past and its stricter, more restrictive rules about what ought to be worn when as an easy, pleasant solution to our age's strange incoherence in the matter of dress.

And yet, how many of us would really--really--want to adopt all of the rules of dress of the 1930s or 40s? How many of us want to wear gloves, for instance, and would know the proper number of pairs to own, and what shades to wear? How many of us want to be able to tell which of two high-heeled shoes was for evening wear only, and which was a "street shoe?" How many of us want to create the ball of hair (real or artificial) necessary to secure one's hat (via a hatpin) at the proper rakish angle over the left eye? How many of us follow the vintage rules for jewelry (I've heard pearls before five, diamonds or colored gemstones after, never mix silver and gold, etc., but there may be more)?

More to the point, how many women who knew what our grandmothers knew hated all the fuss and bother, and found themselves chafing against the strict social rules that made it really, really important what you wore, and what your neighbors saw you wearing each and every time they encountered you?

In the end, it's not that I object to finding some elements of the past romantic and interesting, in general. Had the author of the original piece titled it something like "My Grandmother's Sunday Best," and reflected on how it might be possible for her, and for all of us, to try a little harder to look put together of a Sunday morning, the piece would have been unexceptionable, and probably very thought-provoking. But creating a view of the past that just isn't real unfortunately loses some of the charm that true romance can shower upon something that is old, and lovely, and true.


Lindsay said...

Much to think about!

Idk, Erin, I can't say that I've waxed philosophical about housecoats, but my husband and I have had discussions about the wisdom in people changing clothes so often. I do have clothes I wear at home and then I change in and out of them quickly before going out or when coming back. I think there was wisdom in housecoats, but isn't just changing your clothes a way of incorporating that practically?

I guess, too, that in just observing how different things were from when I was a girl growing up in Alabama and now as an adult on the East Coast, I do think that there was a better awareness for how to dress in a flattering way. I had older Southern lady school teachers who gave advice in these areas (no, not always tactfully, but I must admit, it has served me well), and I just always had the sense it was generational. Nothing formal, but just something they were more aware of. Yk, like they all knew what a "moderate" oven was. Sure, some women still burned everything, but they knew it in theory, lol. A lot more women then knew how to cook, its just a fact. So, in keeping with the food analogy, I saw the original article as saying something more like, "our grandmothers knew how to bake cakes from scratch without a mix" and not "lets all buy coal or woodburning ovens and bake cakes exactly as our grandmothers used to."

I love your third paragraph about truth! It is a good litmus for discerning our inclinations regarding the past!

With the new movie about her life coming out, Julia Child is on my mind. I wouldn't mind someone like her coming along to lead a revival in the area of fashion in the same way Julia Child led so many to rediscover the joys of our culinary past.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Ode to a Housecoat! Someone needs to write that! LOL!!!

I'm sure my Granny still has some "vintage" ones hanging in her closet. Although the cigarette stains would put the cleaning powers of any kind of OxyClean or Borax to the test. People who falsely romanticize the past tend to forget about those ugly social norms. Blech!

Lady Caitie in the Pretty City said...


You sure do have an interesting perspective.. I had never read your blog, but after I posted about Betty Beguiles myself, someone sent me a link to these posts.

It's obvious you don't know Hallie and, as someone who has followed her blog for a year and gotten to know her personally, I disagree with you whole-heartedly. Romance is all about playing up the good aspects and getting over the bad. Of course Hallie knows that there are plusses and minuses to the 50's, as with any decade. She has never, ever said that it's a perfect era and we should all revert to that time period. She simply enjoys some aspects of the time, thinks they're valuable for a reason and wants to share her perspective with others! Where has she gone wrong?

I think you're being harsh and not reflecting Hallie's motives or her outlook correctly. We all have the ability to be a "Debbie Downer" and look to find things we don't agree with. I think if one read Hallie's blog with an open mind, recognizing that she just wants to share the things she loves, not push them on anyone, they would see what a delight she is -- not the person you're making her out to be.