Welcome to The 60s

The Baltimore Sun

Think of 2008 as the new New Frontier.

The calendar might indicate that we're in the 21st century. But in merchandise display windows, on stage and on the large and small screen - and yes, even in politics - America seemingly is returning to the early, buttoned-down 1960s.

Not long ago, society was enamored of the Greatest Generation. As the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor passed, we were bombarded with television specials, movies and fashion trends all inspired by the so-called "Last Good War."

Similarly, the immense tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s - the decade of hippies, protests of the Vietnam War, civil rights and women's liberation - continues to exert a profound influence on society.

So it's curious that in 2008, we seem irresistibly drawn to an era known as being placid, boring and bland. Botox might not have been around in the early '60s, but it should have been.

"It was a period of transition," says Ethan McSweeny, who is directing a production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, currently in previews at Center Stage.

"I think that era appeals to us because we're also in flux. In the early 1960s, there were a lot of tensions bubbling and churning beneath the surface. It was the quiet before the upheaval."

It's difficult to deny that some of the hottest trends of the season first were in style more than 45 years ago.

The most talked-about show of the past two seasons is the Emmy Award-winning cable series Mad Men, about an advertising firm on Madison Avenue. (The show, which concludes its second season tonight, already has been renewed for a third year.)

American designer Michael Kors has credited Mad Men with inspiring the clothes that he presented last month at Fall Fashion Week in New York. And for most of 2008, boutiques have displayed the short, swing jackets with three-quarter length sleeves popularized by former First Lady Jackie Kennedy.

"We've known for the past three years that we'd be wearing the styles of the early 1960s now," said Holly Alford, a fashion professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "That was the forecast. Whatever is going on politically ends up being reflected in fashion."

Like 1960, 2008 is the era of the celebrity candidate. The current Democratic nominee for U.S. president is being positioned by his supporters as a modern-day version of John F. Kennedy.

"Given the Kennedy-esque feel of the Barack Obama phenomenon, it's no surprise that the New Frontier style is re-emerging," says Robert Thompson, a media professor at Syracuse University. "As a culture on the cusp, stuck somewhere between abject conformity and an appetite for major change, 1960-'63 is a perfect model to investigate."

McSweeny is struck by the ramifications of opening Virginia Woolf - Edward Albee's harrowing drama about a dysfunctional marriage steeped in the mores of 1962 America - just six days before the presidential election.

"It's entirely possible to do a political reading of Virginia Woolf," McSweeny says. "It's probably no accident that the main characters are named George and Martha, just like the founding couple."

In 1993 Albee elaborated on the broader themes of his most famous work. His comments seem disturbingly prescient when viewed from the perspective of 2008.

"We're a nation of conformists now," he said. "That self-deception leads not only to personal trouble, but to political malaise and social irresponsibility. The self-deception that this country has been dealing in for many years is preferring to be lied to by political leaders, preferring to be conned by short-term values. We may find ourselves in a much greater state of decline than people realize now."

Other slices of the early 1960s are rife on stage and screen. Autumn also will see the release of Doubt, a film set in 1964 about a charge of pedophilia and starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

More benign portraits of the era are presented by Camelot, the 1960 musical that became a metaphor for Kennedy's administration, and the sunnily optimistic Hairspray. (A national tour of Camelot stopped at the Hippodrome last spring, while the film version of Hairspray starring John Travolta is the third highest-grossing movie musical in U.S. history.)

"It's interesting what part of the 1960s we're getting," says Thompson, past president of the National Popular Culture Association.

"Most of the time, when you think of 'The '60s' you think of Flower Power and love beads and Peter Max psychedelia. That is not the part we're fixated on now."

The early 1960s were an extension socially and culturally of the Eisenhower Era. In the popular imagination, those pre-women's lib, pre-civil rights years are associated with repression and conformity.

For all its darkness, shows such as Mad Men remind us that the period also was elegant, chic and sophisticated. It was a time when America was flush. It was a time when materialistic pleasures were widely available. It could be lots of fun to be alive.

"It was a very exuberant, very upbeat time," says Deb Vance, a communications professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, who teaches a course on American popular culture.

"Manufacturing was strong, the schools were great, and kids could play outside without their parents worrying if they were safe. It was the space age, and there were exciting scientific advances. It exemplified a time when we could look at our country and our leaders and feel good about who we were."

It also was a time when there was an immense push to act in a manner perceived as civilized, as evolved.

After the carnage of World War II and the atom bomb, Americans yearned to put our destructive drives behind us. But progress meant spurning unruly urges - including the impulse to think outside the box.

"Nineteen fifty-five to 1963 was the period of The Organization Man, and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," says Thompson, citing two landmark books.

"The American Dream was completely achievable, but the cost was that we became automatons."

As Alford and others point out, nostalgia isn't an uncritical embrace of the past. We appropriate the aspects of an era that fit our lifestyle, and reject the parts that do not.

There are period details in Mad Men and Virginia Woolf that stop modern audiences in their tracks - details that characters immersed in the world take for granted.

At a recent rehearsal for Virginia Woolf, the set - meant to be a living room - was littered with cigarette butts. The characters drink so heavily and so often that bar glasses seem welded to their hands.

Director McSweeny spent several minutes showing actor Andrew Weems, who plays George, which oddly-shaped bottle corresponds to which brand of vintage liquor.

"In those days, there wasn't the choice that there is now," McSweeny says. "Everyone drank the same brand of scotch, the same brand of vodka. Drinking today is about showing off your expensive wine cellar. It's about being a connoisseur. Drinking back then was about getting drunk."

Leah Curney, who plays Honey, a young faculty wife, will wear period-appropriate foundation garments. She's convinced it will make her performance more authentic, even if the audience catches nary a glimpse of a pinching garter belt.

"Foundation garments really do put you back in the period," she says.

"Not only does it give us the right shape visually, but clothing has emotional connotations. These garments were very constraining. Wearing these things really helps me dive into this world as a woman and realize how much we take for granted today."

Thompson sees at least one major difference in the transition period of the early 1960s and today: In 1960, we thought the U.S. was on the way up. In 2008, we fear the country is on the way down.

"In the early '60s was the sense that we were going into a new era that would be noble and glorious," he says.

"Today, I don't know anyone who has that Pollyannaish feeling. Now, with what's happening with the economy, with our loss in standing as a superpower, there's almost a sense of apocalyptic dread. At best, Americans think we have reached the top of our trajectory, and hope we can stay there. At worst, some people wonder how fast the slide will be."

But the early 1960s weren't merely the calm before the storm, but a necessary precursor to it. Those years provided the fermentation that made later advances possible.

"It was a transformative time," Thompson says. "In a few short years, every single aspect of American life would change overnight."

Society is being altered right now - and in ways that aren't all bad.

When JFK became president, it made being Catholic a non-issue for modern office-seekers. Similarly, Obama's candidacy, regardless of who wins on Nov. 4, has the potential to make race irrelevant in future contests.

"What we're transitioning into," Thompson says, "is anyone's guess."

It sounds contradictory. But perhaps the best way to charge ahead, the best way to gain crucial momentum is to back up slightly first.

if you go

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., through Nov. 30. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $10-$60. 410-332-0033 or centerstage.org.

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