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"The temptation is to have the characters keep reminding the audience what year it is. But characters in historical fiction don't know they're living in the past. They think they're living in the present. And they can't see into the future. So they shouldn't talk as if they're cribbing from history books about their own time. Dialog shouldn't contain many temporal signifiers. Which is to say you don't want to have characters who happen to be living in the 1970s saying things like: 'Did you watch the Watergate hearings today? Can you believe Nixon taped all those conversations!' Or: 'I bought the new Zeppelin album today. Man, that Jimmy Page is a genius!' Or: 'They're called Earth Shoes. They're supposed to be much better for your feet than regular shoes.' "

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 and trends from across the entirety of the 1980s).

Early 1910s

For instance, every man in 1912, the Edwardian Era, 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 newfangled horseless carriages to the Ragtime piano shows and tango balls and see exhibitions of exotic places, cubist pieces, flying machines made of wood and canvas, moving pictures, and affordable black and white photography, while lamenting the tragic sinking of the Titanic and scoffing off the affair around the Balkans.

Mid 1920s

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 roadster with her tough-faced gangster boyfriend at her side, drinking overproof moonshine from a flask and crying her heart out for movie stars like exotic Rudolph Valentino or funnyman Buster Keaton.

Mid 1930s

Everyone in The Dirty Thirties in 1936 will be a teetotalling, dirt-poor poverty-stricken American farmer in the dustbowl, or a migrant family going west in a truck to look for work, or a Eastern 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 been in the US watching movie stars in sharp tailfin suits tapdancing and singing on the talking silver screen with glamorous platinum blonde leading ladies 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, surrealistic streamlined landscape.

Early 1940s

Everyone in 1942 would have shoulder pads in their suits, dresses, coats, uniforms, and even underwear, donning updo hairstyles with fancy hats decorated with fruit, and dancing to a swing jazz band in a conga line while distributing war bonds. As well, they'll either be serving in the military in Europe or Asia or helping the war effort at home by working in a factory or as a nurse in a war hospital. Grandpa works as an air raid warden.

Mid 1950s

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 in Suburbia or Everytown, America, or wearing pink, fancy polka-dot dresses with a cute poodle on their skirts while watching hip-gyrating Elvis on black and white television; and men in either tailored lounge suits and trenchcoats, or Nice Guy polo shirts with bowties and khakis running on suspenders, or if they're a Bad Boy, black leather jackets, tight blue jeans and black boots with matching shiny black pompadours while riding on their custom made motorbikes.

Late 1960s

Everyone in 1968 will be in long hair, beads and sandals, living on a commune, wearing groovy tie-dye shirts, smoking pot and dropping acid and going to see the Stones or The Doors while protesting Jim Crow laws and The Vietnam War and men are waving their burning draft cards as women wave their burning bra.

For the uptight squares, every man has a buzz-cut to contrast The Beatles style moptop and wears a pressed, colourful vintage three-piece suit and shined shoes 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 and listen to Bossa Nova.

Late 1970s

Everyone in 1977 will either be wearing platform shoes, a polyester leisure suit, an afro with sideburns, and will be going to the disco to dance to Donna Summers and ABBA songs, take Qualuudes and cocaine and hook up in with a stranger (or three) in the disco bathroom, playing Pong or Atari video games or Pinball machines, or if they're into Punk Rock, wearing torn jeans, Doc Martens or Converse running shoes, ripped band t-shirts, leather jacket and Delinquent Hair and going to pogo and slamdance to The Clash or the Pistols. And if they're not doing that, they're usually sniffing glue or protesting in the streets over Watergate or Margaret Thatcher.

Mid 1980s

Everyone in 1985 will sport Miami Vice-type pastel clothes and mullet or big gel-heavy 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 video game systems 24/7 on big CRT TVs and watching VHS tapes (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 Sony Walkmen or boombox and doing the moonwalk the moment they see a red and white Pepsi can, while sneaking out to House Music events in underground raves to take Ecstasy and dance all night.

Mid 1990s

Everyone in 1996 will wear flannel shirts, baggy acid wash jeans, Rachels, hi-tops, or angst-ridden moptops, with baseball caps worn backwards, while listening to grunge like Nirvana or rap like Tupac Shakur CDs on the boombox and inserting floppy disks while listening to the squeals of their 28.8 modems as they drink their triple shot latte on the go. Adults will joke on the street about Woody Allen and 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 from police brutality to Black communities, and nobody could care less because everyone's glued to their TV screens to see if football star O. J. Simpson's gonna get what's coming to him, while the news tickers scroll about the affair around the Balkans.

Late 2000s (decade)

Everyone in 2007 will either be wearing leather jackets, ripped jeans, and ironic hipster trucker hats for men, or yoga pants, tube tops, and jelly bands for women who constantly binge-watch NASCAR, The Biggest Loser, and American Idol, while being completely oblivious to their soldiers being blown up in Afghanistan, and abusing prisoners in Iraq, but are still paranoid and hateful of everything non-Christian including homosexuals, anyone with brown skin, and Harry Potter. Teens meanwhile are hooked onto MySpace, and illegally downloading music by Taylor Swift, Backstreet Boys, and Nickelback onto their iPods and flip phones that fit in your pocket!, whereas the kids tune in their TVs to Toonami and play either family-friendly sport simulators on the Wii game system, or gritty first person shooters to spit out various sexist slurs through Xbox Live.

General approach

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 unrealistic way of depicting an era 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. In general, a decade never comes into its own right away, with the early years oftentimes having considerable holdovers from the last few years of the preceding decades. The early and even mid-1980s, for instance, 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". The general misconception of decades being entirely encapsulated by their stereotypes is so prevalent that a common complaint whenever a new one starts is that it feels exactly the same as last year; it's not until the new decade becomes the old one that people look back and realize how much changed in just ten years.

In a similar vein, some trends associated with a given decade may begin just before it starts, such as boxy cars or New Wave Music associated with the '80s - which actually began in the late '70s. Trends simply don't care about numbers on the calendar.

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.


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    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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!
    • Fashions can express a lifestyle as well; neo-mods in the 1980s, pseudo-hippies in the 1990s.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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 Morissette'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.
  • 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.


    Video Games 
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, set in 1986, was one huge homage to The '80s and its media and culture, and it does feature elements from all over the decade - several songs on the radio which was full of Nothing but Hits were well past their prime at that point, as were some phenomena parodied on commercials and talk shows - for example, the Degenatron is a primitive video game console clearly parodying the pre-crash second generation of video games, when by 1986 the third generation was in full force with far more advanced technology than "bouncing squares".
  • 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.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • 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!"
  • 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.