Past forward

Nostalgia was always big but whether due to the uncertainty of living through a pandemic or just the rapid pace of change that we are witness to, retro is thriving. Be it fashion, decor, music or gaming, not many of us can resist a throwback.
Last Updated : 09 April 2022, 20:15 IST
Last Updated : 09 April 2022, 20:15 IST

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Aditya Thackeray, minister in the Maharashtra government, recently spoke about the imminent debut of the brand-new avatar of Mumbai's iconic BEST double-decker bus. The old double-decker bus, an omnipresent entity in countless films and photographs, was as much of a Mumbai landmark as the Gateway of India or the Marine Drive.

The new version is air-conditioned and electric, not the gas-guzzler of yore. Clearly, a fundamental departure from the old. And yet, a picture of the new model invokes clear and distinct memories. The colour and the contours of the new and improved version bear more than a passing resemblance to the original.

On similar lines, on top of the refrigerator at home, sits a product that I bought only a couple of years ago. It is new-age — distinctly so. And yet, something in the way it is designed, by way of its quaint knobs and dials, its overall look and feel and more importantly, what it spews out by way of output, harks back to the old. I talk, of course, of a popular Bluetooth stereo speaker that's designed to look like an old-fashioned radio, a product that took the market by storm when it was launched about four-odd years ago. Clearly aimed at tapping into people’s memories of listening to Binaca Geetmala and watching Chitrahaar and Chhayageet, it bundled thousands of old songs into a device that was made possible by modern technology. But all of this was packaged into a boxy-looking product, which while being sleek, distinctly evoked memories of the valve radio.

Why was this route taken? What prompts designers of new-age BEST buses and musical products to go the ‘retro’ way? In doing this, they aren’t alone. From wall clocks to kitchen appliances, from clothes to automobiles, retro is everywhere.
Is retro a marketing technique that seeks to make you reach for your wallet to own a piece of a much-loved memory? Or is it merely a peg for designers and product-makers who seek to ride both boats — change and continuity?

A space-age contribution

According to the design historian Elizabeth Guffey, ‘retro’ as a word is a space-age contribution to the dictionary. ‘Retro’ rockets provided reverse thrust and slowed a spaceship’s propulsion and that’s how the word came to be. As a cultural phenomenon, retro is something of a counterpart to ‘reverse thrust’. While this is a quaint idea, other scholars prefer to see ‘retro’ as a word that freed itself from ‘retrograde’ ‘retrospection’ and other similar words. ‘Retro’ in Latin means ‘backwards’ or ‘in past times’ and most ‘retro’ words seem to have something of a negative connotation. But ‘retro’ by itself clearly moves in a different orbit and does not suffer from this.

In his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds refers to retro as ‘a self-conscious fetish for period stylisation (in music, clothes, design)’. It is now used to describe new things that display characteristics from the relatively recent past of popular culture.

In France, the word rétro, an abbreviation for rétrospectif, gained traction with reevaluations of Charles de Gaulle and France's role in World War II. The French mode rétro of the 1970s that was captured in film and novels attempted to reconstruct the conduct of French civilians during the Nazi occupation. The term rétro was soon applied to nostalgic French fashions that recalled the same period.

Typically, the ‘nostalgia cycle’ that spurs retro is for a couple of decades, about 20 to 30 years before the present one. For example, clothing from the late 1980s up until the end of the 1990s would be characterised as retro in the present day.

The distinct elements that mark out things from a bygone time should now no longer be common. And so when those elements — clothes cut in a certain way, dated typography, curves on a product or a distinct boxiness and so on — are reintroduced, they catch your attention and magically transport you back in time. This is critical since the emotion that retro is most closely linked to is nostalgia.

‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be!’

When Uncle Joshua, a character in Peter De Vries’s 1959 novel, The Tents of Wickedness, made this remark, it was merely a humourous aside. But there is a certain truth to the statement.

The Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term ‘nostalgia’ in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain. Then, nostalgia was literally homesickness, an intense craving to return to one’s native land. The disease came to be associated with soldiers and military doctors expended much time and energy in dealing with this since maintaining morale was critical to success in war. From its initial association with space i.e. geography, eventually, nostalgia evolved to become associated with time — a yearning for the past, its personalities, possibilities, and events, especially what came to be remembered and characterised as the ‘good-old days’!

The arrival of photography gave a more concrete shape to memories. The past could now be ‘seen’ in a more real form whereas previously it could only be described as it was remembered (paintings notwithstanding, pictorial representations of the past were extremely limited).

Strictly speaking, the only remedy for nostalgia is time travel since it is impossible to bring back the past. How then is one to deal with it, even in its non-disease avatar? Could material objects from the past compensate in some form or the other? The presence of photographs and the odd material object from an earlier time and nostalgia-soaked writings or conversations are bound to have triggered the thought that there is perhaps a fortune to be made by bringing back the past in some form or the other. Hence, retro style.

Only a branding tool?

Over the past half-a-century or so, as consumerism has come to dominate the world, the usage of retro as a marketing and branding tool has been recognised as having a lot of potential. Retro products that evoke nostalgia prompt consumers to open up their wallets, quickly overcome as they are by a gush of sweet emotion.
Hari Krishnan, independent brand consultant, terms retro a ‘subset of nostalgia’. As a phenomenon, it works as a kind of push to own 'a piece of my beautiful past’, so to speak. It might not necessarily be the person’s own specific beautiful past, but might even be broadly representative of an earlier time that the person lived in.

Nagesh Manay, Strategy Planning Head of a brand communications agency, believes retro provides comfort on account of a certain familiarity that people have with whatever is being ‘retro-ed’. Five-star hotels, he says, often have a retro feel to them precisely on account of the comfort factor.

Manay also believes that other marketing reasons to go the retro route include trying to create a brand image of a legacy (even if none may, in reality, exist) and the fact that retro could give something of a competitive edge, especially in terms of visual distinctiveness. Hari Krishnan is of the view that when a product goes retro, it attracts attention.

However, does the introduction of a retro product guarantee success? The evidence is mixed.

Is it classic enough?

What is ‘retro-able’? This is a difficult question to answer. That the inspiration for retro has to come from the recent past is a given. But what in the recent past is worthy of being reinvented or recalled? Defining a classic product that has enough heft to cash in on its nostalgic value is an exercise fraught with risk.

The VW Beetle was iconic and yet, the newer version of this classic product didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. On the other hand, a low-involvement product like a pen from a popular stationery brand has made good on account of its retro feel.

Sometimes, even when a product has been ideated in a retroesque environment, marketers may choose not to emphasise its retro nature. The Fuji Instax camera, which is essentially a polaroid and looks like the cameras of yore, has chosen to focus on its instant printability feature. Clearly aimed at a younger market who in all likelihood have no memories of older cameras, the company chose not to highlight its retro aspects — both in its looks and technology.

It is all about the vibe

Clearly, the market makes retro products because there are takers. Agreed, heart-tugging nostalgia and the comfort of the once-familiar are great spend-inducers but does anything else drive the demand?

Hari Krishnan mentions another aspect of the retro mystique — the cool quotient. Retro choices are style statements — a case in point being a newfound fascination for the turntable and vinyl records, even if the turntable wasn’t exactly a part of their past. But the vibe that the product gives off — of being simple and uncomplicated — might just rub off on the person too. Or so goes the thinking.

Past at a price

In a rapidly transforming world, where change is omnipresent, it might be safe to predict that retro will continue to cast a spell. Evoking the past to create a certain sweet emotion that will also unlock your wallet is a good marketing strategy on the face of it. But often enough, retro products are not easy to produce. They are expensive to create and with the evidence demonstrating that success is not guaranteed, companies often produce them only in limited editions which automatically inflates their price. Owning a piece of your beautiful past will therefore come at a price. Hoarding a few precious artefacts from the current times in a time capsule in a dark corner of your home might just be cheaper in the long run!

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language and history.

Published 09 April 2022, 20:05 IST

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