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‘90s America Trying So Hard To Recreate Its Fantasy Of The ‘50s From TV To Fashion, Nation Embracing Ideas It Perceives As Representing A Simpler Time, Trend Watchers Say

Lisa Anderson Chicago Tribune

“I Love Lucy” is a hit on cable TV’s “NICK at NITE.” White gloves, sheer hosiery and padded derrieres are on designer runways. Pregnant teens are being called back on the moral carpet, while deadbeat dads and divorce no longer are so easily swept under it. Crooner Tony Bennett is idolized by Generation X and took the Best Album award at Wednesday night’s Grammys with his album “MTV Unplugged.”

It may seem like a parallel universe, but the look and tone in America in the ‘90s is increasingly, eerily reminiscent of the 1950s and early 1960s. It is a time fondly recalled by many Americans as the nation’s last golden era: a prosperous, wholesome, respectful, upwardly mobile time powered by values as simple as black and white, from the images on its TV screens to the signs on its segregated bathrooms.

From the so-called new “Conservative Chic” in fashion and politics to the rise of citizen militias, crackdowns on street beggars and attempts to dismantle affirmative action, things are happening that bespeak a growing yearning for a saner, safer, more orderly world where the evil are punished, the innocent protected and the hard-working rewarded.

Rich Cronin, senior vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon’s nighttime lineup, calls the trend “retro-contempo.” Women’s Wear Daily, the bible of the fashion industry, calls it the “return of the lady.”

Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House and Moses of the GOP conservatives, calls it a return to values. Gerald Celente, director of the Rhinebeck, N.Y.-based Trends Research Institute, calls it a doomed attempt to return to “the morals and values of the ‘50s - updated with a computer.”

“We have a saying at the Trends Institute: Nostalgia is a distorted view of history,” Celente said. “People look at the ‘50s as a simpler, better time, and it really wasn’t.

“Remember, the people of the ‘60s rebelled because of the repression of the ‘50s. They were rebelling against a phony society, false expectations and an ‘Ozzie and Harriet’-‘Father Knows Best’-‘Donna Reed’ mentality that existed only on television,” he said, referring to some of the era’s favorite family sitcoms.

There’s still an audience for them, as the cable network Nickelodeon discovered when it began broadcasting retro fare on “NICK at NITE” nearly 10 years ago and scored a hit with golden oldies.

“I think it’s because, in large part, people see ‘NICK at NITE’ as a refuge in a very scary world; this comes up in the research over and over again,” Cronin said. “We tap into those yearnings for a simpler time, but with a hip twist. From trailer parks to Park Avenue, it has a very broad appeal.”

Indeed, the elegant, curvy, ladylike

styles of the ‘50s, a time of fitted suits and such feminine flourishes as brooches, white gloves, sheer stockings, diamonds, sequins and red lipstick, are back.

So are curves, as demonstrated by the emergence of supermodel Nadja Auermann, a statuesque, platinumblond of the Marilyn Monroe school.

Those who don’t have curves are buying them. “The hourglass figure is very important,” said Nancy Ganz, president and founder of Bodyslimmers, Inc., which makes “shapewear,” the modern euphemism for old-fashioned foundations.

Dovetailing neatly with the needs of sagging Baby Boomers and the demands of current fashion, Ganz is doing a booming business - some 90,000 units a month - since the introduction three months ago of her “Beautiful Bottoms Collection”: “Belly Band,” “Waist Cincher” and “Buttbooster” - an updated panty girdle of the sort last popular in the early ‘60s.

Meanwhile, the February issue of Harper’s Bazaar advised that “the cardigan and pencil skirt of the ‘50s silhouette take over as the new soft suit for the ‘90s” and “it’s time to give the flip a chance,” referring to the turned-up hairstyle Laura Petrie (aka Mary Tyler Moore) made chic on the “Dick Van Dyke Show” in the early 1960s.

In March, the editors are pushing short-shorts of the sort Mitzi Gaynor wore to wash that man out of her hair in 1958’s “South Pacific.”

This classic appeal isn’t completely lost on modern program developers and filmmakers. Forrest Gump,” the tale of a good, simple man who finds the meaning of life in a box of chocolates, tops the list for Oscar nominations this year. “Look at ‘Forrest Gump’, it’s Capra-corn for the ‘90s,” said Celente, referring to Frank Capra, the Norman Rockwell of film directors, who warmed American hearts with such populist fare as 1961’s “Pocketful of Miracles.”

Everything old is new again, espe cially when it comes to the current political landscape, where mossgrown ideological territory is being re-explored at an arresting rate.

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. had it right when he wrote: “No intellectual phenomenon has been more surprising in recent years than the revival in the United States of conservatism as a respectable social philosophy … fashionable intellectual circles now dismiss liberalism as naive, ritualistic, sentimental, shallow. With a whoop and a roar, a number of conservative prophets have materialized out of the wilderness, exhuming conservatism, revisiting it, revitalizing it, preaching it.”

He might have been writing about the Republican landslide of 1994, the GOP’s “Contract with America” and the dramatic emergence of popular, conservative wise men from Rush Limbaugh to Newt Gingrich, but Schlesinger wrote those words in 1955. They appeared in a piece for The Reporter called “The Politics of Nostalgia”; the phenomenon he was chronicling then was called the New Conservatism.

It was accompanied by what Schlesinger described as a “great outburst of evangelical moralism” as charismatic religious leaders such as Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham sought to dictate private behavior. They find their parallel today in such figures as Ralph Reed, the powerful head of the Christian Coalition.

Not since Prohibition in the 1920s and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s have Americans appeared so zealous in judging one another’s behavior and so desirous of exacting punishment.

The first years of this decade have spawned a long list of movements and legislation, enacted and proposed, that reflect American society’s frustration with perceived social disorder and its firm desire to reimpose behavioral standards and punish those who trespass against them.

These range from stringent smoking bans and a revival of the death penalty to new, more punitive approaches to drunken driving and parents who fail to pay child support.

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