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

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In the late 19th century, it was widely believed thatnostalgia was an illness. A hundred years ago, Freud gave a famous lecture atClark University in which he pointed out that “hysterical patients suffer fromreminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic symbols of particularexperiences.” If this is true, I wonder what must be behind contemporaryculture’s current nostalgia for the 19th century itself, manifested in asuperabundance of handlebar mustaches, arm garters, taxidermy and ornatetypography—those trappings of the Victorian Age that seem to be showing upeverywhere these days.

In New York, it started a few years ago with the opening ofbars and restaurants like Freemans, Smith & Mills, Five Leaves, and HotelDelmano, all of which bespeak a bespoke bohemia based on a proliferation ofantlers, dreamy landscape paintings, tin ceilings, Edison bulbs and baroquelynamed mixed drinks listed on finely filigreed menus. (In his 2007 historicalnovel Heyday, which takes place in themid-19th century, author Kurt Andersen could easily be describing anexperience in one of these retro redoubts when he writes of his main characterperusing a cocktail menu: “He wore a dazed smile and moved his lips as he readthe names of the American drinks he knew . . . and wondered about theingredients 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 oftwo interior designer brothers, Johnny and Kevin McCormick, who have populatedpubs with distressed décors and a belief that “people wanted a little morewarmth and history back.” While after nearly a decade of Karim Rashid–replicantrestaurants this is certainly true, there’s more behind Neo-Victorian nostalgiathan just a pendulum swing away from slick. For one, despite the flourishes ofthe 19th-century aesthetic, it is a trend that seems emphatically masculine in nature. The McCormicks are not the only malesiblings in the gaslight game. The Mast Brothers—the bearded andWilliamsburg-based chocolate makers—have also become identified asneo-Victorian nabobs whose artful packaging employs Florentine wrapping paperand a simple craft label with their name on it.

The Mast Brothers and their chocolate.

Fashion designers like Alexander McQueen have followed suitin menswear collections that feature frock coats, hats, and spats on modelsthat look ready for a Five Points–style rumble if you dare to question theirmasculinity. And this Christmas, Sherlock Holmes—that patron saint of Victorianvigor—is appearing in a Guy Ritchie remake of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 19th-centurynovels starring Robert Downey Jr., whose forty-something torso is stripped forfisticuffs 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 pastthat 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 tothe Vietnam War and the changing gender roles inspired by women’s lib. Andwhile this time around chances are no millennial male will dare to dresshimself in knickers the way Nick Fleetwood did on the cover of Rumours, these days there’s a definite comfort incurlicues—a repudiation of hard-edged reality that’s also evident in graphicsthat delight in detail.

Two pieces by designer Rob Barnickel.

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