Egads, Watson! What’s Up with the 19th Century Thing?

In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that
nostalgia was an illness. A hundred years ago, Freud gave a famous lecture at
Clark University in which he pointed out that “hysterical patients suffer from
reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic symbols of particular
experiences.” If this is true, I wonder what must be behind contemporary
culture’s current nostalgia for the 19th century itself, manifested in a
superabundance of handlebar mustaches, arm garters, taxidermy and ornate
typography—those trappings of the Victorian Age that seem to be showing up
everywhere these days.

In New York, it started a few years ago with the opening of
bars and restaurants like Freemans, Smith & Mills, Five Leaves, and Hotel
Delmano, all of which bespeak a bespoke bohemia based on a proliferation of
antlers, dreamy landscape paintings, tin ceilings, Edison bulbs and baroquely
named mixed drinks listed on finely filigreed menus. (In his 2007 historical
novel Heyday, which takes place in the
mid-19th century, author Kurt Andersen could easily be describing an
experience in one of these retro redoubts when he writes of his main character
perusing a cocktail menu: “He wore a dazed smile and moved his lips as he read
the names of the American drinks he knew . . . and wondered about the
ingredients of the ones he didn’t—the Timberdoodles, Syracuse Smashers,
Flip-Flaps, Drizzles, and Great Big Boys.”)

Freemans Restaurant in New York.

The Freemans phenomenon springs largely from the vision of
two interior designer brothers, Johnny and Kevin McCormick, who have populated
pubs with distressed décors and a belief that “people wanted a little more
warmth and history back.” While after nearly a decade of Karim Rashid–replicant
restaurants this is certainly true, there’s more behind Neo-Victorian nostalgia
than just a pendulum swing away from slick. For one, despite the flourishes of
the 19th-century aesthetic, it is a trend that seems emphatically masculine in nature. The McCormicks are not the only male
siblings in the gaslight game. The Mast Brothers—the bearded and
Williamsburg-based chocolate makers—have also become identified as
neo-Victorian nabobs whose artful packaging employs Florentine wrapping paper
and a simple craft label with their name on it.

The Mast Brothers and their chocolate.

Fashion designers like Alexander McQueen have followed suit
in menswear collections that feature frock coats, hats, and spats on models
that look ready for a Five Points–style rumble if you dare to question their
masculinity. And this Christmas, Sherlock Holmes—that patron saint of Victorian
vigor—is appearing in a Guy Ritchie remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 19th-century
novels starring Robert Downey Jr., whose forty-something torso is stripped for
fisticuffs in publicity stills.

 An Alexander McQueen outfit.
A still from the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes movie.

With its downbeat economy and seemingly endless wars abroad,
the America of today has much in common with a time in the not-so-distant past
that also saw a rise in interest in the Victorian aesthetic: the mid-1970s.
Back then, American masculinity was in a siege state as well—victim in part to
the Vietnam War and the changing gender roles inspired by women’s lib. And
while this time around chances are no millennial male will dare to dress
himself in knickers the way Nick Fleetwood did on the cover of Rumours, these days there’s a definite comfort in
curlicues—a repudiation of hard-edged reality that’s also evident in graphics
that delight in detail.

Rob Barnickel

a Brooklyn-based graphic designer known for creating finely
wrought branding campaigns for everything from bands to menswear lines, points
to the lure of 19th-century Romanticism in the face of grim post-industrial
society. In his identity for South African photographer Sacha Waldman,
Barnickel borrows inspiration from the 19th-century French typographer Charles
Derriye, who was renowned for deeply decorative borders and floral fillips. And
in a series of T-shirt graphics he designed for the fashion label What Comes
Around Goes Around, Barnickel juxtaposes detailed engravings of wild animals
mounting a grid of impossible, Escher-like elements in a seeming smackdown
between Victorian naturalism and the neon 1980s—another all-encompassing
cultural trend. (In this instance at least, nature, “red in tooth and claw,”
seems to be kicking Escher’s ass.)
Two pieces by designer Rob Barnickel.

Like all stylistic moments, however, the current Gilded Age is
bound to pass at some point.  So if
you happen to be distinctly anti-antimacassar
and relish a return to flush-left Helvetica and rectilinear furniture, chances
are good that your time will soon come. The Lazy Susan of styles is in constant
rotation—and another 19th-century term for nostalgia is
Schweizerheimweh, which translates as “Swiss homesickness.”