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America's Retro Revival

Julian Brizzi pouring a Good Word cocktail at Prime Meats, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo: Anna Bauer

Why this obsession with the aesthetics of the past? Has a whole generation of men simply realized they look strapping in arm garters? The movement is driven largely by urban males, seeking a non-mockable model of masculinity and finding it in the mustaches and bitter liquors of their forebears. But the retro revival transcends gender, intersecting conveniently with the get-back rootsiness of the green movement: it is, after all, a natural extension of Reduce-Reuse-Recycle, fetishizing a lifestyle that’s literally hand-sewn and homegrown. The music, the clothing, the furnishings, the food and drink all celebrate the organic over the synthetic, the artisanal over the prefab. No doubt the trend also reflects a collective desire to unearth something we lost, forgot, or never had in the first place: our noble ideals of craftsmanship and honest work and, especially potent among city dwellers, the memory—real or imagined—of small-town America. There are reasons why Norman Rockwell is enjoying a revival.

The anachronistas are historically promiscuous, seldom faithful to one era alone. Like an iPod set on shuffle-by-decade, they can’t decide if they’re channeling Walt Whitman, Scott Joplin, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or just mashing up all three. At most of these taverns and taprooms and haberdashers and sutleries, the only requirement is that everything be convincingly, indeterminately old.

Or at least appear so. The funny thing—given how much disused historic architecture languishes in American cities, begging for reinvention—is how many of these sepia-toned establishments are in fact brand-new, carved out of, say, a former Blockbuster Video. Their tin ceilings are no more genuine than those distressed-leather wing chairs from Restoration Hardware, and that warbly Sidney Bechet recording is no dusty 78 but an MP3 enhanced with the “vinyl crackle” effect. Walk into New York’s Bowery Hotel, all musty taxidermy and worn plank floors, and you’d swear it was a landmarked building. It was constructed five years ago. We may not know much about history, but we’ve become uncannily adept at faking it. Ah, well: authenticity, schmauthenticity. Another round, bartender—give us something nice and aged.

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