What Is Decadism? An Explanation and a Top 10 List

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by Lucy Ives
August 2, 2013 8:40 AM
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Decadism may be defined as a dependence on the decade—as a time-keeping unit and also as a way of thinking about changing cultural mores and aesthetics. It’s an American invention. Decadism is America’s great contribution to contemporary fashion in the West, which is otherwise largely the product of Paris, capital of the 19th century. Throwing the concept of even vaguely gradual change (the subtle raising and lowering of hemlines, the expansion or diminution of bodices, bustles, sleeves, and pantaloons) out the window, America saturated its version of the decade with consumable material and industrial specifics, architectural silhouettes, ludicrous trends, and “it” items like the poodle skirt or bell-bottoms. As Walter Benjamin noted, “Fashions are a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion. The more short-lived a period, the more susceptible it is to fashion.” The decade of America’s speed-obsessed 20th century—say the 1920s, the 1970s, or the 1990s, take your pick—is just so damn precise, so recognizable. In this sense, to talk about American decades and decadism isn’t just nostalgic; it’s an exploration of the way in which changing tastes reflect other societal variations and upheavals.

But things have, as things will, changed. As networked technology propels us ever more discernibly into an era simultaneously obsessed with sharable fashion imagery and characterized by the international proliferation of microtrends that appear and pass away with a blasé alacrity alarming to the traditional fashion magazine, we’ve begun to witness the consolidation of a new nostalgia. This new nostalgia is a longing for the old way of doing fashion, for—you guessed it—the temporality of the decade. Our new nostalgia is decadism. We’re becoming decadist all over again! Decadism is now not merely a sign of nostalgia for the decade in question. It’s a sign of nostalgia for decade-based fashion and thinking in general, for a system for organizing tastes based on the notion of the decade. In this sense, though the word “decade” (from the Greek for “ten”) is etymologically unrelated to the term “decadence” (associated with “decay”), decadism is rapidly replacing decadence as a kind of gently reactionary aesthetic and experiential mode. We live in a time of archive fever, of historical tourism (from Wikipedia to Drunk History Month), of “favoriting” and all the other preferential tools the Internet holds. Decadism allows us a return to a less particulate, niche, complex, and incessantly updated way of establishing taste. Decadism is a respite—not just from the present but from the future.

One of the best places to observe decadism, both old and new, is, of course, at the movies. Decadism does very well on film (or video, as the case may be). The decadist work is, however, not to be confused with the period piece, the historical drama. While some historical dramas are also decadist films, not all decadist films are historical dramas. Decadism requires a certain decorative saturation, a certain studied inattention to elements not intimately associated with aesthetics, such as plot. For example, the only imaginable excuse for the canned, comatose travesty that is Baz Luhrmann’s recent The Great Gatsby is the film’s decadist pretensions. While Gatsby is obviously not a historically accurate portrayal of the 1920s, the drive to produce a total “era” of some jazzy, boozy, gilt-plated totalizing persuasion explains what the professionals who participated in the making of this turd could have been thinking. Decadism is a pursuit of its own, with its own terms and grounds. Like Azealia Banks’s video for “1991,” which brought back delicious notes of Crystal Waters, C+C Music Factory, Deee-Lite, et al.—and even a little hint, to my mind, of the greatly underappreciated King of New York (1990)—decadist films revel in establishing a thickly described and even escapist visual environment. All movies by John Waters (pre-1994) are decadist. Much of the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, even when set in the present, is decadist; The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), for example, is a priori decadist, with its rococo loathing for the decade yet to come. Wes Anderson is very twee and a tiny bit decadist. Pedro Almodóvar could be the greatest decadist colorist of all time. Much as I hate to admit it, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) has a certain decadist bent. Utopian and even futuristic films have connections to decadism; the decorative pleasure they imagine is quite similar to the pleasures of decadism. Decadism is, overall, a more or less weak form of camp, an environmental camp offered to a viewing eye (apparently) deprived of aesthetic coherence. Decadism is not about looking into the past, but rather about converting the past into a slightly jokey, hokey, and even surreally vivid surface, so that the past appears as something that is not only not lost in the present, but as something we cannot lose.

For those longing, then, for some deeply decadist viewing, here is my own eccentric list of ten movies with serious, for better or for worse, decadismo:

10. Dick Tracy (1990): Let’s get this early ’90s atrocity out of the way. At first you can’t remember whether this movie isn’t just a series of outtakes from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video (which would probably make for a much better film), but then there’s Al Pacino as a hunchbacked gangster and Warren Beatty as the uptight dude who loves yellow outerwear. Standard-setting use of cheeseball noir and deco elements, one must admit—though the fact that this was originally a comic strip might have something to do with that. I feel like every movie I’ve ever hated made over the past twenty-three years was somehow spawned by this lurid 3D adaptation of stuff that works much better on the page.




9. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954): They live on the frontier, go a-barn raisin’, and have alphabetized names from the Old Testament. Enough said.



8. Singin’ in the Rain (1952): It’s not lost on me that the first three items on this list are all American musicals of some persuasion. It’s not like there aren’t a bunch out there (Mary Poppins (1964) and My Fair Lady (also 1964), for example, are actually guides to late-Victorian upholstery), so it’s low-hanging fruit, but one has to recognize the meta-theatrical genius of this adorably daffy and nicely costumed Gene Kelly vehicle about the origins of “talkies.”



7. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Come for the white lace, stay for the sunbaked hysteria. There’s a certain Stevie Nicks thing at work in this Australian film, a ’70s exploration of the year 1900, with, among other things, questionably accurate hair. Beyond the clothing, this ripped-from-the-headlines tale of disappearing virgins plays on the period feminine ideal to disturbing effect.


6. A Single Man (2009): We’re going back to the 1960s from 2009 now, because Tom Ford wants me to. This one makes the list for the scenes where the immaculate Julianne Moore is getting sloppy drunk in her residence—and for the lovingly shot architecture. Thank you Tom for making us such a gorgeous, painstakingly realized fashion eyewear advertisement! (Here we could also throw in Far From Heaven (2002), Revolutionary Road (2008), and other tame postwar recreations.)


5. In the Mood for Love (2000): Soulful and slightly sentimental where Jean-Luc Godard is precise and political, Wong Kar-wai is still a genius when it comes to the portrayal of the world of things. I might like to be reincarnated as Tony Leung’s pocket comb. I’m only halfway kidding about that.

4. Interiors (1978): This little-known Woody Allen gem is set in the present, which is to say the 1970s, the time at which it was made, but truly it is one of the most stylish films I have ever seen. I could care less about the angst-y narrative of Mother and Father’s broken marriage, but oh, those rooms! Those vases!

3. House (1977): Admittedly, I’m cheating again, but this has to be about the most aesthetically specific movie of all time. Actually, I think it’s about cutting-edge fashions of 1983? Nobuhiko Obayashi makes us consider what happens when day-glo innocence is threatened by low-budget funhouse sadism, with just a touch of real horror (blood, wet hair). This movie also reminds me a lot of the way cats are currently portrayed online.

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2. Behind the Candelabra (2013): Dear Powers That Be, I want you to know that I never really “got” Matt Damon until I saw him with this many noses. Holy shit, this is one of the greatest decadist films of all time and it only just appeared!

1. I recant. As I pause to think about it some more, the truly, purely, absolutely decadist film actually portrays its own present. From People on Sunday (1930) to E.T. (1982), only the most deeply cut trace of the present can make for an intensely decadist experience. Thus, it’s without shame that I say that my favorite decadist film also mostly reflects its own present. This is Daisies (1966), about two girls who have fun and do a “fashion show” that involves slowly prancing over a banquet table, squishing the food, and removing some, though not all of, their modish, mass-produced clothes.

Lucy Ives was born in New York City in 1980, received an AB from Harvard College, an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is currently completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at New York University. She has lived outside the U.S. for extended periods in Hirosaki, Japan, and Paris and has studied French, German, Greek, Japanese, and Latin, among other languages. She is the author of the books Orange Roses (Ahsahta Press, 2013), Nineties (Tea Party Republicans Press, 2013), Anamnesis (Slope Editions, 2009), and the chapbook My Thousand Novel (Cosa Nostra Editions, 2009). She is a deputy editor at Triple Canopy.


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