Popular History is when a show or movie set in a previous decade focuses on certain elements of the era's pop culture to an implausible degree, often mixing and matching things from different points in the decade and acting as if they existed at the same time, regardless of whether these elements came before or after the year the work's set (for example, The Wedding Singer is explicitly set in 1985 yet is more of a collage of various elements across the entirety of the 1980s).
For instance, every man in 1912 would have been in high spirits sporting their sharp tailored suits with their suffragette wives in large-feathered hats and willowy, exotic dresses that scandalously show the ankles as they ride their horseless carriages to the ritzy Ragtime-tuned tango balls and exhibitions of exotic places, cubist pieces, flying machines, moving pictures, and affordable photography, while lamenting the sinking of the Titanic and scoffing off the affair around the Balkans.
Every gal in 1926 would have cut her hair beneath her tight-fitting hat, wearing fur-trimmed coats that blend in with her outrageously loose knee-length dress and beaded necklace, flashing her rayon stockings with painted knees, and donning heavy makeup while badly driving a Cardillac with her tough-faced gangster boyfriend at her side and crying her heart out for Valentino or Buster Keaton.
Everyone in 1936 will be a teetotalling, dirt-poor poverty-stricken American farmer in the dustbowl or a European peasant under the steel-capped boot of Those Wacky Nazis, the Dirty Communists, or fascist flunkies. Or if one is lucky enough to escape the Dust Bowl or the Totalitarian Wasteland, he would have worn sharp tailfin suits tapdancing and singing on the talking silver screen with his leading lady wearing satin dresses lined with feathers and fur all the while flashing her flawless back as they dance around the moonlight gleaming through the trippy streamlined landscape.
Every woman in 1955 would either wear sleek cherry-red tailored suits, long tight skirts and spike heels and be fearing communism, watching B-Movies and hanging out at the local Malt Shop, or wearing fancy polka-dot dresses with a cute poodle on their skirts while watching Elvis Presley on television; and men in either tailored lounge suits and trenchcoats, or Nice Guy polo shirts with bowties and khakis running on suspenders, or black leather jackets, tight blue jeans and black boots with matching shiny black pompadours while riding on their custom made bikes.
Everyone in 1968 will be wearing tie-dye shirts, smoking pot and going to see the Stones or The Doors while protesting Jim Crow laws and The Vietnam War. For the uptights, every man would wear a colourful vintage three-piece suit to contrast The Beatles style moptop and every woman would have a giant bouffant to go with her pastel-colored space-agey minidress and go-go boots as they ride on a Vespa scooter while waving her burning bra.
Everyone in 1977 will either be wearing platform shoes, a polyester leisure suit, an afro, and will be going to the disco, or wearing torn jeans, Doc Martens or converse, ripped shirt, leather Jacket and going to pogo to The Clash or the Pistols. And if they're not doing that, they're usually protesting in the streets over Watergate.
Everyone in 1985 will sport Miami Vice-type pastel clothes and mullet hairstyles if they are men, big hair, lots of make-up and power suits if they are women, and early Madonna or Debbie Gibson-type outfits if they are teenage girls. The kids will be playing on the NES 24/7 (if not watching celebrity-endorsed Saturday morning cartoons), and their parents decry everything new as the work of Satan while pledging allegiance to Reaganomics and fearing Communism and nuclear war, and teenagers will be parading down the street in the most garish pastel-neon colors possible, listening to Michael Jackson and Twisted Sister on their Walkmen and doing the moonwalk the moment they see a red and white Pepsi can.
Everyone in 1996 will wear flannel shirts, baggy jeans, moptops, Rachels, or angst-ridden hair, with baseball caps worn backwards, while listening to Nirvana or Tupac Shakur CDs on the boombox and inserting floppy disks while listening to the squeals of their 28.8 modems. Adults will joke on the street about Michael Jackson touching little kids and Bill Clinton getting sucked off in the Oval office, while kids have brawls on the playground over whether or not Genesis does what Nintendon't. Meanwhile, Los Angeles is constantly up in flames, and nobody could care less because everyone's glued to their TV screens to see if OJ Simpson's gonna get what's coming to him.
Also applies to cars in the street; they will all be models from the year portrayed, as if nobody has kept a car they bought in a previous decade.
This is especially painful when you consider that the writers generally lived through the era being depicted.
Sometimes, a movie about the period that's considered "not enough" will hit a lot closer to home. The early and even mid-1980s had a lot of late '70s styles hanging around. The perm or wavy haircut was very common around the mid-1980s (the Cobra Kai guys all had this cut in The Karate Kid), but you never see it being used when people recreate the '80s — probably because it "doesn't look '80s enough".
None of this is to imply that nobody in a past era was conscious of the time they were living in or historically self-aware; indeed, cultural critics and pundits have often made a living in the field of attempting to be prescient (and sometimes they have succeeded!). This trope is for instances when an "average person" who can't possibly predict future nostalgia is depicted having an outlandish amount of Genre Savviness.
For a good depiction of a time period, one should look at the TV shows, books, plays and movies that were made during that period. Pretty in Pink, 21 Jump Street, and Punky Brewster for the 80s; Love Story, Barney Miller, and All in the Family in the 70s; and The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, and The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 60s. Doctor Who episodes set in what was then the present day are particularly good sources if you're looking for life in the UK in particular, given that the show's been on the air since the 1960's. However, beware of a show that tried to be Totally Radical.
Nothing but Hits is a subset of this trope. Related to Small Reference Pools. See also: Politically Correct History; Nostalgia Filter; "Mister Sandman" Sequence. Compare: Anachronism Stew; Frozen in Time. For this trope in reverse, see Present-Day Past. When a work actually made during the relevant time period appears to fit this trope, it's an Unintentional Period Piece.
- Portrayed in Back to the Future Part II where a cafe from the year 2015 is dedicated to the Popular History of the then-contemporary 1980s. In fact, Cafe '80s turns out to be right on the money when it comes to identifying the elements that would become stereotypical for the decade in later years.
- The entirety of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It looked like they were dredging up every single possible period detail relating to the 1950s.
- Forrest Gump had plenty of this, with the titular main character just happening to bump into the biggest figures and events in history and pop culture throughout his life, in some cases even instigating them. The most prominent example of this is in one scene where Gump gets invited to meet with Richard Nixon. Nixon decides to gift Gump a stay at a luxury hotel nearby, only for Gump to have to file a complaint to the staff the next night because he was being bothered by some people apparently playing around with flashlights in a window visible from his own. At the end of the scene, we're shown the name of the hotel: Watergate.
- Done oddly in the movie version of Mamma Mia!, where Donna flashes back to her three old boyfriends in their prime. Apparently they each wore clothes from a different decade, even though these flashbacks were supposed to take place in the 1980s. Watch out for Pierce Brosnan as a hold-over hippy...
- We are talking about a movie that has cars, dresses and culture from the 40's-50's Greece in the present day! I mean... look at the cars!
- In The Naked Gun 33 1/3, Drebin recognizes a woman as a suspect in an unsolved murder back in the 70's. Cue Flash Back of the murder: It happened in a disco, and Drebin, Hocker, and Nordberg are all decked out in leisure suits, gold chains, and huge afros. Of course, this may most likely be Played for Laughs, given its similarities to another over-the-top disco sequence in Airplane!.
- It gets even more ridiculous when you realize that the woman, who is about in her late twenties in the present day (1994), wouldn't even have reached puberty yet when Saturday Night Fever was in theaters, but in the flashback is as... er... "buoyant" as ever.
- Rumor Has It... gets pretty annoying with it, but the worst example is probably prominently showing during a party scene three men with no bearing at all on the plot discussing how there's this thing called Google that's gonna be a huge hit.
- The Time Scout series mostly averts this. The authors go to some effort to make sure they avoid the worst stereotypes and be historically accurate. How well they succeed depends on your own knowledge.
- Life on Mars (2006) and Ashes to Ashes (2008) are good examples of this. Ashes To Ashes mixes very early eighties fashions (Ray's The Professionals look) with yuppies wearing mid-to-late Eighties Miami Vice gear. Both series also play with this trope, as it's revealed that the periods we see are largely influenced by the main characters' ideas of what things looked like then.
- The Sitcom Do Over took place in 1980, but had certain elements as far as 1985. Furthermore a character in the first episode said it was the year 1981, which just made the confusion even worse. This was subverted and lampshaded in an episode where the main character (a man reliving his high school years) dresses up as a ghostbuster for Halloween. It isn't until he shows it to his dumbfounded friends that he remembers that the movie won't come out for another four years.
- Played with in How I Met Your Mother: Robin was a teen idol in Canada, and the film clip to her song Let's Go to the Mall is stereotypically eighties, but it was made during the early nineties. This is played more as a joke that Canada is behind the times, though.
- If you lived in Canada in the early to mid 90s and remember Alanis Morrissette's "Too Hot" and then re-invention as an angry grunge singer, it's even funnier.
- Cold Case frequently does this when returning to a flashback with the music playing during the era that's discussed. Pop culture references are also frequent if they happened around that decade.
- Gossip Girl: Lily has a flash back to the eighties, and it is complete with all the associated stereotypes.
- Sort of averted in Everybody Hates Chris. Most of the kids wear clothes that are generally in style (jeans and a t-shirt) and Rochelle has a seventies hairstyle in the early episodes.
- Averted in Freaks and Geeks: None of the characters wear the standard '80s attire as it is only 1980, and disco is popular (much to their annoyance).
- Averted in Mad Men: While set in the 60's, the attitude and style of the main characters still reflect the previous decade, with many of the older characters (like Duck and Roger) reflecting the decade before that one. And Bert Cooper seems to be a holdover from The Roaring '20s.
- Mostly averted in That '70s Show, where it's a pretty well done sitcom that happens to take place in the 70's. The barely-related spin-off, That '80s Show, face-planted into this trope by pointing out the fact that it was in The '80s so blatantly that the commercials were almost unwatchable, nevermind the show itself.
- Played in The Vampire Diaries. Everyone who's taken an American History class knows that no actual witches were persecuted at the Salem witch trials, but the writers needed to give the no longer Scottish Bonnie an explanation for her psychic abilities.
- "Haunted" states the same fact, but there's still the question of why Bonnie's family had to be from Salem specifically.
- Actually, "Haunted" toys with this trope: according to Bonnie's grandmother, no actual witches were persecuted in Salem because the real ones had enough power to escape beforehand.
- "Haunted" states the same fact, but there's still the question of why Bonnie's family had to be from Salem specifically.
- The Outer Limits (1995):
- Very much in evidence in the time travel episode "Vanishing Act", though it begins in a fairly low-key way. The music is pretty much Nothing but Hits. On New Year's Eve 1949, Trevor McPhee turns off the radio while it is playing swing music. When he travels forward in time to New Year's Day 1960, he looks at 1959 issues of Time Magazine and Life featuring Vice President Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro and International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa on the cover. At the Tiki Isle Bar and Grill, the Patsy Cline song "Leaving' On Your Mind" is playing on the radio. On New Year's Day 1970, Trevor finds that his now ex-wife Theresa and her new husband Ray are 40-ish hippies and runs into his former physician Dr. Golden at a protest against The Vietnam War outside a Marine recruitment office. When he goes to the Tiki Isle to drown his sorrows, the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" is on the radio. On New Year's Day 1980, Trevor arrives in the middle of a disco at the Tiki Isle where the Van McCoy song "Do the Hustle" is being played. The disco patrons wear jumpsuits, strapless gowns, leisure suits, bell bottoms and gold medallions and chains. Trevor's final jump to January 1990 averts this trope, considering that it was only six years before the episode was made.
- "Ripper" takes place in Victorian London and prominently features the Jack the Ripper murders, an Opium Den, prostitutes and the East End slums of Whitechapel.
- In "Time to Time", Lorelle Palmer and Gavin visit the UC Berkeley campus on April 14, 1969 and see many hippies, several protests against The Vietnam War and an ROTC officer trying to recruit students.
- Mafia II takes place in 1951 and contains literally everything from The '50s, with massive amounts of Anachronism Stew. It's even emphasised in a "Mister Sandman" Sequence after the main character leaves prison, meaning that in that world, as soon as The '50s rolled in everyone threw away anything from The '40s and suddenly invented the entire 50s culture.
- Futurama: While trying to look inconspicuous in 1947 Roswell, Leela wears a poodle skirt and the Professor wears a zoot suit (though they did pretty well considering they were from a thousand years in the future, and Earth and its records were devastated by wars several times during that period). In the second episode, this is slightly lampshaded when a 31st century attraction does this to the entire 20th century. "Let's disco dance, Hammurabi!"
- The Roswell episode shows a lot of the failings of the 31st century characters' knowledge of history. The Professor and Leela don't realize that microwaves haven't been invented yet; when they go to a diner, Leela orders "an injection of FemiSlim and a side of Soylent Coleslaw", then the professor Zig Zags by ordering "the paella, two mutton pills and a stein of mead."
- The waitress simply shrugs and writes their order as "Two chilli dogs."
- Lampooned in The Simpsons episode "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" (with the scene described shown in the background):
Kent Brockman: But first, let's take a look at the year 1928. A year when you might have seen Al Capone dancing the Charleston on top of a flagpole.