The 20th Century’s Cultural Hotspots

28 October, 2016

Throughout the 20th century, every decade has had its “cultural hotspots,” places that have grabbed the collective imagination, informing everything from movies to music to advertising and beyond. Professor Amanda Hallay, a former fashion editor, trend analyst, and cultural historian, visited our penthouse library to take us on a journey through the 20th century’s most compelling landmarks, with layovers in all the places that inspired its pop culture.

Where are we starting?

We're going to start in the ’20s because this really is the birth of the modern world and pop culture. In the ’20s, everybody was obsessed with ancient Egypt to such an extent, we actually call the ’20s the Egyptian revival. When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, it ignited the popular imagination like you could not believe. You may remember inside Tutankhamun's tomb there was so much gold. Believe me, if he’d just found a rotten old sarcophagus there and a couple of mummified cats, nobody would have cared, but it was the gold and the jewels. Fabulous stuff. The new Egyptian effect took over. It was all you needed to sell an idea or sell a dress. There was wonderful Egyptian embroidery on linen coats. Prints of hieroglyphs.

What captured people’s imagination in the ’30s?

Africa. People were mad for Africa in the ’30s. During the Great Depression, people became obsessed with what aristocrats were doing, obsessed with wealth because they didn't have any. They looked to café society, to debutants, to the aristocracy, to the royals, to see what they were doing, and then became obsessed with it.

Egypt was the 20s' hot spot
In the 30s it was Africa

What were the rich people doing?

Rich people went on safari. That was the big thing to do in the ’30s. And of course they took a lot of servants. I've seen wonderful footage of people having Möet Chandon champagne on safari. Some people made a career out of going on safari. Martin and Osa Johnson, they really made a whole career out of adventuring and writing about it and having articles written about them. And in fashion, women started wearing animal fur and animal prints. There was a craze for cheetah and leopard and zebra. Suddenly, everyone had to have animal print in the ’30s because it spoke to the African craze.

Was there a big shift after the Great Depression, into the ’40s?

The animal print and Africa craze soon disappeared when we get into the ’40s. A whole new cultural hotspot developed for very political reasons. South America, Central America, and the Caribbean became the obsession of the war years because of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. At the onset of the war, Latin America and Central America were undeclared. So, we didn't know if they were going to side with the Allies. Enter Roosevelt’s Pan American Agreement, which had been in existence since 1919, but nobody cared. Suddenly, Latin America became quite important to us, to help keep our own economy and imports and exports rolling. So, Latin America was sold to the American public as being the coolest, the sexiest, the most fun, frisky, gorgeous place in the world and boy, was this a hot trend.

What sorts of trends would we have seen in the ’40s, then?

We got some big stars from Latin America as part of the Good Neighbor Policy. People like Carmen Miranda, who was sexy, fun, silly, and cute. And in fashion, there was a huge craze for this. The souvenir jacket. Costume jewelry, hats, gloves — which were particularly outrageous in the ’40s because accessories weren't rationed. Clothing was rationed, everything was rationed, but accessories weren't, because Roosevelt decided that he couldn't ration everything. And so, he didn't put a ration on accessories to keep morale up.

It the '40s Latin America was the place to go
Carmen Miranda brought attention to Brazil

And now the ’50s. So what, Grease?

In the ’50s, there were quite a few cultural hotspots, so I’ll highlight just a few. We think of Gooby architecture, international modernism, and this kind of stuff: clean, modern, ranch style architecture, everybody loved it. In the mid ’50s, Hawaii won statehood, and then very quickly, these beautiful stars’ homes where there were starburst clocks and Eames chairs started getting these little touches of Polynesia. Hula girls, Polynesian masks, palm trees, nautical knick-knacks, strange exotic prints, and sometimes an entire bar made out of bamboo where you could serve a whole host of tropical cocktails.

What else was big in the ’50s?

Later in the ’50s, one of the biggest cultural hotspots was Paris. Gay Paris. Paris was a fad, it was a craze for a number of reasons. Movies set in Paris like An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi. There was this sentimentality towards Paris, but it was fake Paris by the time it reached American pop culture. Poodles were everywhere, because of course poodles are from where? They're from France. They're called French poodles aren't they? This idea of ladies on the Champs-Élysées with poodles? People loved it.

In the mid ’50s, Hawaii was a trendy destination
Later in the ’50s, one of the biggest cultural hotspots was Paris

Let’s talk about the ’60s?

Brazil was a cultural hotspot for about three seconds. Why? Because the formation and inauguration of Brazilia in 1962. It was a big deal when Brazil decided to move their capital city from Rio to Brazilia and create this incredible mid-century modern googy, very futuristic looking city. It was hot news. People were obsessed with it. They thought it was a great idea. It looked good. It was futuristic. It kind of spoke to the space-age vibe of the era. And so, Brazil, for five minutes became hot.

But it was superseded by…?

The big cultural hotspot of the ’60s: swinging England, London in particular, which makes perfect sense. It's understandable why America fell so in love with Britain. In the wake of Kennedy's assassination, America felt very disillusioned about itself, and frightened, and unhappy, and traumatized, and quite rightly. England seemed innocent, and charming, and fun, and young. The Beatles, Twiggy, Carnaby Street, the British Invasion. And it wasn't just the Beatles. The Beatles were soon joined by the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks, and Herman's Hermits, and the Who, and the Searchers, and Petula Clark, and Dusty Springfield, and Freddy and the Dreamers… and I could stand here listing British invasion bands all day. It was all based around this idea of mod. Mod became the casual phrase in America in the ’60s for anything that was young and wore a mini skirt, or played a guitar in a group, or was cool, or was just nice or different.

The big cultural hotspot of the ’60s: swinging England
Carnaby Street cultural hotspot in the '60s

Were there any unlikely cultural hotspots?

Sweden was hot in the ’70s, which was super unexpected. ABBA won the Eurovision song contest in ’74 and much of the world realized there was a country called Sweden, which was suddenly hip and hot. People started driving Volvos. This idea that a car could be small and economical and not bad for the environment, even though people didn't really speak about the environment then. But why Sweden? Well, all of these things are kind of cool and nice, but really it all comes down to sex. The ’70s was the sexual revolution. And, Sweden was very well-known and very popular for its porn industry. Swedish porn was shown all over the world. In much of the Swedish porn, so I'm told, a lot of the goings on in these couplings would happen in Swedish saunas. And everybody in the ’70s suddenly wanted a sauna.

What came post-sauna?

The ’80s were the decade of excess. Japan was hot. In the late ’70s and early ’80s came some incredible new fashion designers from Japan like Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo, who were doing incredible new things with clothes that nobody had every done before. Then, Miami. It was about wealth. It was about glamour. And everything came together in Miami. Salsa suddenly became hot. It was sexy. Everybody was taking samba and salsa lessons. Miami Vice, the big hot show. Gianni Versace bought a house in Miami.

Sweden was hip and hot in the mid '70s
In the early ’80s Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo brought attention to Japan

And in the ’90s, approaching the millenium?

In the ’90s, we really wanted to get away from that excess. Everything got very real in a place that people thought was so real, Seattle. Of course, grunge came from Seattle and Sleepless in Seattle, the big rom-com. The hit show Frasier, which replaced the Golden Girls, but best of all, God love it, Starbucks came from Seattle. And Starbucks had already been around for quite a few years, but not outside of Seattle. In the ’90s it resonated so perfectly. Real coffee for real people that came from a real place. This was the era of getting back to real things, celebrating the working man, the common man. Think about shows like The Simpsons. Homer Simpson became an icon and this all tied in with this grittiness that we associated with Seattle.

And now where are we?

Up to date: the 2000s. I think the Internet is the cultural hotspot. That's the place we all go to. We recognize everything visually, don't we? Every icon, every symbol, it's what we get excited about. It has given us our own celebrities. Really, would there be any Kardashian fame if we couldn't follow their every move on Twitter or Instagram. I don't know how all of this is really going to be perceived by somebody like me in 50 years. But really, this is our new location: Netflix, not even the Internet. It's like, "Where are you going tonight?" Netflix. And if you're going on a date, where are you going? Netflix and chill.

Seattle was a big cultural destination in the 2000s

What’s next?

I think the mind will be a location. I think it's about time. We’ve focused so much on our bodies over the past 20 years and going to the gym and what we eat. I do think, or maybe it's just wishful thinking, the brain is going to make comeback.

Words by The Editors and Amanda Hallay.

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