Style as Substance: How Downton Abbey and Mad Men keep revolution alive by getting us to wear old clothes.

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No television series is more definitive of my generation than Mad Men. Following the story of Sterling Cooper Draper Price is only half of the enjoyment. Indeed, probably half the 20-30somethings I know profess not to enjoy the show’s direction or plot. Though Mad Men, I think, is impeccably written and brimming with the symbolism and sophistication of a Fitzgerald novel, that’s not really why we like it so much. We wear their clothes and hairstyles, both at themed cocktail parties and in everyday life. The local chop shop I go to for my bi-monthly haircut–I swear, it’s going to be bi-monthly from now on…–told me they’ve been giving mid-century combovers since, well, the mid-century, but it’s only been recently that droves of young men have shown up to order them. (Seriously, don’t go on a Saturday. The line is out the door.) Not only that, but remember when Banana Republic launched their own Mad Men inspired clothing line…designed by the Mad Men costume designer? That may be a little too on the nose to comment on, but the fascination with the mid-century world of Mad Men predated the product placement and goes beyond clothes.

But maybe it’s just the fanfare surrounding a quality television sensation. At first, I thought that was so…until Downton Abbey dropped.

If you’ve watched BBC and Masterpiece Theater over the years, you would have joined me in utter shock at Downton’s overnight fame. There have been a thousand shows like it on the BBC in a steady stream for the past thirty years, from Upstairs Downstairs to Cranford. What made this one so special? Let’s just say it wasn’t under the hood. Though it had a decently strong start, Downton Abbey is an inferior show to Mad Men in every way, plotted like a summer of All My Children, with social commentary as thick and blunt as country hams, and about as much subtlety as there are black characters. What it did have was gorgeous photography, lavish costumes, and a perfectly preserved manor house. Downton didn’t offer us compelling drama, it gave us a new historical world of social codes to sop up. Downton Abbey was an unremarkable entry in a long line of BBC historical dramas that achieved fame due to a peculiar American mood.

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Why do we, a socially liberal generation, revel in traditionalism? Mad Men, after all, is set in a misogynistic, racist, capitalist business playground. Downton Abbey is set in Edwardian England, which is all of the above except replacing nobility for capitalism. While part of these shows’ purposes is to show how characters challenge that culture, we as viewers and consumers have chosen to celebrate the culture, not the characters. It is one thing to dramatically explore a past era’s social currents like traditional gender roles and consumerism, but arraigning ourselves in its customary dress is a step too far. The latest gin joint to open up in my neighborhood is named for a famous evangelical prohibitionist minister. (This, to me, is about the same as naming your designer burger shop Devi–the Hindu name for the goddess of the sacred cow–but I digress.)

Why do we do this? After all, our generation has apparently just voted to distance ourselves from any remaining specter of mid-century values in favor of “change,” and probably the last surviving evidence of traditional social order is on the judicial chopping-block as I write. Why are we so enamored with the classism, sexism, and aristocracy we’re working so hard to overthrow? Are we enacting some kind of ironic totemism, adopting the symbols of conservative social arrangements in order to prove their irrelevance? (It may be ironic to buy an owl lamp, but not a revarnished mid-century dresser!) Are we cannibalizing historical styles because consumerism has finally consumed our creativity, and all we have left to do is to regurgitate the old? (Maybe, but avant-garde designers are still creating. Plus, it’s really hard to make a case for a historical dead-end. There just haven’t been that many.)

There are arguments to be made for each of these claims, but I think I have a better one. We are a generation enamored with revolutions, but not the orders that those revolutions create. We want to see people challenge the status quo, run into adversity and then succeed (or fail with a tragic sweetness). Drama, particularly onstage and on film, takes place entirely in that moment, the rising action toward catharsis. As soon as the old is shucked in favor of something new, we roll the credits. Life, however, doesn’t really work that way. Tossing aside the old and creating the new requires us to leave revolutions behind and set to work setting up our new normal. Whether it’s pushing for new laws, advocating for new cultural norms, or simply making a big change in one’s own personal life, the new needs to be better than the old: more righteous, more inclusive, more free.

So what does it say about us that we feel nostalgic for the old orders we broke up? It’s worth noting that we aren’t just nostalgic for a whitewashed picture of those old times–these shows are pretty up front about what was wrong with those days. We want the whole package, sexism, misogyny and all. We want this for two reasons, I think: 1. So that we can experience the vicarious thrill of rebelling against tradition all over again and 2. Still enjoy the stability and order of past social codes. This second one may seem to sit uncomfortably beside the first, but social change is even more uncomfortable unless there is a safe, ordering and preferably stylish status quo that is still the order of the day. It’s an easy thing to decide that one wants change. It is a more difficult project to decide what to change into. On the latter point, my generation is not so sanguine, I think. That we want safety alongside the paradoxical urge to destroy that safety speaks to a spirit of unfortunate timidity regarding the future and our place in it. We need to recreate old order so that change can remain meaningful. Change needs a wall to tear down, a law to overturn. Without that, there is no struggle. With out tradition, there can be no revolution. That’s why we need suspenders, bow-ties and mustaches to make our tattoos stand out. Even though society has changed dramatically since the eras we fetishize, we want to make over our lives to help us pretend like there’s still something to rebel against.

This is the classic pattern of troubled youth. They do not want to leave the safety of their parents’ homes, but they want to stay in the enjoyable limbo of persistent rebellion against their parents’ wishes. Our present mood is that of maladjusted adolescence. This, incidentally, is why hype has moved from film to television. Television elongates our fantasies by many hours, and if the series is blessed with commercial success, it closes on a cliffhanger teasing more to come. Endless revolution. Endless adolescence. We are thirty-somethings in our parents’ basements.

The sooner we realize this about ourselves, the sooner we can do one of two more sensible things, either start rediscovering wisdom in old orders (as some have begun to do) and enjoy some intellectual license for our nostalgia, or forsake the old completely and live into the new, moving beyond change into establishing our own order and refusing to anachronistically project past struggles onto our present lives.

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About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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One Response to Style as Substance: How Downton Abbey and Mad Men keep revolution alive by getting us to wear old clothes.

  1. Rob Stevens says:

    Your comments about Downton Abbey most apposite. Fellowes has little sense of good convincing drama, and merely pushes the characters around pawns from one cliche to another. And as for his ear for language? How about this gem: Matthew: “that is a pretty steep learning curve he is facing”. Quite dreadful

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