High above the clouds, men in business suits and women in bright, Jackie Kennedy–inspired dresses smoke cigarettes, drink chilled vodka and dine on a freshly carved roast served to their seats by an Air Canada stewardess.
The year is 1966 and a young Linda Meckling is just beginning her stewardessing career.
After an extensive interview process, including strict physical requirements, Meckling had been selected. She says she was excited and ready to travel. She then spent 37 years travelling the world, making sure she attended the regular weigh-ins and never forgetting her hat, gloves and girdle. She says she has many “silly stories” and fond memories from those days.
Lately, Meckling says she has been receiving calls from friends to chat about the TV Show Pan Am, about a group of young stewardesses flying around the world in the 1960s.
“I think it is such a fun show; it’s kind of a spoof on the time period. It’s true that the supervisors were very much there and the girls looked fabulous, absolutely tremendous, but there are a lot of things [in the show] that would probably not go,” she says.
The swinging ’60s
Pan Am wasn’t first, of course: The wildly popular Mad Men, about advertising executives, is has been the first successful TV series to take viewers back to the early sixties. And this ’60s resurgence isn’t limited to TV. The era, both early and late ’60s, has become a trend in contemporary arts and entertainment, most notably in fashion.
Runway shows for the past year have featured early-and-mod-’60s-inspired patterns and pieces. The venerable New York Times has covered fashion stories showcasing the revival of the early and late ’60s. Local news media, like the Ottawa Sun, reported early-’60s-influenced pieces as fashion essentials for this past fall. Fashion magazines locally and abroad, like Vogue and LouLou Magazine, have featured mod-’60s-shaped dresses with a contemporary spin, incorporating patterns and fabrics from this decade.
But what is it about the 1960s that so appeals today? Meckling says she thinks it’s because the ’60s were a more carefree era.
“Shows like Pan Am are just fun. It’s a fun thing and maybe people just need that kind of release,” she says.
Many experts agree that in today’s anxious and conservative society, looking to a more idealistic, positive time provides comfort and inspiration. Anne Gorsuch, a history professor of University of British Columbia, shares this view.
“In so much of the world there’s a sense of pessimism about the future; the ’60s offers a moment where people thought they could do something, and they stepped up to do something,” Gorsuch says.
The 1960s saw significant developments in such areas as civil rights and women’s rights. Gorsuch says this is because the 1960s were an optimistic time, and people felt secure enough to push for change.
“People felt empowered, and I don’t think people generally feel that way right now,” she says. So audiences today are nostalgic for the positive ideals of the ’60s, and the entertainment and fashion industries have caught on.
“I think Mad Men hooked into this nostalgia,” says Gorsuch. “It’s a way of explaining who we are now. It’s a period of romanticism, so it’s attractive.”
Elegance of the classic ’60s
The early ’60s were a more traditional period than the later part of the decade, when people began to demand change, says Tracy Penny Light, a professor of history at the University of Waterloo. The early ’60s in North America were conservative, politically and socially, and this attitude was reflected in fashion. The average middle-class woman wanted to emulate Jackie Kennedy’s tidy and traditional look, says Penny Light.
Both the fitted, patterned dresses of the early ’60s and the mod dresses of the late ’60s have appeared recently on runways and in Canadian fashion magazines. But it’s not just in women’s fashion: For example, Banana Republic recently launched a ’60s-influenced line of men’s suits, referencing Mad Men in the ad campaign.
Finding true vintage or early-’60s-influenced pieces has become a popular trend, says Julie Yoo, owner of I Miss You Vintage Fashion Boutique in Toronto.
“I’m seeing a lot of a return to the classic ’50s and ’60s even on TV,” says Yoo, “so we are seeing a real resurgence of that.” Yoo says she thinks the allure of early ’60s pieces is their charming, feminine, hourglass shape.
“They’re great classic pieces. Clean and easy cuts, very feminine, figure flattering, easy to wear separates, and not fussy,” she says.
Rebels with a cause
In Canada and the United States, the early ’60s paved the way for significant social and political change later in the decade. With the election of Pierre Trudeau came more liberal ideals, and with them a society that wasn’t afraid of living outside the box. Women were no longer restricted to pieces illustrating their femininity; instead they began to break tradition and wear mod dresses. Later, both men and women grew their hair and wore flared jeans, dispelling the traditional gender roles with their clothing.
The current revival of early and late ’60s isn’t limited to arts and fashion: Large-scale social movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring suggest that our modern era may be — more than just infatuated — inspired by this period.
Adam Green, a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, believes that people today find inspiration in the 1960s probably because it’s the best example of a decade that rejected conservatism, restriction, and discipline.
“I think the ’60s for most people represent the complete opposite; it was the heyday of no boundaries, no rules,” says Green. Green says societies cycle between liberal and conservative times. He says when society is leaning towards change this desire is represented in art first, because art is about pushing boundaries.
“We are in a very small-C conservative time here, in the United States, the U.K., France and just about everywhere, but art is always ahead of its time. What happens in art today happens in society tomorrow,” he says.
“The stuff that we are seeing now in terms of fashion, music, and TV is an indication that maybe in five years or 10 years there will be another swing back into a more liberal time,” he says.
Until then, we can live vicariously through our TV screens, pretending to be in the more simple and optimistic ’60s.