There are plenty of businesses making money from our 1950s nostalgia in the new millenium. Alex Brooks investigates for Sunday magazine.
The dazzling allure of the1950s era is charming the dollars from people who never even saw the decade first hand.
Demographer Bernard Salt says that today’s city-dwelling Generation X-ers – the oldest of which were born in the 1960s – have a strange interest in 1950s accoutrement, which is inspiring a range of successful small businesses.
“It’s not nostalgia in the way it is for the baby boomers,” he explains. “It’s more that today’s cynical, Blade Runner-esque world finds comfort looking back at this era that shone like a crystal between the mean wartime 1940s and the 1960s.”
The 1950s is looked upon as something innocent and wonderful, with images of women cooking and men coming home from work with smiles straight out of central casting.
“It’s not just the 1950s fashion, it’s a quality you can’t really put your finger on – it’s the subliminal messages associated with the happiness and paraphernalia of 1950s,” Salt says.
Salt, who is also a consultant to KPMG and author of The Big Shift, says the trend is nothing more than the tribalisation of markets – something that will continue into the future.
“When you’ve got big cities and you have less people having children, people try to find a tribe to belong to,” he says. “The biggest challenge for business in the future is to identify these themes and exploit them.”
Father and son Gary Chivers and Adam Chivers opened Rebel Restoration Services 12 years ago on the NSW Central Coast and have a solid small business restoring 1940s and 1950s cars.
To the uninitiated, Rebel Restorations could easily be mistaken for a place where cars go to die – there are truck cabs, hub cabs, car seats and bits of chrome and metal lying everywhere.
It is only when the dust covers are pulled back that you can see what really goes on in this workshop.
Up the back is a 1955 DeSoto which has been chopped and lowered and will one day come to life as a ‘lead sled’, which is an in-the-know term for a classic car that’s been modified for speed.
There is a 1946 tractor awaiting restoration, along with a 1960 Hillman convertible which has already had more than $20,000 worth of body work excluding the paint job.
“Hot rodding was big in the 1950s – it was about getting speed thrills from every day cars,” explains Gary, a trained mechanic and machinist. “Hot rodders would take a Ford V8 engine and modify them to run at the highest speed they could. They might also alter the body or chop it or whatever to make it look fast.”
Gary has always been a car enthusiast and passed his infectious love of the automobile on to his son, Adam, who became a panel beater.
When Gary was retrenched from the Civil Aviation Authority in 1991 and Adam was seeking more of a challenge, the pair decided to open a business restoring the cars they truly loved.
“For us, this isn’t just a business where we pack up and drive home in our Commodore,” he says. “It’s an extension of our lifestyle. We listen to 50s music, we have our houses furnished in 1950s style. I was born in 1944, so I saw the fifties first-hand and that makes Adam pretty jealous.”
Adam, 34, drives a 1951 Ford Mercury “which has only been rained on twice in 12 years” and is restoring several other cars, including a 1946 Chevrolet.
“A lot of the cars that people drove in the 1950s were actually from the 1940s – back in those days, no-one could afford new cars so they drove stuff that was a bit older,” he says.
The business is doing well and can barely handle the workload that comes through now.
“There are only two of us and this is a very labour intensive business. It can cost $40,000 or more to restore a car,” Gary says.
“Some people might say, you’ll never get your money back, so what’s the point in restoring it – but I say those people aren’t real enthusiasts.
“I mean, what golfer goes and buys an expensive set of golf clubs and expects to get his money back when he sells them?”
Business partners Claudia Funder and Scott Cupit founded swing dance school Swing Patrol six years ago, and now teach more than 40 classes a week in Melbourne, Geelong, Albury and Sydney.
When Scott Cupit came back from America eight years ago, infected with the urge to learn swing dancing and Lindy Hop, he could not find a single dance school to teach him.
“I had been playing big band music and when I went to the States, I went to a ball and finally saw there was a dance that matched the music I loved,” he says. “But when I got home and rang every dance school in the Yellow Pages to see if they could teach me Swing, all I found was one teacher – who happened to be Claudia – who only touched on it.”
Scott paid for private lessons with Claudia, who was a ballroom and rock and roll dance teacher, and eventually convinced her to go into business with him to start a Swing dance school.
“I got sick of Claudia and I being the only ones in Melbourne who could do this dance and we’d have to go to these lonely RSL clubs and be with old people – so I talked her into opening Swing Patrol,” he says.
The school was a hit and the swing scene is alive and thriving in Melbourne, something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s when there were big balls at venues like Ivanhoe Town Hall.
“The dance actually started in the States in the 1940s but the American soldiers took it around the world and it took off in Australia in the 1950s,” Scott says.
“Nowadays we think of a swing era and a rock and roll era, but back in the 1950s there was no division – there were big bands, but no-one could afford them so they started shrinking.”
The business expanded to Sydney earlier this year, with Scott and Claudia flying up from Melbourne on alternate weeks to teach classes in Newtown and Paddington.
“Things have gone amazingly well for Swing Patrol,” Scott says. “I’ve had dance schools in the US contact me and tell me that Swing Patrol is probably the biggest dance school in the southern hemisphere – most dance schools are happy with 20 or 30 students, but we have hundreds.”
Claudia says the classes are made up of people aged under 40 who want to try something different – they pay $12 a class and just turn up when they feel like it.
“Oddly enough, there are a lot of IT people who want to learn to dance – I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s that they need to do something physical,” she says.
Scott has a different explanation – “The whole boy girl thing is definitely a bonus. You get 30 girls and 30 guys in one class and there are bound to be sparks flying,” he says.
“Claudia and I have already been invited to two weddings and we know there is a Swing Patrol baby that’s been born.
“Partner dancing is really a bit like speed dating – you can go out, spend three minutes dancing with twenty different women and there is absolutely no pressure to take them home.”
When Tim Chillingworth and Carrie Phillis were married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas in 1995, life changed.
“It was only when we were in the States and we saw all these great shops selling stuff we really loved that we realised we had to do something over here,” explains Tim.
The pair, who met playing in 50s-style bands, set up shop selling an eclectic mix of books, clothes, furniture and accessories that were inspired by the 1950s.
“I hate it when people say we are retro, because there is nothing old in here – everything we sell is new, it just celebrates an older era,” Tim says.
Faster Pussycat sells pink flamingos for the garden, coffee tables with hot rod-style flames on them, brothel creeper shoes and stickers and books celebrating pin-up girl Betty Page.
“The shop is named after the Russ Meyers film which is about three strippers who go on a road trip – it’s one of those iconic movies that they just don’t make any more,” Tim says.
The best-sellers are the $59 button-up cardigans, which Carrie designs herself, and the books about hot rods and furniture.
“The shop is an extension of our lounge room, really. I’ve been in this scene for years and most people grow up but I just kind of grow across rather than up,” Tim, 38, says.
Tim and Carrie cannot put their finger on why the 1950s are so popular – they just know that it makes good business sense.
“A lot of people are into a lot of different eras – I mean, we love the garage bands from the 60s and that whole thing too – but the 50s definitely has the broadest appeal for the mainstream market,” Carrie says.
The business has grown nicely since it first opened on the anniversary of Elvis’s death in 1996.
“We are not about to retire tomorrow, but things are turning over nicely for us,” Tim says.
The couple have bought their dream house down in Mollymook – a 1959 flat-roof fibro cottage which they plan to renovate in authentic 1950s style.
In the meantime, they will keep living in the city and hope to open another store, which will specialise in 1950s-inspired t-shirts, sheets and accessories for children.
“After we had our own daughter, we got started doing singlets and t-shirts for babies and they were just selling like hotcakes,” says Carrie. “I think people in my generation are having kids and they want to keep this whole thing alive for their children – no-one wants it to die.”
Looking at Christine Lewis’s restored 1950s holiday shack on the NSW south coast will make even the harshest Style Nazi smile.
The stone pelican, pink plastic flamingos and garden gnomes in the front garden are just plain kitsch.
The Marilyn Munroe bedroom has posters of the movie goddess and is lit by black lady lamps on the bedside chests.
And the watermelon pink and turquoise blue exterior can’t help but brighten your day.
“There is lots of stuff in this house to tickle your fancy and laugh at, so it’s really like an adventure,” the ex-hairdresser says.
Christine turned her passion for 1950s furniture into a holiday house business in May last year, when she decided she needed a beach house as extra storage for her furniture collection.
“I am the original Miss Steptoe and when I found this little fibro cottage that was just like the one I holidayed in with my Grandmother on the Gold Coast, I had to have it,” she says.
Christine renovated the Culburra Beach shack in authentic 1950s-style and rents it out as Five-Star Fibro for $200 a night. The place has been so popular that it is booked until February and Christine has just expanded the business and bought a beachfront holiday house.
“As a child of the 50s, I know that they didn’t make any good cars, music or women after this era,” she says. “As you get older, holidays are never as exciting as when you were a kid – everyone loves coming here because it reminds them of being a child.”
This article was first published in Sunday magazine, the colour magazine supplement in the Sunday Telegraph.