Born Too Late?

“Dressed up in a gown that trails on the floor
In a picture hat that your mother wore
Living in a world that you never saw
My little lady make believe.”

I heard Al Bowlly sweetly croon these words as I sat looking out of the window on a grey and rainy Sunday; an ideal hour for low lamps and sentimental music. It reminded me of something my mother had always said to me; “You were born too late.”

Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I long for the ‘world I never saw.’ I am utterly obsessed with history and, it is fair to say, somewhat dismissive of the present. Not only that, I bore scores of people with rants about how much better everything was ‘back in the good old days.’ Train carriages are a classic prompt for a diatribe about the decline of aesthetics. As are ‘Then and now’ pictures in hotel lobbies, visits to historic houses, photographs of early twentieth century life and, particularly, trawls through archives of fashion.

However, as pleasant as this opiate escapism is, I do often think that in my comfortable and relatively worry-free existence I should try and focus on the value of being able to contribute to today. After all, finding contemporary life distasteful is by no means unique or original. Some Victorians found their existence intolerable as the pace of change was so upsetting; quiet towns and villages rapidly added railway stations, factories and row upon row of new housing. ‘Industrial progress’ roared through Britain’s bucolic beauty. Queen Victoria, apparently one of the worst to adjust, complained about everything from fashion to factories, museums to motor cars. The Arts & Crafts movement at the end of her reign was largely a protest against relentless modernisation and industrialisation.

I always find it ludicrous that futuristic films homogenise people in such a predictable Orwellian manner. I personally think that humans, particularly when it comes to lifestyle and fashion, are becoming more, not less, individual. There are the crowd-followers of course, the people who just ‘go along with it’, but, as the last year or two has illustrated, the protestors are growing in stature. The Chap’s organised protest on Savile Row against the Abercrombie & Fitch brand was a classic illustration of the gulf between the compliant and the rebellious. Parents of Abercrombie teens must have been struck dumb by the sight of three-pieced ‘chaps’ with pipes and bismarck moustaches, insisting that the brand their little Timmy loves is the very devil and that they are not welcome on the ‘sacred ground’ of the Row.

For all it’s caricature and humour, ‘chappism’ is rebellion. It is rejection of modernity in the same way that Arts & Crafts was a rejection of Victorian industrialisation. However, as unimpressed as I am by many things in our modern world, I have never been interested in ‘movements.’ They are invariably restrictive. Also, the idea of holding myself to exist in a ‘world I never saw’ is like taking up a drug habit; you start by enjoying it, you end by needing it. Everything else around you becomes worthless, even abhorrent. You care about nothing else and serve only to protect your fragile existence. Such was the fate of William Waldorf Astor who, cursed with biblical wealth, ended his days cultivating a detached and reclusive existence at Hever Castle, pretending he was living in the age of the Tudors, having largely given up on the world of his time.

‘Giving up’ is tantamount to death. We all like to pretend now and then, as a ‘holiday from the horrors’, but it is certainly not healthy to retreat to former worlds entirely, forsaking the present and all it offers.


  1. I offen feel the same way, wishing I was born before WW2 and lived my current age in the early fifties. Mad Men and my growing collection of 50s movies only reinforce that fantasy. But at the same time I realize the luxuries we get to enjoy today, which were absent in those days, and how I get to live both the fantasies in my head and modern life in actuality. I will rebel in terms of manners and dress, but embrace many of today’s innovations and changes with open arms.

    In case you have not yet seen it, do watch “Midnight in Paris”. It deals with this exact dreaming of the past you never knew.

    April 10, 2013
  2. Well-Dressed Mongrel said:

    My nostalgic impulses are quite tempered by the knowledge that, in those bygone days, I would have been considered less than a man. The good old days were only good for some.

    April 11, 2013
  3. kaninfaan said:

    “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to were never there and where you are aint no good unless you can get away from it”

    Life is a journey.

    April 11, 2013
  4. Steve said:

    My favorite saying… “Things NEVER were what they once were”

    April 12, 2013
  5. Alan said:

    One should also acknowledge that much of that fantasy is about privilege. Were you not a white, native-born, English man, the world of yesterday would be considerably less inviting. Yes, we have sacrificed much in aesthetic harmony as a result of the relaxing of restrictions of society. And that’s the point. Many in the past would have loved to have wandered about in their underwear in public, or wear dreadlocks like a Hindu renunciate. But they were not allowed. It’s easy to forget that the long-hairs in the sixties were spat at in the street. They were the rebels.

    Today’s slovenliness may represent no more than a “school’s-out” phase; in which people are reveling in the right to be poorly dressed (which may be said to have only truly gone mainstream in the nineties), yes, but also in their right to be gay, to be black, to be women, while encountering vastly less prejudice than in the halcyon past.

    April 13, 2013
  6. Sebastian said:

    It’s the Wodehouseian disease I fear. The books of P G Wodehouse take me to an unimaginably perfect way of dressing and living.

    I long for the days of the past where people dressed well, manners were observed, etc… But I know, in reality, that that world was never truly real.

    It’s a positive thing – of course – that people can live as they wish more now than ever before, if not in all cases by any means. And this freedom at least allows those of us who observe the old traditions to live as we want!

    Both my mother and my father regularly tell me I was born 100 years too late. In many ways I agree. But I was also born too late for WWI, WWII and so many of the other tragedies that our generation cannot imagine. With that in mind I think I’ll just happily stick to reading P G Wodehouse and spending 20 minutes each day painstakingly selecting just my socks and cufflinks.

    April 14, 2013
  7. Mensu said:

    Things were never really that perfect in the past with the exception of possibly a few of the gentry. For the majority it was a quest for survival and practicality as opposed to fashion was the order of the day.

    April 16, 2013

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