The Psychology of Rustic Chic

Is the rustic chic trend a form of idle nostalgia—or a reinvention of the past?

Posted Sep 13, 2018

The defining fashion trend for the 2010s has been a retro one: the rustic chic trend. Shows like Fixer Upper on HGTV have encapsulated the “modern farmhouse” look in home décor, while the food and wine scene has embraced rootsy, farm-to-table-based cuisine and earthy American beverages like beer and bourbon; Top Chef was set last year in the Western mountains of Colorado, and the upcoming season is set in down-home Kentucky.

American trends have traditionally spun out of wealthy, busy cities like New York and Los Angeles, or even from overseas, particularly Western Europe or the Far East. They have tended towards haute minimalism or modernism, taking their cues from the runway or design firms. But recently, America has turned inward, and this neo-conservatism of sorts has melded oddly with the burgeoning tech-driven economy. On the good side, cities that were once considered more behind-the-times are now deemed tragically hip: Nashville, Louisville, Denver, and more all are loaded with distilleries, breweries, and beards. The better cost of living in some of these areas (particularly the South and Midwest) has drawn an influx of millennials eager to flex their creativity, and the wider range of the internet allows easy dissemination of urban center ideas to other cities. The economies in these cities might benefit from this new energy (although in the case of Denver, the cost of living might start to match that of coastal cities.)

It is also interesting to interpret the meaning of this particular trend. America has been in psychic turmoil the last couple of years, increasingly divided and tense after the controversial 2016 Presidential Election. The administration’s isolationist policies towards immigration and border control have both stemmed from and stoked the flames of a confused American identity; one that is split racially, culturally and financially. The polarity has only widened between those who embrace a polyethnic, polysexual future for America and those who view it with skepticism and worry; at the same time, there is growing socioeconomic polarity that endangers our social contract and mobility.

The rustic chic trend, on one level, seems to be a deliberate look backward, idealizing a “simpler” homestead time. But it mixes and overlaps unexpectedly with urbanism and globalism too. One restaurant I went to in Colorado was all about rustic, comfort food traits in its woodsy, leathery décor and fish from local streams and game like elk and bison. But the dishes were clearly globalist in intention as well, with condiments like gochujang and sumac. The prices were also worthy of the mile-high state’s nickname. In some ways, the trend allows reinvention and redefinition of the mythology of old-timey America; people from all backgrounds can indulge in the look of rustic chic and feel ownership. I can drink and enjoy my Woodford Reserve on a whiskey tour like anyone else. I can eat venison with kimchi slaw.

But are all of us headed for trouble, just like customers on the TV show Westworld putting on their Western costumes, and thinking they can just have fun when darker issues lurk underneath that must be answered for? That someone can then be marginalized, sacrificed and erased for the preservation of a pretty mythology? One of the most callous moments in rustic chic comes when rich designers parade sacred Native American designs like a cute idea down the runway. There are aspects of American history, like slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Japanese-American internment camps, and our current child detention border camps and police profiling policies that point to our penchant for patriotic identity at the cost of human decency.

Trends can still be fun and enjoyable; if people find comfort in shiplap and IPAs, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. But you wonder if it’s a futile salve for a sense of American identity that grows increasingly worrisome and confused at the moment. How can we pull from the best of American values, the gracious hope of Emma Lazarus, to set trends for our future humanism?

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