Past Perfect Nostalgia Fuels A Market For Gifts Reflecting Traditions And Symbols Of Days Gone By

November 27, 1994|By JOE SURKIEWICZ

'Is there any doubt that nostalgia is in?

If "Forrest Gump," "The Flintstones" and news items about Barbie's 35th anniversary aren't proof enough, then how about the arrival in bookstores of "The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book"?

Evidence is as close as the nearest mall, where this season shoppers will find an array of gift items that reflect America's love affair with the pop-culture heroes, symbols and traditions of the past.

What fuels this nostalgia?

"The past was a less pressured time," explains Arnold Borenstein, creative merchandising director at the Hecht Co. headquarters in Arlington, Va. "With all the chaos in today's world, people want things simpler."

WARM, FUZZY FEELING

Nowhere is that backward glance more apparent than in toy stores.

"Two forces are at work," says Christopher Byrne, editor of Market Focus: Toys, a New York-based toy-industry newsletter. "Parents are buying presents that they remember from when they were kids, and they have a desire to create a home that's safe and warm. Toy manufacturers are tapping into parents' nostalgia of a world that was relatively safe."

That helps explain why Barbie and G. I. Joe are perennial favorites, and why Creepy Crawlers were recently reintroduced.

"Children are aware of the level of violence today and parents want to create a safe world for their children," Mr. Byrne says. "Barbie and G. I. Joe have survived three decades because the fantasy isn't prepackaged. It's a pure kind of play: to make something or to imagine something.

"We live in uncertain times and we want the warm, fuzzy feeling that things will turn out OK. If we can get that, even for a relatively short period, it keeps us culturally in touch with higher values like security, creativity and a sense of family."

Mom and Dad Baby Boomer have been bitten by the nostalgia bug.

"Barbie is again this year's hottest property," says Ian McDermott, senior buyer for New York-based F. A. O. Schwarz, which recently opened a store in Towson. "Winnie-the-Pooh, which goes way back to 1926, is this year's most-wanted bear. Our Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm doll is extremely popular in our mail-order catalog."

The 35th Anniversary Nostalgic Barbie Gift Set ($80) re-creates the original Barbie in all her '50s splendor, including her swimsuit and Roman holiday and Easter parade fashion ensembles. The Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Book & Doll Set ($39) features a 12-inch doll with a silk-screened face, braids and lace-up shoes. A 15-inch Winnie-the-Pooh ($42) is fully jointed and covered with curly plush. These are available at F. A. O. Schwarz.

"Years ago, just about every American household had a red wagon," adds Mr. McDermott. "This year, there's a huge demand for Radio Flyers." The red steel wagon, introduced in 1917, retails for $39.

Another toy that evokes the past is the Flexible Flyer Racer Sled ($59.95). This fall, Mr. McDermott says, "It's become a best seller with us -- and without a threat of snow."

NOSTALGIA FOR HER

The latest looks in women's fashions recall the glamour of decades past.

"There's a big return to a '30s and '40s glamour look," says Heather Femia, fashion director for Nordstrom in Towson. "Strappy high-heel shoes in a velvet peau de soie fabric make glamorous evening footwear. And a fabulous red lipstick is a great idea."

She suggests Stuart Weitzman evening footwear, which features rhinestone trim and lots of straps; prices range from $150 to $200.

"Christian Dior's Festive Red lipstick [$17] looks great with the dark clothes worn around the holidays," Ms. Femia says. Other glamour-look lipsticks this season are YSL's Expressive Red and Forbidden Red; both $22.50.

Ms. Femia also has noticed a resurgence of interest in classic clothing.

"It's all about being 'dressed' in an ensemble meant to go together," she said.

For example, the '50s look of the twin set is back. It's a pair of go-together sweaters: a cardigan over a matching short-sleeved top or shell.

Twin sets from designers such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne range in price from $110 to more than $500.

Evening wear has taken a cue from recent movies set in the 19th century.

"Big, full-length ball skirts -- like the ones worn in 'The Piano' and 'The Age of Innocence' -- can be worn with a sweater twin set for a fabulous look," Ms. Femia says. "A ball skirt by Farinae without a waistband and with an A-line shape [$198] is a modern interpretation of the old ball skirt -- and doesn't look like a costume."

Other classic clothing gifts are the monogrammed robe and the monogrammed pajama set, says Ditas Mauricio, a spokesman at Talbots corporate headquarters in Hingham, Mass. Available in three different lengths and in a spectrum of pastel colors, the robes sell for $66, $72 and $78; add $5 for monogramming. Awning-stripe pajamas with a monogram (reminiscent of those Rob Petrie wore on "The Dick Van Dyke Show") are $48 plus $5 for the monogramming.

Talbots also carries the traditional boiled-wool jacket.

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