Ralph Lauren has made millions from his Polo brand. His simple, classic styles, evocative of Old England, Nantucket, afternoon tea, castles, downs, and the privileged, elegant life respond to a very American envy of upper class ways and a belief in the value of authenticity.
Lauren’s ads appeal to both. Old, leather bound books, faded Persian rugs, ivory-headed walking sticks, dried grasses from the dunes, comfortable leather armchairs, Townsend furniture, and Seth Thomas clocks are both ‘natural’ and aristocratic. The best of both worlds respects the past, abhors plastic and excess, and is above all an enclave of good taste.
Downton Abbey was one of the most popular shows on PBS because it portrayed the forefathers of America’s Nantucket, Main Line, Beacon Hill, and Park Avenue elites in all their restrained, tasteful, mannerly ways; but gave them their comeuppance. It is all well and good for Americans to idolize the rich and privileged, but there must be a fall otherwise the principles of the Revolution would be compromised.
We tuned in to Downton Abbey because we liked to watch the super-rich, the English aristocracy, and lives of quiet elegance and all that we would never have.
Victorian England has always had a hold on America. Empire, Churchillian values, confidence, reverence for God, King, and Country, the discipline of Eton and Harrow that made leaders of men; and above all, pomp and ceremony.
In all PBS Edwardian soap operas, like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, we may have rooted for the scullery maid or the footman, enjoyed the camaraderie and earthy enjoyment of the staff, but we cared only for the toffs.
Victorian and Edwardian England may seem remote, but the images of an even earlier England, that of the imperial King George who ruled us in the 1700s, are American emblems. Our Founding Fathers looked like Englishmen, dressed like them, behaved as aristocratically as their forefathers, built English-style homes as graceful and elegant as the country manors of England.
Montpelier, country estate of James Madison
Our Eastern city neighborhoods are English. Georgetown, Beacon Hill, and Rittenhouse Square are like South Kensington or Holland Park.
Aristocratic England is all the more appealing because it is remote and impossibly unattainable. We would fumble and drop our forks at Downton Abbey or trip over the Persian carpet at Montpelier. English Lords and their estates, fox hunting, understatement, and chauffeurs are way beyond us. We can imagine having a beer with Matthew McConaughey, but not the Third Earl of Hereford.
Authenticity may be based on our aristocratic past; but for many it has more local roots. It was no accident that both Ronald Reagan – Hollywood actor and The Great Communicator – and George W. Bush, patrician son of a president, grandson of a Senator, and inheritor of 200 years of storied family history, were photographed clearing brush.
There was authenticity in the simple, practical, necessary action of tending to one’s property. Repairing fences, digging wells, building barns, and riding the herd were very much iconic acts. They represented rugged individualism, conquest of the harsh frontier, Westward expansion, and American courage.
The American quest for authenticity goes far beyond politics. A return to nature has been a part of our romantic history since Thoreau and Robert Frost.
"I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion”, said Thoreau in Walden , echoing the sentiments of Wordsworth in Mont Blanc:
Early Americans discovered the land. Although many early English and Scandinavian settlers had been farmers in Europe, they were stunned at the fertile vastness of the Midwestern prairies, the rich lands of the Tidewater, and the black dirt of the Mississippi Delta. Those that populated Texas and the rangelands of the Southwest could not believe their good fortune.
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild, So solemn, so serene, that man may be But for such faith with nature reconciled; Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood By all, but which the wise, and great, and good Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
It is no surprise, then, that today’s Americans, inheritors of a legitimately ‘natural’ legacy of land and tradition, long for a more authentic past. Those with money can find refuge in the privileged enclaves of Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Maine, or Northern California. Those without make do with Ralph Lauren and Downton Abbey.
Nostalgia has always been big business. Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris was all about how disaffected, often lonely people who look to the past for romance.
The Burt Lancaster character in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, an elderly, gentlemanly gangster looks out over the ocean and says to his young friend, “ The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days”.
The organic, locavore, farmers’ market consumers express a different but still very American sentiment for the past. There is little evidence if at all for the health benefits of organic, locally-grown food; yet a strong urban movement has lionized local farmers, vilified GMO advocates, and helped quasi-organic enterprises like Whole Foods to make millions. These young advocates for a more pure way of eating are reflective of thousands of disaffected American who are unhappy with the Hollywood-Las Vegas culture of faux reality, plastic recreations, and erosion of fundamental Enlightenment values.
Good luck. The majority of Americans are quite happy with glitz, reality TV, People Magazine, and lowbrow sensual culture. We love the Kardashians, Donald Trump, Madonna, Adele, and Justin Bieber. We want to see more of their bodies, hair styles, babies, and antics in Antigua.
Those who feature Downton Abbey, the Brontes, Nantucket, or the North Coast in their cultural repertoire are antiques, historical wannabees who don’t get it. Tweeds, leather, silver tea services, and English manor houses are not more than expected fantasies – understandable given our colonial past, but irrelevant in an age of virtuality and glitz.
America, although romantically attached to Victorian England, the Old South, the Texan cowboy, and the rugged individualist, is at heart middle-brow and movie star besotted.
The locavore, organic, and leather devotees are but an interesting aberration. Alice Waters, Redzepi, and the underground favorites of the Mission are but blips on America’s cultural radar. The mainstream is, as it always has been, Hollywood, Las Vegas, blitz and bling.
This is not a bad thing. There is no accounting for taste, after all; and American popular culture is our biggest export. In the American century, fantasy and image are our products to be celebrated. Our age is coming to an end, but all do.