An Exploratory Study of Age Related Vicarious Nostalgia and Aesthetic Consumption

ABSTRACT - The notion of vicarious nostalgia forms the basis of this paper with a particular emphasis on aesthetic consumption and preferences for objects and experiences outside of the informant’s living memories. The study questions the assumption that nostalgia is an emotional reaction most frequently experienced by the baby boomers and the elderly, by looking at the nostalgic behaviour of a group of young adults aged between twenty and forty. Drawing on data grounded in self reported stories and in-depth interviews it explores how vicarious nostalgia is a constant feature of consumption experiences and looks at the underlying themes of age and nostalgic consumption, nostalgic socialisation, discontent in the present, nostalgia as a social emotion, and enduring nostalgia.


Christina Goulding (2002) ,"An Exploratory Study of Age Related Vicarious Nostalgia and Aesthetic Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 542-546.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 542-546


Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton


The notion of vicarious nostalgia forms the basis of this paper with a particular emphasis on aesthetic consumption and preferences for objects and experiences outside of the informant’s living memories. The study questions the assumption that nostalgia is an emotional reaction most frequently experienced by the baby boomers and the elderly, by looking at the nostalgic behaviour of a group of young adults aged between twenty and forty. Drawing on data grounded in self reported stories and in-depth interviews it explores how vicarious nostalgia is a constant feature of consumption experiences and looks at the underlying themes of age and nostalgic consumption, nostalgic socialisation, discontent in the present, nostalgia as a social emotion, and enduring nostalgia.


Nostalgia is an emotional reaction most frequently associated with individuals of a 'certain’ age; namely the baby boomers, now in their forties and fifties, and senior citizens (Havlena & Holak, 1991). It is also an emotion that, according to Davis (1979) must draw from the well of lived experience. Hirsch (1992) suggests that idealised past times become displaced onto sounds, smells, and tastes associated with positive experiences. We have all felt nostalgia at some time while looking through photographs which capture particularly happy moments. Even the taste of a particular food may be enough to transport us back in time. Similarly the sound of music (Holbrook & Schindler, 1989, 1991) can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia, as can the unexpected trace of a perfume associated with a person from the pas. However, nostalgia is a complex reaction which has been conceptualised on a number of different levels; as a form of pathology within the literature on clinical psychology and depression (Kaplan, 1987; Hertz, 1992); as a result of social decline, the loss of a golden age, and the demise of community (Turner, 1987; Haravan and Langenbach, 1981; Laenen, 1989; Case and Shaw, 1989); and as part of the perceptual process (Hirsch, 1992). In the consumer behaviour literature, nostalgia is conceptualised as part of preference in the consumption of goods and experiences (Holbrook, 1993). Additionally, nostalgia requires a stimulus, or the presence of artefacts, images, or narratives which have a positive association with a particular period. In keeping with this evaluation, Holbrook (1993) defines nostalgia as:

"a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favourable affect) towards objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or widely circulated) when one was younger (in early adulthood, in adolescence, in childhood, or even before birth). p104

It is the last few words of this definition, "or even before birth", that is of most interest to this research. Today, it is argued, we no longer need to have lived a past in order to feel nostalgic for it (Chase & Shaw 1989). Baker and Kennedy (1994) draw a distinction between 'real’ nostalgia, nostalgia for some remembered past time, and 'stimulated’ nostalgia, a form of vicarious nostalgia evoked from stories, images, and possessions (Belk 1988; Stern 1992). It is suggested that in contemporary society, the proliferation of nostalgic images and experiences, for example in film (Fowler, 1992; Croft, 1989; Wollen, 1991; Lee, 1993), music (Holbrook and Schindler, 1989; 1991), advertising (Unger, et al 1991; Howell, 1991; Stern, 1992; Holbrook, 1998), retailing (Norman, 1990), political imagery (Allen et al, 1995; Tannock, 1995), and historical reconstructions (Hewison, 1987; Goulding, 1999), means that nostalgia need not necessarily be for an individually experienced past, nor is it an emotion exclusive to mature consumers. Holbrook and Schindler (1994) found that, rather than pertaining only to senior citizens, nostalgia is a positive attitude toward earlier times that some people develop early in life. They further suggest that:

"It does seem plausible that one could identify nostalgically with people, places, or things from a bygone era that one has experienced only through books, films or other narratives" (Holbrook & Schindler, 1993, p103)

It is the notion of vicarious nostalgia which forms the basis of this study, with a particular focus on aesthetic consumption and a preference for objects associated with a period typically ten to fifteen years before the birth of the informant. The research was based on an awareness of the growing number of 'retro’ clubs, and shops specialising in nostalgic memorabilia and fashion. Consequently, the aim was to explore the nature of nostalgic consumptin, but with a particular focus on vicarious nostalgia and the younger nostalgics who are often overlooked in the literature on the subject.


In their early papers Holbrook and Schindler (1989, 1991) explored the development of musical tastes and enduring preferences toward popular music acquired during late adolescence. The findings that preferences peak at critical periods, about the age of 24, was further supported in an analysis of personal tastes in appearance and style. Photographs of models appearing in magazines between the years 1933-1990 were shown to a cross section of consumers ranging in age from 16-90. With regard to male preferences for female images, the peak age was around 24, although women’s preference peak for males tended to be higher (Schindler and Holbrook, 1993). Other findings were, that liking was low for advertisements which had appeared many years before the respondents birth, and peaked around the period the informant would have been a young adult. Tentative conclusions suggested that aesthetic objects of consumption, such as those associated with sex and romance, tend to peak at critical periods and result in an enduring nostalgia for time related images of beauty. This paper takes a similar theme to the study of nostalgia. It focuses on objects of aesthetic consumption such as clothes, make-up, music, furniture and even transport, but rather than age related aesthetic objects and beauty, the focus is on how nostalgic consumption permeates many aspects of the lives of the informants who participated in this research. Moreover, the study concentrates on individuals who have no living experience of the time they feel nostalgic for, and are consequently demonstrating a form of vicarious nostalgia. The research perspective of this paper, therefore differs on three levels:

1) It deals with nostalgia for a period outside of the individual’s living memory

2) It explores nostalgia as a constant feature of consumption experiences

3) It looks at a group of people, the under 40s, not normally associated with nostalgic consumption




To gain an insight into the meaning of nostalgic objects of consumption

To identify factors influencing this nostalgic reaction

To consider the nature of nostalgic appeal for consumers between the ages 22-40


As the overall aim of the research was to gain an insight into the behaviour of vicariously nostalgic consumers, a qualitative methodology was considered the most appropriate. Essentially, this was decided due to the fact that although a growing body of work exists on the subject of nostalgic consumption, most of this focuses on establishing whether or not an individual is nostalgic, and if they are, what instigates the nostalgic reaction, and for what particular period in that individual’s life. This research however, uses informants who are clearly nostalgic in their behaviour. This was evident in their dress, make-up, modes of transport, their music, and accessories. Consequently, rather than starting with the question "are you nostalgic?", the aim was to explore the reason for such demonstrable nostalgia.


Informants were recruited through personal contacts, two of whom manage shops specialising in retro memorabilia, clothes, jewellery and furniture. An initial sample of ten formed the basis for the study, ranging in age from 22-40 (see table 1). The table also states the period each informant feels nostalgic for, the objects of consumption, such as furniture, photographs and ornaments, and in the final column, outward expressions of style and aesthetic consumption. What emerged from the data, was that all showed a nostalgic longing for a period 10-15 years before their birth. Furthermore, all were intensely nostalgic, embracing many aspects of the consumer culture of the period.


The methods used for investigating the problem included self reported stories and in-depth interviews. To begin with, in keeping with the phenomenological tradition of the researcher 'bracketing’ or holding in abeyance any preconceived assumptions (Schutz, 1967), informants were asked to describe in their own words, what they found so appealing about the period they related most strongly to. They were asked to consider when they first became interested in that period, who first influenced them, what kind of clothes, music, furniture, transport, and memorabilia, they not only owned, but would like to own, what kind of leisure activities they engaged in, who they socialised with, and importantly, what they thought of contemporary fashions and trends. In effect they were asked to tell a story, their own history of being a 'nostalgic’ consumer. They were told to be as expansive as they wanted to be and to try to identify key turning points, influences, and initial exposure to images and artefacts which they now enjoy and use to express themselves. Using self reported stories allowed informants to reflect, over time, and report in their own words, their experiences and preferences. All were given a two week period to consider these issues, after which the accounts were collected and an initial thematic analysis conducted.

These themes from the stories formed the basis for further discussions in a series of one-to-one interviews with each of the ten participants. Each interview was recorded and lasted approximately one hour. With regard to the analysis of the data, a grounded theory approach as described by Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Glaser (1978, 1992) was used to explore and develop the themes. This involved the full transcription of interviews which were then analysed line by line in order to identify key words and phrases that offered an insight. A further feature of the method is constant comparison which requires that transcripts are compared like with like to note recurring themes and also highlight negative cases. This process involved coding strategies which meant that the prime sources of data, in this case the self reported stories and in-depth interviews, had to be broken down and interpreted by using open coding to initially describe what was occurring in the data and to identify recurring patterns. Once these patterns or themes were observed they were linked together to provide an initial analysis of the behaviour of the informants. This exploratory research revealed five recurring themes which include age related vicarious nostalgia and aesthetic consumption, nostalgic socialisation, disillusionment with the present, nostalgia as a social experience and nostalgia as an enduring emotion. These themes are discussed in the next section and extracts from interviews with two of the participants, Steve and Caroline, are used to show contrast in terms of age, gender, and the period which is the subject of nostalgia.

Steve is 39 and works as a manager for a furniture retailer. He describes himself as being nostalgic for the 1940s and 1950s. He surrounds himself with memorabilia from the period, his flat is currently decorated in the style of the 1940s, he listens to the music, reads biographies of the Hollywood legends and dresses in the style of the era.

The second informant is Caroline who is 25. She is a graduate with a first degree in sociology and an MBA. She is currently a trainee management consultant. Like Steve, Caroline describes herself as deeply nostalgic, although her nostalgia is for a later period, that of the 1960s. She drives a 1960s Austin Mini and still owns a Vespa (a scooter popular with the youth movement known as the Mods. Mods were distinguished by their style of dress which was generally mohair suits for the men and short dresses and beehive hairstyles for the women. The music that they listened to was generally Northern Soul and early Ska, a form of reggae music imported from Jamaica in the 1950s).


Age related vicarious nostalgia and aesthetic consumption

According to Stokes (1992, p17) "while chronological age is one of the most useful single items of information about an individual, the concept of physical time does not correspond to the realities of ageing." Barak (1987) suggests that "younger" and "older" are relative terms implying that "one’s age is not totally bound to chronological time constraints" (p109). He suggests that the multidimensional concept of cognitive age, which embraces such factors as the age one feels, the age one looks, the things one does, and the interests one holds, is a better indicator of age than just years from birth (se Barak and Schiffman, 1980; Barak and Gould, 1985; Barak, 1987). It would also appear that nostalgia, when experienced intensely, has a bearing on the cognitive age of the individual. For example, in relation to felt age, the participants in this research had more in common with people of a different generation. This was based on shared stories, interests, (i.e., in music and films of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s) and activities. A further common theme was that of being born too late:

Steve; "I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t nostalgic for the 1940s and 50s. I just seem to have been born that way, or born too late."

Caroline: "I have had an obsession with the 1960s since I was in a position to make any kind of choices over clothes and music. I don’t know, I just never really related to the style and things of my own time."

This identification with the past also impacted on how these individuals visually expressed themselves and looked. All who participated in this study dressed in the clothes associated with their particular preference period. They wore their hair in the style of the era, and in some cases even drove vehicles that were fashionable at the time. For example, Caroline rode a Vespa at weekends and drove a 1960s Austin Mini during the week.

Steve: "I think i have worn clothes mostly original 40s and 50s suits since I was around 15. It just seemed quite natural. When I was a teenager in the 1970s I hated the clothes, all two tone, thick soled shoes and skinny ribbed jumpers."

Caroline: "What I like about the whole thing is that it’s a cohesive look, linked to what you wear, drive, listen to and dance to. I even like the furniture and believe it or not the wall paper. I remember when I was an undergraduate, four of us moved into a house together. I was the only one who was into the 1960s, the rest had their own sense of dress and music. The other three wanted the plain rooms. I, on the other hand, made a dash for the bedroom with the purple swirly carpet. I put a larva lamp in there and a suspended bamboo chair. Of course university was a totally different scene. I suddenly found myself standing out from everyone else, but there must be a bit of me that is quite exhibitionistic, because I didn’t change. I still wore my bright clothes and went to lectures on my Vespa. I even organised some 60s nights at the student union....It’s something I’ve never felt self conscious about. I might have stood out, but the Goths and New Romantics were the odd balls, not m."

Consequently in terms of expression and identity maintenance through fashion (Thompson and Haykto, 1997) there is little to affiliate these consumers with peers of the same age who do not engage in nostalgic consumption. Similarly, with regard to 'do age’ and 'interest age’ this was linked to nostalgic activities such as dancing, listening to music, and attending special events which allowed individuals to role play by recreating the past and collectively sharing the experience.

Nostalgic socialisation

It must, however, be acknowledged that nostalgia is a learnt emotion. It depends on a degree of socialisation, usually in the early years, which may include positive accounts of personal experiences from family, repetition of these over a period of time, close contact with nostalgic people, and available stimulus. For example:

Steve: "Ever since I was a little boy I was told stories of Hollywood. My mother is related to Yvonne de Carlo, the Hollywood actress who was in the early Munster films. So right from an early age I was aware of the glamour and glitz associated with that special time."

Caroline: "My sister is the same as me, although she is a good few years older. I suppose her enthusiasm must have rubbed off on me. She had a group of friends who would come around to the house to play soul music, get dressed up, and go off to special 1960s style music events. They would back comb their hair, apply the eyeliner, put on the clothes and ride off on the back of their Vespas, the ultimate status symbol for men and women."

Holbrook (1993) discusses the idea of critical peak periods, which in the case of the vicariously nostalgic consumer tends to occur around the age of 15 when nostalgic preferences become fixed. The development of these preferences are largely based on the individual being socialised into nostalgia, and are further strengthened through extended exposure to positive images such as film, music and photographs. These lead to an idealised perception of time related beauty which then becomes imprinted as a benchmark for judging the aesthetic qualities of people and things. However, nostalgia depends on other factors apart from socialisation and available stimulus; namely nostalgia is an emotion that is usually instigated by feelings of frustration in the present, compared with an idealised image of a perfect past.

Disillusionment in the present and the loss of romance

One constant characteristic in the literature on nostalgia (Davis, 1979; Kaplan, 1987; Hertz, 1992; Batcho, 1995) is that the nostalgic emotion is a reaction to discontent in the present, and quite often, a sense of loss of a 'golden age’ (Turner, 1987; Chase and Shaw, 1989). This was evident in the words of the informants, particularly with regard to style and fashion:

Steve: "I particularly love the clothes, tailored suits, evening dresses, cigarette holders, gloves. What have we got today that even comes near to that."

Caroline: "I don’t know why I haven’t moved with the times, but what is there to beat it? Today fashion is nondescript, the music is all manufactured, and as for the furniture, I don’t want to be an Ikea clone."

Coupled with this sense of frustration with contemporary style, design and aesthetics is the idea that the past was more romantic, that men and women were more 'feminine’ and 'masculine’:

Steve: "The 1940s and 50s were about style, beauty and elegance, there was a certain charm that no longer exists today. Everything from the grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to the mystery of actresses like Greta Garbo. The women looked so beautiful and feminine with their clinched in waists, voluptuous figures and faces to die for. People also had a sense of charisma; think of Bette Davis in what ever role she played, she could scare you or captivate you. I can’t think of anyone who could do that today, certainly not Gwynth Paltrow or Brad Pitt. As far as the men were concerned I would say that Clark Gable probably epitomised the look for me. He was typically tall dark and handsome, but with that hint of mischief."

Caroline: "the look associated with the swinging sixties somehow, I don’t know, speaks volumes. Women were overtly alluring, but not just flirty, they were in control."

Interestingly, the idea of gender roles were not seen as 'masculine dominant’, 'feminine submissive’, rather the idea of the strong woman was a recurring theme for both male and female informants. This was also a reflection of how these individuals perceived themselves and members of their social group.

Nostalgia as a social emotion

Whilst vicarious nostalgia is very much part of individual preference, it cannot be divorced, in this case from the experience of the group and the sharing of the nostalgic feeling. Barak (1987) argues that cognitive age is heavily influenced by age group referral which also impacts on the individuals sene of identity which is expressed and mirrored in the social context. Jenkins (1996) calls this the internal-external dialectic of identification or 'mutual recognition’ (Kellner, 1992). Thompson and Haytko (1997, p26) propose that #fashion meanings can be used to foster a sense of standing out, or they can be used to forge a sense of affiliation with others and to foster a sense of belonging.". Again this was described as part of the nostalgic experience:

Steve: "I have a vast collection of films from the period, numerous books, and I sometimes listen to the music, although the music is less important to me than the look. The thing about it is, I know I’m not alone. There are clubs that specialise in 1940s, 50s, nostalgia evenings, just like the clubs that offer 1970s retro disco nights. They attract hundreds of like minded individuals. Everyone gets dressed up and I suppose you could say we enjoy a night posing around. I remember years ago in the late 1970s there used to be a regular venue under a more mainstream club which was one of the first clubs I ever went to. Everyone knew each other, you could go there alone and you knew you’d meet up with friends. It was a different story in the club upstairs. They were all too busy headbanging to Slade ( a 1970s rock band) or whoever they listened to."

Caroline: "When I was about 16 I started going to Northern Soul nights. Hundreds and even thousands would turn up from all over the country to dance all through the night. All the girls wore striking outfits and there were certain dance steps that you had to know. It was a complete package really. There was a similar dress code for men, with mohair suits being the thing to wear in the evening. Nearly everyone had a Vespa, or at least one per couple. My boyfriend was also part of the scene and we would go along to all night Northern Soul parties which aimed to create the Wigan (a town in the North of England) scene of the 1960s. Sometimes they would last all weekend."

Building on the work of Maffesoli (1996), Cova (1997) discusses the contemporary search for the communal as undertaken by collections of people called neo-tribes. In this context, the shared consumption of music, fashion and dance and its ability to link individuals, not only validates the individual’s sense of identity but also helps to create a neo-tribe. The 1960s soul weekends or the 1940s nights provide these consumers with an environment which links them with others who share something that is mutually valued. In this case the neo-tribe is based on nostalgic consumption which provides the basis for friendship bonds, shared experiences and temporary alternative communities.

Nostalgia is enduring

Finally, it should be noted that like personal nostalgia, vicarious nostalgia can result in an enduring preference for time related images of beauty. This is made all the more interesting given the level of endurance, despite changes in personal circumstances, relationships and careers, as noted by the two informants:

Steve: "I don’t go to nightclubs as much as I used to. I have a partner now who I live with and a child of two. The problem is that she is a modern minimalist while I am still, what I would call a romantic nostalgic at heart. We’re buying a house together which is causing a bit of tension in terms of how we decorate. Our two lots of furniture certainly clash. However, we have reached a compromise and I’ve been allocated one bedroom which she calls my 1940s room."

Caroline: "I am working now so I have to tone things down a bit in the day. I still have the Vespa, although I now also drive a car. It’s a 1960s mini. I bought it from a friend of my mothers who had it since it was new. My flat is still full of 60s memorabilia and my musical taste hasn’t changed..."


This paper has looked at the concept of vicarious nostalgia and the consumption experiences of a sample of young informants who share a number of common characteristics. These include an affiliation with others who share a nostalgia for a time just before their living memory, the consumption of nostalgic products and experiences, exposure to nostalgic narratives, imagery and related stimulus, and a positive/negative contrast between past and present based on style and aesthetics. Nostalgia is also a shared experience which can be used as the basis for group solidarity and membership, which, it would seem, once established has an enduring appeal. Consequently, while these informants may appear to be a specialist and small group of individuals, and as such of little interest to marketers, the growth in 'retro’ shops, nostalgia evenings, and events that attract thousands of people, indicate that such preferences deserve greater attention. For example, a deeper analysis of the link between cognitive age and nostalgia may provide insights that could be valuable in designing communication aimed at nostalgic consumers. Nostalgic imagery in advertising has traditionally been targeted at the baby boom generation and elderly consumers by appealing to their critical preference periods. However, younger informants should not be ignored. Certain themes such as those of gender roles, sexual allure, romance and mystery may be worthy of greater attention.


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Christina Goulding, University of Wolverhampton


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

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