In the wake of the Jubilee and its proliferation of patriotic kitsch, Laura Brightwell examines the rise of retro chic in Britain and whether cupcake feminism has more substance than its real-life namesake
In a recent post at The Quietus, Meryl Trussler questioned the revival by young feminists of traditional domestic crafts such as baking and knitting. She suggested that although “cupcake feminism” provides much fodder for the feminist messages of vagina cupcakes and subversive cross-stitching, it also buys into a romanticised ideal of middle-class, white femininity. This poses some pointed questions. Is cupcake feminism a tongue-in-cheek celebration of female crafts or an elitist pastime? How radical can a trend that glamorises white, middle-class femininity be?
The Jubilee celebrations earlier this year saw a proliferation of Rule Britannia sentiment such as I had never seen in my lifetime. Admittedly, I missed Will’s wedding last year so maybe it wasn’t that surprising to the rest of you, but I did find the mass of union flags around the place a bit weird. In the explosion of shopping that was the bank holiday, the nation seemed obsessed with tea-towel trash. The recent trend for retromania was reflected in the sales of Jubilee kitsch such as mugs, jelly moulds and, of course, the ever-popular cupcake. This splurge of shopping balanced real patriotic sentiment with an excuse to indulge in too much victoria sponge. It also confirmed that kitsch is undoubtedly very cool.
But retromania has definite conservative overtones. For many retailers, the Jubilee seemed an excuse to boost falling sales via an expression of forced patriotic sentiment. While mainstream news outlets celebrated the effect all this shopping has on our economy, some writers on the internet are critical of this apparent nationalism and suggest it masks contemporary questions about Britain’s identity and future.
Of course, retro chic is not such a new phenomenon. Homemade products have been making their way back into the mainstream since the 2000s and crafts such as knitting, baking and upcycling are way in. The commercialisation of craft has become viable business for local entrepreneurs. Witness the rise of homemade cakes at farmers markets, knitted tea cosies at craft fairs – craft fairs themselves. I think you all know what I’m talking about.
But does ’50s coronation nostalgia have a place in the Britain of today? The aesthetic being revived is distinctly white and middle-class. Celebrating some vague notion of all-white British tradition is problematic in a racist country still terrorised by fantasies about Muslim bombers and immigrants “taking all the jobs”. Is it OK to pretend Britishness or Englishness is all about cream tea and tiny white sandwiches in a multi-ethnic country where the fascism of the BNP feels like a real threat? Or does the comeback of coronation chicken hide an attempt to push chicken tikka masala off the national menu?
On the other hand, as a nation in the middle of an economic recession, it does make sense that we are harking back to a former time of thrift. Post-World War II, housewives really did have to make do. While high-street Jubilee retromania seems to be all Selfridges, Emma Bridgewater and Cath Kidston, there is a real use of homemade products in the craft fairs and homes of young and middle-class Britain. At a time when even privileged members of the middle-classes like myself feel like our futures are no longer guaranteed by the accident of our birth and access to education, crafting your own bunting is a cheap alternative to buying it on Oxford Street. Perhaps homemade products are practical now we have less cash to spare and, being unemployed, more time to spend.
Still, all these cute little cupcakes and knitted tea cosies don’t seem to reflect real economic need. The undoubtable cool of making your own soap does smack of poverty tourism. I mean, if youngsters like me really were knitting to economise, surely we would be making warm jumpers, not pompoms whose only use is decorative. And even when these crafts are useful, it is worth asking who is doing the baking and why.
It almost goes without saying that the answer is: women. While Phil Spencer is Kirstie Allsopp’s sidekick, you won’t see him getting down and dirty with the cushion covers. This glamorisation of domestic work is potentially troublesome at a time when British women have the most economic freedom we have ever had. That we are, once again, expected to labour over our baking (spotted dicks all round, please!) and to love it, is a bit problematic. Even my career-woman mother wasn’t expected to cook two-course meals from scratch every day. When baking is the cool thing for every yummy mummy to do, to what extent is it a choice? Is the renaissance of domestic crafts harmless, or does it mask a more sinister desire to get women back into the kitchen?
In his critique of ‘innocentese’ in advertising and music, Dorian Lynskey argues that the rise of whimsy belies a desire to escape the “down the shitcan” reality of a world gripped by terrorism and economic crises. Crafting fashion professes a similar faux naïveté. The apparently innocent glamorisation of what used to be grueling domestic labour conveniently forgets that women been busy doing stuff other than baking cakes. There have been whole waves of feminism to get us to this point. Which makes the whole, “yay, let’s spend our free time crafting rosettes and other unnecessary decorations” thing a bit suspect. Wouldn’t our time be better spent demonstrating against the wage gap? It seems that, even in the 1950s, less home cooking was done. I mean, has anyone seen Betty Draper’s cooking in Mad Men? It’s more like a chemistry lesson than a charming picture of wholesome cuisine. Don’t let’s forget, this was the decade that saw the creation of frozen foods and the TV dinner.
Let’s face it, this isn’t really about saving money. Crafting chic is a fashion. Baking cakes is surprisingly expensive. If we really were broke, we wouldn’t be scouting organic ingredients to make the perfect Victoria Sponge, we would be buying economy biscuits from Tescos. From what I have seen of London’s craft fairs and DIY feminist events, the trend to craft seems to be predominantly white and middle-class. When I dress in a cute rockabilly dress and sew myself a new bikini, I do wonder if I’m being a bit of a recessionista. With the financial guarantees that come from my middle-class background, how much is my love of crafting born of necessity and how much is it just a fun way to pass the time before I get that perfect job in media?
However, despite the potentially sinister meanings behind crafting chic, there are plenty of subversive, feminist takes on retromania. The twee trend that wants to turn us all into Kirstie-Allsopp-alikes has an ironic reflection in the crafting of Britain’s feminist subcultures. The riot grrrl subculture of the 1990s that gave us zines and bands like Bikini Kill is the precursor of today’s vagina cupcakes, subversive cross-stitch and cunting (incredibly rude bunting). The radical feminists I see at alternative craft fairs are doing a lot more than unthinkingly trying to reproduce the past. Tongue-in-cheek baked goods such as gingerbread ‘men’ in the shape of penises or pink meringue breasts have a sex-positive shock factor.
To me, the radical message of a ‘home-sweet-home’ style cross-stitch that reads, instead, “Fuck Your Fascist Beauty Standards” is akin to the feminist message of art by Tracey Emin. The art world has always dismissed domestic crafts (female) in favour of ‘universal’, abstract art (male). Emin’s 2011 retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London was a testament to her feminist refusal of this distinction. Her massive, embroidered quilts took over a space traditionally reserved for male art. They plastered the walls with personal messages, about her fears, hopes and love affairs. This huge refusal to contain her emotions, to insist that the feminine and the personal have a place in the art world, turns sexist assumptions about the place of domestic, female art forms on their head.
The proliferation of cupcakes and crafts at feminist, DIY events is now so common that it’s even been given a name: cupcake feminism. Much like Emin, cupcake feminism wreaks havoc on stereotypical images of femininity. This is, perhaps, where Meryl Trussler’s critique goes a bit awry. When Trussler suggests that cupcake feminism is all about “Etsy, knitting, kittens [and] Lesley Gore”, she is ignoring the intentionality behind the image. After all, if we feminists reject all things that are traditionally feminine, calling them the tools of the patriarchy, then we are just being sexist. There is nothing inherently artificial, weak or silly about femininity. Sexism lies in cultural attitudes towards feminine appearances, behaviours and skills, not in femininity itself. Don’t let’s forget that it was Lesley Gore who first recorded ‘You don’t own me’, a feminist anthem if ever there were one.
Unlike the relatively conservative nostalgia of Jubilee kitsch and mainstream crafting fashion, cupcake feminism doesn’t want us women to get back in the kitchen. Cupcake feminism is more like Betty Draper, cigarette between teeth, shooting at her neighbour’s pigeons. It has earnest feminist intentions at its core, and it confronts sexist attitudes towards femininity. That said, it is still worth noting that you don’t see many working-class feminists or feminists of colour at your local craft fair. Or many feminists over 40. Like many types of activism, this feminism seems to be only available to middle-class younger people – in this case mostly women. Given the current cuts to public services and high rates of unemployment, I think it will take a bit more than some bake sales to really put the icing on our contemporary feminist cake.
First image of a number of iced cupcakes, one of which has the gender symbol for women on it, uploaded by Flickr user cathredfern. Second image of a wartime poster of a woman doing the washing up, with the message “Keep on saving coal, gas, electricity, paraffin” obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Third image of union jack cushions with “God Save the Queen” written across the centre uploaded by Flickr user Leo Reynolds. Final image of a room full of craft materials uploaded by Flickr user chrissy.farnan.