Dreams are fluid with time. That means you’ll probably occasionally have a dream that takes place in a decade or year in the past.* Dreams that take place in some past time are likely telling you something about some past issue that’s interfering with your life right now. In order to figure out what the time period in the dream is telling you, you need to consider a couple of things. Let me show you what I mean through the interpretation of a dream I had that took place in the 1920s.
It’s the 1920s. I’m living in a rather dingy apartment building. I’m friends with my neighbors, a couple. We’re all getting ready to go on some trip with a bunch of others and we’re excited about this. I’m dressed in boyish clothes and so is my female neighbor.
We head downstairs, and the woman says something about having dressed unfeminine and hoping it won’t shock the others. The boyfriend points out that she doesn’t act like a typical woman anyway.
As we go out the door of the apartment building, my clothing has transformed from masculine to feminine. We turn to the right and see the group of people waiting for us.
Figuring out the Past in Dreams
Before going into the details of the dream, we need to deal with the time period in which it takes place. I first explored personal associations. As it happens, I was very attracted to the 1920s style of fashion when I was a teen and a young adult, and that got me interested in the time period. I read about the history of the 1920s. I read literature from the 1920s. I saw films that were set in the 1920s.
Because I was passionate about the 1920s in my high school and young adult years, the dream is drawing my attention to issues from those time periods. Specifically, I’m dealing with gender identity because of the focus in the dream on masculine and feminine clothes.
Like a lot of women who were born in the 1970s, I received conflicting messages about gender identity. This is because although my parents were aware of feminism, they’d been raised on patriarchal values. They were conflicted themselves. That was in addition to their psychological issues. They had a desperate need to instill patriarchal values in me because that meant my life would focus on the home, including my role as the sacrificing daughter.
As a result, both of my parents had nothing but derogatory things to say about women who honored their interests outside of the home. They would speak condescendingly of “the career woman.” Worse, they taught me that she wasn’t really a woman because she didn’t act like a woman. In other words, she wasn’t passive and all-sacrificing.
But at the same time, that’s not what I was hearing from the world around me. The second wave of feminism had started even before my birth and lasted into my early teen years. My friends, my friends’ mothers, teachers, and other women in my life were talking about women accomplishing amazing things that had nothing to do with their roles as wives and mothers. They were telling me that it was OK for a woman to be assertive and that if a woman gives herself to others completely then it’s not just bad for her but also bad for the world.
Some women like the traditional roles. I had a friend who said she actually felt stifled by expectations from modern society that she have a career and make change in the world. All she wanted was to have a good marriage and be a mother. But that wasn’t me. And yet, the messages from my parents were so powerful that I found them impossible to ignore. And since I was living in the family nest when I was a teen and young woman, I tried to please them as much as I could. I didn’t get married and have children, but I also didn’t threaten them by being assertive in fulfilling my potential.
So the dream brings up these conflicts in gender identity when I had a black-and-white view of gender roles. Assertiveness and initiative were male qualities, and if I did that stuff, I wasn’t really a woman.
When dealing with dreams that take place in a historical time period, the first thing to do is notice any personal associations you might have to the period. Does it have special meaning for you? If so, what is that all about? In my example, I simply had a special interest in the 1920s as a teen and young adult, which took me back to those times in my life.
Then explore characteristics of the period because they might tell you something more specific about why you’re dreaming of that particular period. For instance, if you dream of the 1940s, you might explore the theme of conflict because the 1940s was the time of World War II, which was devastating for many countries.
Once I explored personal associations to the time period, I reached back into the research I’d done on the 1920s to identify some characteristics of the period. It was the time between World War I and World War II, so symbolically that shows I had the dream at a time after I dealt with some conflict and before I was to deal with another.
The 1920s was also a time of optimism and prosperity, to be crushed later by the Great Depression that began at the end of the decade. So it was a time of illusion, as the period in my past was regarding gender identity.
The last thing I associated with the 1920s was major social transition, from strict Victorian morals to modern ideas about sex, women’s behavior, and having a good time. Symbolically, the dream was reflecting a transition within me from rigid ideas about gender identity to more flexible ones.
Gender identity appears in two places in the dream. The first is with my neighbor, a woman who dresses in a masculine way. She’s worried that presenting herself to the others that way will shock them. Clothes can represent identity, so she’s essentially a woman identifying herself with “male” characteristics like initiative and assertiveness.
Her boyfriend, who Jungians might consider my animus, reassures her by telling her that she already doesn’t act like a woman. Given that the dream takes place in the 1920s with associations to gender identity conflicts, I take this as a positive message. He’s saying that I don’t act like the woman my parents wanted me to be, passive and all-sacrificing.
The other image relating to gender identity is the transformation of my clothes from masculine to feminine. I represent waking consciousness in the dream, which can’t quite deal yet with embracing “male” characteristics. I’m OK with it in private, but once I go out into the public, I want to go back to what makes me feel comfortable, the female identity my parents instilled in me.
This dream is about progressing in my business. The traditional feminine qualities that my parents taught me, passivity and complete sacrifice, just won’t work when you’re trying to share what you have to share with the world. You have to take the initiative, and you have to honor your talents and desires by fulfilling them. The woman who dressed in a masculine way was a guide. The anxiety she expressed was my own anxiety, and the fact that she went ahead and embraced her “masculine” side in public anyway was a model for me.
I could have gotten the message about conflict relating to gender identity even without paying much attention to the historical period in which the dream took place. But it added depth, linking this conflict to deeply rooted beliefs and showing me the source of the problem–hanging onto those old beliefs. That’s why I encourage you to pay attention to historical periods in dreams. They add richness to your interpretation.
* We also, of course, have dreams that take place in the future, but I won’t be discussing those in this post.