Reinventing the New

Posted by in May's Magazine

In a world that prizes retro and vintage whatever became of the concept of new? It’s an appellation that has, in the last 150 years, been attached to almost everything whether deserved or not.

The end of the 19th century saw the design movement Art Nouveau and such concepts as the New Woman. The New Woman was a product of late 19th-century dress reform (the New Man arrived 100 years later) that helped sweep away the rigidity of Victorian whale-boned corsets forever. Oddly enough, after the Second World War, just when the world was desperate for novelty and luxury, Christian Dior’s New Look put women back into constricting, impractical outfits.


Throughout the 20th century artists, writers, designers and admen have strived to give ‘new’ new meanings.

Politicians have long rebranded policies and promises as ‘new’. US President Woodrow Wilson coined the expression New Freedom, used throughout his years in office, concerning fair competition. Roosevelt’s New Deal promised a break with the past and recovery in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash.

John F Kennedy used the term New Frontier in his 1960 election campaign, which urged the Federal Government to spend large sums on education, housing and employment. It perfectly captured the spirit of JFK’s New Generation, which he referred to in his inaugural speech.

Peacock pirate garb
The New World Order is a much-touted political portmanteau term describing the post-Communist world. The New Left was formed from youthful radicals who attempted to ally energy and activism. The New Right, by contrast, has been responsible for sweeping deregulation, privatisation, and ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ in both the UK and US. The New Jerusalem is the idealised, perfect society beloved of both politicians and puritans through the ages. It differs from other ‘new’ references in being as yet unattained (perhaps unattainable).

The British social reformer Robert Owen wrote a book in 1813 called A New View of Society in which he propounded his own views of how man’s character was formed by environment. Earlier he took over the mills in New Lanark, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which is now a village museum. Owen’s dream was of a perfect community with ideal working and housing conditions.

Owen went on to found a colony in the US state of Indiana that worked along utopian, co-operative lines. Its name was New Harmony, a place where 1,000 individuals lived and worked on the basis of complete equality. Perhaps as a sign of the difficulty humankind has with such a seemingly simple goal, the colony collapsed after two years.
Pop culture is forever attempting to refresh itself. New Wave was applied to the plethora of pop groups formed in the mid-to-late-70s. Earlier, in the 1950s, it had been associated with a progressive form of filmmaking. Curiously, New Wave is still used to describe movies and pop music styles, by succeeding generations of artists who try to attempt something, err, new.

The New Romantics were a short-lived post-punk subculture of the late 70s and early 80s exemplified by Adam and the Ants who adopted peacock pirate garb. Around the same time New Country tried to inject life into increasingly insipid Country and Western with considerable success. Artists like Dwight Yoakam and Rosanne Cash combined hard-nosed logic and a hefty dose of sentimentalism which proved to be the perfect sound for a disillusioned America battered by recession.

New Music is a crafty catch-all phrase that sweeps up the bleak offerings of 20th-century ‘classics’. Cruelly dubbed ‘squeaky bonkers music’, New Music covers otherwise unclassifiable work, from Philip Glass to Michael Nyman, giving it a coherence and identity it does not possess.

New Brutalism was the mid-century architectural style that tried to imbue modern buildings with honesty and truth which instead were widely criticised then, and since, as concrete carbuncles.

Aural valium
New Town is a term from social science and town planning and, in Britain, defines a town that has been planned as a complete unit and built, with government blessing, to accommodate the displaced from the inner-city. Some were more successful (Milton Keynes) than others (Cumbernauld).

New Age is a spirituality that has its roots in hippie counter-culture. This movement has spawned a galaxy of New Therapies. New Age Travellers, another manifestation of the New Age, are people drawn to new ways of living. New Age music – which often features the call of whales – has been described as ‘aural Valium’.

For years the advertisers and marketing people have known the attraction of the concept of new as in ‘new and improved’ or ‘new model’. Often the moniker was used when the product remained the same and only the packaging was changed.
The current age of austerity has produced the journalese ‘new normal’ – situation where everyone has tightened their belts and embraced ‘a newfound gratitude for basic human comforts: family, home and health’.

But perhaps the most intriguing ‘new’ is thousands of years old. The New Kingdom was a period in ancient Egypt’s history when a succession of extraordinary rulers, from Hatshepsut to Tutankhamen, laid the foundations for a strong, successful Egypt and Akhenaton and Nefertiti began a religious revolution that introduced the concept of one god.

One response to “Reinventing the New”

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