I struggle to breathe as I shimmy into the 100-year-old dress I am trying desperately to not tear. A quiet panic washes over me as I try to replicate the 1920s makeup look I pulled up on Google images. All this preparation is for an event I’m bound to attend in a few hours: the Gatsby Summer Afternoon.
A Gatsby Summer Afternoon, aptly referencing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a celebration that vintage enthusiasts and committed hobbyists from all over the country come to attend. Unfortunately, I am neither a hobbyist nor do I have the necessary knowledge to call myself an enthusiast. Instead, I’m a coincidental guest who’s found herself on the guest list through pure luck and a generous friend or two.
Knowing nothing about the event, the era, or the niche hobby, I try to rectify some of my ignorance. I check the event website and there I find a feast of information on overlooked nuances of the era, from what distinguishes the dresses of different decades to guides on finding elusive vintage artifacts, or — at the very least — their modern, inconspicuous counterparts (Trader Joe’s has a very vintage-looking bottle of orangeade, apparently). I close the tab only slightly less ignorant than before; I now know the importance of a hat and that cans should never, under any circumstance, make an appearance at the event. A Gatsby Summer Afternoon is a meticulously orchestrated illusion that I try not to judge for being an indulgent form of nostalgic escapism.
I close the tab only slightly less ignorant than before; I now know the importance of a hat and that cans should never, under any circumstance, make an appearance at the event.
I consider all the observable ways I’ve marked myself with modernity: tattoos, piercings, dyed hair — I can’t help but worry that these out-of-place features will be a rude intrusion on someone else’s escape from the present. But my earlier fears feel a bit unwarranted as we make our way down Oakland freeways in a Subaru, park in front of a block of office buildings, and wait for a golf cart to deliver us to another generation. Escaping modernity turns out to be a rather impossible feat, and it’s clear I wouldn’t be the only modern intrusion.
The event is a spectacle and I am transported. Somehow I’ve wrestled free from the 21st century and stepped into another world. What hits me at once is that this choreographed reunion with the past is aesthetically driven; I find myself in a kind of time warp marked by colonial gazebos, iPhones, Charleston dance-offs and a picnic of props where I never lose the sense that I’m in a decade-limbo, never really fully in one time or another.
Attendees walk the grounds, mingle with others and enjoy the invigorating quality that comes with being surrounded by people who all hold the same passionate enthusiasm for something. Despite my initial insecurities about belonging, I’m right alongside them in collective exhilaration. We all hold on tight to our phones, taking pictures and trying to capture the experience.
In retrospect, I can see a kind of wry absurdity accompanying it — the fleeting, forgettable quality of an iPhone’s photo library juxtaposed with the occasion itself being only a visual resurrection of some other time. When I look back at these photos, will it be the 1920s or the 2020s that I feel nostalgic for?
The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek words nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain). Their fusion is an attempt to capture the feeling of homesickness or a yearning to revisit some piece of one’s personal history. Of course, the century that’s passed precludes us from any kind of personal history with the era; we couldn’t be nostalgic for the 1920s, not in the same way some people feel nostalgic for the smell of Play-Doh or the sound of 90s grunge.
In his book titled Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, literary critic Frederic Jameson coins the term “post-nostalgia” to express a newer, more removed form of nostalgia. Post-nostalgia refers both to the longing for a past never encountered, and to how we have come to “consume the past in the form of glossy images.” In this way, nostalgia falls short of conveying the specific visual fascination we have for long-gone eras.
Our own nostalgic reserves no longer seem to satiate whatever it is we yearn for in the present, so we hunt for a history even further removed from us. What are we even longing for when we reach out post-nostalgically?
I think that it is more than some longing for leisure or the authenticity of vintage objects we look for; we crave a sense of community. Our present isn’t replete with public spaces where people simply come together for no other purpose than to enjoy the company of others. Both forms of nostalgia are forms of escapism, but I think the more overlooked and beneficial power of nostalgia lies in the fact that it can show us that things don’t always have to be the way they are now.
Perhaps, when we’re yearning for a long-dead past, we should remember to ask ourselves what this yearning says about what it is we hope to have in our future, and then act on it.