Retro style

"Retro" redirects here. For other uses, see Retro (disambiguation).

Retro style is style that is consciously derivative or imitative of trends, music, modes, fashions, or attitudes of the recent past, typically 15–20 years old.


The term retro has been in use since the 1960s to describe[1] on the one hand new artifacts that self-consciously refer to particular modes, motifs, techniques, and materials of the past.[2] But on the other hand, some people (incorrectly) use the term to categorise styles that have been created in the past.[3] Retro style refers to new things that display characteristics of the past. It is mostly the recent past that retro seeks to recapitulate, focusing on the products, fashions and artistic styles produced since the Industrial Revolution, of Modernity.[4] The English word retro derives from the Latin prefix retro, meaning backwards, or in past times.

In France, the word rétro, an abbreviation for rétrospectif,[5] gained cultural currency with reevaluations of Charles de Gaulle and France's role in World War II. The French mode rétro of the 1970s reappraised in film and novels the conduct of French civilians during the Nazi occupation. The term rétro was soon applied to nostalgic French fashions that recalled the same period.[6]

Shortly thereafter it was introduced into English by the fashion and culture press, where it suggests a rather cynical revival of older but relatively recent fashions.[7] In Simulacra and Simulation, French theorist Jean Baudrillard describes retro as a demythologization of the past, distancing the present from the big ideas that drove the modern age.[8]

Most commonly retro is used to describe objects and attitudes from the recent past that no longer seem modern. It suggests a fundamental shift in the way we relate to the past. Different from more traditional forms of revivalism, "retro" suggests a half ironic, half longing consideration of the recent past; it has been called an "unsentimental nostalgia",[9] recalling modern forms that are no longer current. The concept of nostalgia is linked to retro, but the bittersweet desire for things, persons and situations of the past has an ironic stance in retro style. Retro shows nostalgia with a dose of cynicism and detachment.[10] The desire to capture something from the past and evoke nostalgia is fuelled by dissatisfaction with the present.[11]

Retro can be applied to several things and artifacts, for example, forms of technological obsolescence (such as manual typewriters, cash registers, and bulky hand-held cellphones) and also the resurrection of old computer games and the equipment on which they are played.

Specific types of retro

Since the 1980s the implications of the word ‘retro’ have been expanding[12] in the application to different media. Several fields have adopted the term retro from the design world. Thus next to design artefacts like objects, graphic design, fashion and interior design, ‘retro’ can be used for: music, art, videogames, architecture, television and food. Sometimes, it can also suggest an entire outlook on life (describing especially forms of social conservatism like home schooling or the embrace of traditional gender roles).


Up until the 1960s, interiors were decorated with antiques. During the 1960s in London shops started selling pieces of second hand furniture. These shops were different from the previous antique shops because they sold daily life objects from the recent past. These objects used to be seen as junk: Victorian enamel signs, stuffed bears, old furniture painted with union jacks, bowler hats etc. A new way of producing and consuming the past emerged and a broader range of objects from the recent past was used for new designs.[13]

Before the word ‘retro’ came into use in the 1970s, the practise of adopting old styles for new designs was already common. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, designers borrowed from the past, for example classicistic style.[14] The difference is that since the 1960s people started to refer to the recent past.

In the 1980s, design history emerged as a discipline and several histories of design were published. The access to these overviews and the ability to experiment with computer design programs has caused an increase of retro designed objects in the last decades.[15]

Interior design

IKEA produced a retro lamp, referring to the 1970s.

Interior design magazines often show retro style as an interior decoration of mixed styles and objects from the past, second hand and new. For example, 1970s patterned wallpapers, combined with second-hand furniture from the 1960s and 1950s. The value of old artefact has increased because the object used to be considered old-fashioned and everyday.[16] In this case ‘retro’ indicates a value and that is also partly why today’s retailers produce new objects in an old style.

Graphic design, typography and packaging

In graphic design too, long before the use of the word ‘retro’, referencing to earlier graphic characteristics was done. William Morris can be seen as an example, for i.a. book design he adopted Medieval production and stylistic models in 1891.[17] Furthermore, in the beginning of the twentieth century, Gothic, Baroque and Rococo motifs were used for new products.[18] In typography classicism has always been an influence and throughout the 20th century, early woodcut printing too. The introduction of the technique of photocomposition to typesetting in the 1960s allowed typographers greater flexibility in the selection and arrangement of type styles and sizes. For example, psychedelic typefaces were developed gaining inspiration from Art Nouveau and other cultures.[19] Historicist styles are also used is in the promotion and packaging of food and household products, referring to childhood memories and domestic nostalgic ideals.[20]

Fashion design

A 1940s retro-style dress with turban, designed in a modern electric blue, modeled by Karlie Kloss at a 2011 Anna Sui show.

Retro fashion refers to fashion from 1940–90. Retro fashion is a clothing style which consists in wearing clothes commonly used in the past. This way of clothing often includes garments and accessories that are characteristic of such times, and many people use them in an exaggerated way and in combination with current clothing. Examples are leather handbags from the 1950s, "bell-bottom jeans", Poodle skirts, big sunglasses, fedoras, funky jackets (commonly Adidas Classics) and shoes, small neckties, chiffon scarves, sport equipment, etc. Makeup may also play a part in feminine retro fashions, with focal points being heavily-lined eyes and bright red lipstick; hairstyles such as pompadours, ponytails, and ducktails may be adopted, as well as styles that model film stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

An example of this trend is 1970s and 1980s sportswear; soccer jackets, jerseys and T-shirts with former logos of the soccer associations are very popular; their designs commonly remember the old days by using lines in the sides and combinations of colors characteristic of those times. A specific case is the 1970 FIFA World Cup held in Mexico. Its logo and font type is used in a variety of retro sport garments. Brands such as Adidas, Puma and Nike have their own divisions specialized in retro products. Some soccer, baseball and basketball clubs also have re-edited their former garments to raise their sales. See also Throwback uniform.

In the late 2000s, there a was a revival of neon and pastel colors, stereotypically associated with 1980s fashion. Nowadays, 1990s fashion has made a comeback, many of the fabrics and patterns ubiquitous to the decade (such as crushed velvet and floral) are popular now in the 2010s. Dr. Martens, a shoe brand popular in the 1990s, has also made a strong comeback in the early 2010s. 2011–12 was the British company's best selling season of all time.[21]

Retro art

A 1950s-era poster in pop-art style, the style on which retro art is based.

The style now called "retro art" is a genre of pop art which was developed in the 1940s and 1950s, in response to a need for bold, eye-catching graphics that were easy to reproduce on simple presses available at the time in major centres. Retro advertising art has experienced a resurgence in popularity since its style is distinctive from modern computer-generated styling. Contemporary artist Anne Taintor uses retro advertising art as the centerpiece for her ongoing commentary on the modern woman. Specific styling features include analog machine design, vintage television program etc.[22]

Perhaps the most famous example of a retro pop-art character is the more generalized form of the Ward Cleaver-styled J. R. "Bob" Dobbs-esque icon which has been widely played off, copied, and parodied.


Film, music and television

The 1970s brought about a 1950s–60s revival with American Graffiti, Grease, and Happy Days. This lasted into the 1980s with the rockabilly revival. The 1950s greaser look greatly influenced the punk subculture.

The 1980s witnessed a 1960s revival. Power pop of the decade was influenced by 1960s pop rock, and various artists covered 1960s hits. Notable examples include "You Keep Me Hangin' On" being covered by Kim Wilde and "Where Did Our Love Go?" being covered by Soft Cell.

The 1990s brought a 1970s revival. Musically, a revival of 1970s disco and pop occurred, led by artists such as the A*Teens. Television series I Love the '70s and That '70s Show also debuted.

The late 1990s began the 1980s revival, which grew into the 2000s. 1980s-themed films such as Grosse Pointe Blank, The Wedding Singer, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion were released in the late 1990s. This craze also brought about revivals of The Transformers, G.I. Joe, Speed Racer, The Smurfs, and Voltron. The post-punk revival coincides with this, as the genre was originally popular (albeit underground) in the 1980s. There was a That '80s Show, but it was short-lived. I Love the '80s, a part of a series of decade retrospectives, became the most popular of the series and spawned two sequel series.

The 2010s have seen a revival of both the 1980s and 1990s. A trend for 1980s second wave synthpop is growing along with 1990s-style future house and nu-disco songs by such artists as Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Bruno Mars. TV channel Nickelodeon has established a block on its TEENick station featuring 1990s Nickelodeon programs, and several of Nick's 1990s shows have been revived. There was also an I Love the '90s series.

A revival of the 2000s has also been predicted. Sequels to 2000s films, such as Anchorman 2, Finding Dory, and Monsters University have been released ten years after the original films. Arrested Development, a television series than ran from 2003 to 2006, was also revived in 2012. Some believe this a case of the "nostalgia cycle" becoming shorter, as the generation that grew up with this media is now in their late teens/early 20s.[23]


Main article: Retrogaming

Retrogaming is a pastime which is becoming increasingly popular where individuals play video games on vintage computers or vintage game consoles. What constitutes a vintage or retro machine is sometimes open to debate, but typically, most retro gamers are interested in Commodore 64, Amiga 500, Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, SNES, and classic Game Boy games and consoles. Emulation often plays a part in retrogaming if the original hardware is unavailable.

Retro erotica (photography)

Retro erotica is usually photography in the style of pinups or pornography typically dating from the 1970s or earlier. It ranges from hardcore to non-nude pinup style photography, often featuring lingerie such as girdles, bullet bras and garter belts and hosiery with hairstyles, makeup and props fashioned after those periods. Some aficionados distinguish retro (modern photography in an older style) from vintage (actual period photos or film) while others conflate the two as either retro or vintage. There are a number of web sites dedicated to both types.


A Qantas Boeing 737-800 (VH-XZP) retrojet seen at Sydney Airport

A handful of airlines have chosen to paint a historical livery on a single selected aircraft in their modern fleet, typically as a marketing device or to commemorate an anniversary.[24][25]

See also


  1. Woodham 2004
  2. Dermody, Breathnach 2009, p. 7
  3. Baker 2012, p. 622
  4. Guffey 2006, p. 25
  5. "French definition of ''rétro''". 1978-09-11. Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  6. Walker, John. (1992) "Retro". Glossary of Art, Architecture & Design since 1945, 3rd. ed.
  7. Elizabeth E. Guffey, Retro: The Culture of Revival, pp. 9–22
  8. Baudrillard. p. 43
  9. E. Guffey 2006
  10. Guffey 2006, p. 20
  11. Dermody, Breathnach 2009, p. 15
  12. Guffey 2006, p. 16
  13. Baker 2012, p. 624
  14. Dermody, Breathnach 2009, p. 7
  15. Dermody and Breathnach 2009, p. 11
  16. Baker 2012, p. 622
  17. Dermody, Breathnach 2009, pp. 7–8
  18. Heller and Lasky, 1993
  19. Dermody, Breathnach 2009, pp. 8-10
  20. Dermody, Breathnach 2009, p. 16
  21. Lauren Cochrane. "Dr Martens enjoy comeback with best-selling season ever | Fashion". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  22. "Bookulating Suggest-O-Mometer". Retrieved 2011-10-05.
  24. Flynn, David (17 November 2014). "Qantas reveals 'flying kangaroo' livery on Boeing 737". Retrieved 31 May 2015.
  25. Mutzabaugh, Ben (18 April 2014). "Happy 85th: LOT adds 'RetroJET' livery to Embraer E175". USA Today. Retrieved 31 May 2015.


External links

Look up retro in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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