Is That Bikini Video–and the ‘modesty’ movement–really about nostalgia?

Nostalgia is big right now. From Michael Pollan’s new panegyric on “traditional” food preparation, Cooked, to, all things Mad Men (or previous) seem to be ‘in,’ down to hula hoops, bright red lipstick, ‘vintage’-style, well, everything, and grave suspicion of some of the best that modern science has had to offer, like vaccines and antibiotics.

While I love a beautiful mid-century style (dress, phone, desk) as much as the next twenty- or thirty-something, I really don’t love other aspects of nostalgic thinking.

Reading Michael Pollan’s latest—where he bemoans the overly sterile condition of the modern world, where our ‘guts’ are no longer properly ‘colonized’ by all sorts of ‘friendly bacteria’—I couldn’t help thinking that his was a longing that could only be experienced by someone with good health insurance in a developed country who gets to engage bacteria (friendly or otherwise) solely on his own terms. It’s a little harder to be starry-eyed about the benefits of the friendly bacteria and the evils of pasteurization when you are living in a place that still regularly sees outbreaks of typhoid and tuberculosis.

It’s equally difficult to see vaccine suspicion sympathetically when every time you go shopping you pass by people who’ve been permanently disabled by polio, only a few of whom have ‘luxuries’ like wheelchairs and crutches.

Recently I read and reviewed two very different books that deal with forms of popular nostalgia: Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, about the “new domesticity,” and Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste, a study of the popularity of Amish romance novels. Each points out the ways in which consumers (of products and of ideas) pick and mix elements of a longed-for culture to create a kind of bricolage, a nostalgic quilt of comforting impressions to curl up under.

But, to do this, we have to ignore un-picturesque or unsavory aspects of the culture(s) from which we’re borrowing. One can wax nostalgic about the virtues and protective benefits of friendly bacteria when one hasn’t buried a child (or children) from a strain of unfriendly bacteria.

Really, doesn’t this happen all the time? John Piper seems terribly nostalgic for the time when, as Archie Bunker sang, “girls were girls and men were men,” and many evangelical values touted as ‘biblical’ are really just grounded in nostalgia for “how we think (certain) things were” in the 1950s (or the 1850s, as the case may be), all while seeming to forget—or at least, to compartmentalize—elements of culture that went right along with ‘traditional gender roles,’ like Victorian gentlemen’s tendency to keep wives ‘pure’ by visiting mistresses, child labor, and Jim Crow.

I do wonder if something similar is happening with the ‘modesty’ movement in evangelicalism these days, and I was particularly intrigued by the popular Q talk on the ‘evolution of the bikini,’ where the alternative to contemporary and ‘immodest’ bikinis is presented as…you guessed it…50s and 60s inspired vintage styles. You can check out my contribution to a her.meneutics group post here, but first, can someone tell me how Audrey Hepburn in a bikini is less modest than Marilyn Monroe in a one piece?

I mean, besides the fact that she’s wearing a coat over it.

(Kind of proves the point my friend Caryn makes in the post…)

You may also like to see:

my review of Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound.

my post about Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked.

my friend Tim’s (another Tim…not husband Tim!) post about the “Ungodliness of Nostalgia”

20 thoughts on “Is That Bikini Video–and the ‘modesty’ movement–really about nostalgia?

  1. I think one of the most important things we can do as a Christian, in order to properly understand sin, is accurately learn history. Both traditional history and Christian history. Many of the modern problems have historical parallels. xcdc has a great comic last week about the problems of the pace of modern life (and every quote was from 100+ years ago ( // ).

    I get frustrated with modern evangelicals that are nostalgic but so firmly middle class and ignorant of the problems of others and of their own history. We don’t have to be limited to only looking back or trapped by shame of past sin, but if we pretend it didn’t exists or celebrate it inappropriately then we have nothing to say about the transformative powers of the gospel. The gospel is about transformation, not about nostalgia.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. I just read Dr. Paul Offitt’s new book condemning most alternative medicine. While his bias is clear and I think he could have used a little nuance here and there (surprise surprise), he does a good job of showing how nostalgia along with ignorance of both history and basic science have led to a multibillion dollar industry of “natural” remedies with zero proof of efficacy. We frequently make the logical misstep of believing that something that is natural and/or ancient is de facto better than something manufactured and/or new. Which is just ridiculous.

    • I love your post referencing Offitt’s book. He does tend to have an axe to grind, but ‘natural’ remedies/therapies are HUGE business, though they are often positioned as the ‘purer’ less-corrupted alternatives to Big Bad Pharma.

  3. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, and all our parents back then thought the world was going to hell too, as for sure our grandparents did when our parents were growing up in the 20s and 30s. I have a letter written by my great-grandfather (born 1849) to my grandmother (born 1876) worrying that she, out in Oregon, was possibly forgetting the morals of her Indiana childhood. Doomsaying seems to be an occupational hazard of parenthood.

    There’s a good remedy for it, though. Whenever doom threatens to drive me into a cloud of nostalgia, I watch an old movie – and by that I mean a movie that I loved when I was a teenager. Would I really want to go back to a time when we laughed at Henry Higgins for pointing out that “women are irrational, that’s all there is to that – their heads are full of cotton, hay and rags”? Or at King Arthur for advising, “Never be too disturbed if you don’t understand what a woman is thinking. They don’t do it very often”? (Not to mention that Arthur’s bastard son and nemesis, Mordred, was conceived when Morgayne put a spell on Arthur – he himself was entirely blameless – or that he lost his kingdom because of his wife’s behavior.)

    Maybe we are all going to hell, but I suspect each generation is in the same handbasket.

    P.S. I love the bathing beauty pictures. I had a lovely pink polka-dot bikini when I was 18, but I probably shouldn’t have worn it at my future in-laws’ swimming pool.

    • I am reading an old James Bond novel (From Russia With Love) and I was thinking the same thing. One of the characters (a good guy) was fondly remembering kidnapping and raping women, there is a scene of two women being forced to fight to the death (naked of course) and that doesn’t even get to the issues of racism and sexism that are inherent in Bond (and the world of the 1950-60s). I can appreciate the Bond books as works of their time. But it is hard to be nostalgic for the 50s and 60s when reading them.

    • Oh, pink polka dot sounds pretty. In the interest of full disclosure, I ought to confess that there is a lovely green floral (and, yes, retro-inspired) bikini in my closet, just waiting for my next trip to the lake.

  4. Nostalgia always reminds me of American Graffiti and how it launched the nostalgia craze for 50s music. Of course nostalgia existed long before that, as Adam and LaVonne pointed out.

    You’ve done a good job showing that people don’t need to long for some time long past in order to experience what it’s like to live in physical conditions consistent with olden times; we still have them in many parts of this world. And when it comes to the cultural conditions, I’m not so sure that the cultural aspects people say they long for (1950s kids who behave, if they ever truly existed) can be separated from the aspects that are truly horrifying (racial segregation and discrimination, subjugation of women).

    The good news is that while times change, God doesn’t. Jesus is as ready to redeem people today as he was on the dusty roads of backwater Palestine 2000 years ago. Why be nostalgic? God is working here and now.


      • I agree as well. These are the good old days (and I say this is a serious retro buff!).

        Geek detail fact check:

        “American Graffiti” (1973) didn’t launch the 50s music revival. It started in 1969 when the late Richard Nader started his “Rock and Roll Revival” shows in Madison Square Garden. That same year a group of Columbia U. students formed the cover group “Sha Na Na” and played at a number of venues, most notably Woodstock.

        Then in 1972 WCBS FM in New York City became on of the first major stations in the U.S. to adopt the “oldies” format, which of course soon spread everywhere. Every Sunday night was what they called “The Doo-Wop Shop,” wherein they featured classic acapella groups.

        Yours truly remembers all this because these were my early teen years, and, disaffected by the contemporary hippie culture and its effect on my older siblings, I yearned for something different. I became one of only a couple of retro buffs in my high school. It made me that much more of an outcast, but I was OK with that, as I didn’t like their whole hippie scene.

        And hence the enduring attraction of nostalgia. When we don’t like the present, the past always looks good. But we have to be thoroughly realistic about the past. While there was much about the 1950s that I would have liked (my actual memories start somewhere in the early 60s), there was a great deal that I would have hated.

        I felt this very sharply when, as a young man, I began pastoring small churches in which most of the members were stuck somewhere in the 1950s (or earlier). My idealized vision of the 50s was really of that decade’s rebellion; theirs was of it’s status quo!

  5. Pingback: The Ungodliness of Nostalgia | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  6. And in keeping with another topic you often write about, let’s all note that in the picture your posted Marilyn is what would today be called “fat.”

  7. Pingback: ELSEWHERE: The “Evolution of the Swimsuit” and Nostalgia for More Modest Days

  8. Thanks, Tim– you’re a good sport!

    Two other key elements in the 50s retro movement also took place prior to the 1973 release of American Graffiti:

    The original (and, in my view, much better) version of “Grease” opened in Chicago in 1971, and New York in 1972. I saw it (with the original cast!) at the Royale Theater that year,

    And prior to that there was a 1970 TV commercial for 7-up that featured a greaser character from the 50s called “teen angel.” This got a lot of play at the time, as I remember seeing it a lot.

    What I didn’t know until a few minutes ago, however (truly Google was made for geeks!) was that actor in said commercial was none other than Mandy Patinkin, just starting out!

  9. It’s so easy to long for any time not NOW. Now is hard, and boring often, and the past (or the future) sound or look like so much more fun, or easier, or better, or whatever.
    I am constantly reminded that things have never been “better” things were always just things.
    One of the great things about now, from my perspective, is that it is possible to have things from earlier periods in my home and wardrobe. I’m a nerd about these things, and if I’d lived in the thirties, I wouldn’t have had the fifties, and so on.
    I must also confess that I have a vintage swimsuit which I found for a song, and I plan to wear it all over the place, but because it has style, not because it’s “more modest.”

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