There is something oddly ironic about taking a picture with an 8-megapixel smartphone and then using software to make it look like it was taken 40 years ago with my dad’s Kodak Instamatic 100 camera. These faux-vintage photos are all the rage at the moment and part of a larger trend of what might be called Inauthentic Authenticity.
What’s doubly ironic about these photos, created with Hipstamatic or Instagram apps, is they appear to be actual analog photos, faded, contrasty, scratched, and worn around the edges; they look like physical photos but don’t actually exist in the physical world. They’re still digital photos being viewed in a digital space.
And if you’ll indulge me in a triple irony: these nostalgic-inducing, faux-vintage photos are most popular with a generation of young people who have never even known photos that look like this so it isn’t even their own nostalgia they’re inducing. Now I’m dripping in irony.
Stores like J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, et al., sell fake antiques that seem strangely anachronistic in the 21st century. Following their advice on how to decorate your apartment would make it look more like a movie set than a place to live. Products include rusted, pre-dented toolboxes and new-but-old-looking children’s record players ($170). There are even library card catalog drawers for sale. Again with the irony, marketed to young people who have never even seen an actual card catalog, let alone ever used one. What’s next, the hoop skirt?
I was in the mall the other day and wandered into Buckle, the “on-trend fashion clothing” store. It looked like a second-hand thrift store. Pre-scuffed boots and faded, torn, and otherwise destructed clothes made to look like they were within a thread of disintegrating. These new, patched, pre-torn jeans have the look that says, “Oh these? Yeah, I wore them out while backpacking through Europe last summer,” but were really bought last Tuesday at the mall. One no longer has to be authentic as long as one looks authentic. It’s like buying your own street cred.
In the interest of full disclosure: I bought this retro-looking telephone at Crate & Barrel a few years ago. Yes, it was so charmingly nostalgic. And I confess that I have pre-washed jeans. But this current clothing aesthetic, the affectation of dressing from head to toe in carefully crafted pre-worn rags, begs the comparison to what we in the 80s called “poseurs.” They were the wannabes who copied the look and dress of punkers and heavy metal fans in order to gain acceptance but who didn’t share the philosophy of those groups. Today’s pejorative term would be “hipsters.” To quote Douglas Haddow on the blog Adbusters, “(these are) a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.”
My thesis of this article is that this fake authenticity trend contributes nothing to furthering new design aesthetics. Two good examples of borrowing designs from the past but updating those designs for the present are the MINI Cooper and the FIAT 500. Both cars took their inspiration from the original designs, keeping their spirit, but reinterpreted them with a modern sensibility. They didn’t just manufacture new-but-old-looking MINI Coopers and FIATS, which might have had a certain charm but would never have caught on in popularity like a modern take on the original. These new cars seem fresh and vibrant, not cartoonish copies of the past.
Fake old photos, fake antiques, fake old clothing. This fake authenticity is nothing new. I remember learning in an architectural history class in college about Victorian “follies,” or what was known as the cult of ruins. In the 19th century it became fashionable for wealthy landowners, inspired by their grand tours of Europe, to build ruins of ancient Greek temples or Gothic abbeys on their property. These moss-covered faux-ruined structures were considered objects of reflection meant to elicit deep emotions. They symbolized their owners’ sophistication and knowledge of other cultures.
Many cultural movements throughout history have been reactions to larger cultural shifts that propel societies ahead faster than many wish them to go. Romanticism grew out of a rejection of The Enlightenment; the Arts & Crafts Movement a revolt against the Industrial Revolution; the Beat Generation and Hippie counterculture a protest of post-war societal conformity. I wouldn’t call fake authenticity a new cultural movement — it might be symptomatic of Post Post-Modernism, which itself is a reaction to a previous movement — but it may be a reaction to the precipitous changes brought about by the rise of new technology (personal computer/smartphone/internet). Or it may not. Those more qualified than I will eventually decide.
Meanwhile, I’m off to Starbucks for an inauthentically authentic European espresso bar experience.
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