Maybe the look will come back sometime but for now the PS versions trump in camera versions for photo editors.
Put an old SF lens on a 4x5 camera. You can get way soft wide open to potentially normal looking results as you stop down (depending on the lens, but this is a pretty common outcome). Every f stop is going to have different softness for different subjects depending on the detail being photographed. Every f stop will have different contrast results too. Consider it more like having photoshop built into the lens. And you can also adjust focus and DOF like normal lenses. Furthermore some of the soft focus lenses have dedicated softness adjustments separate from the aperture, and others have the imagon strainers for additional options.
I am interest in SF (and doing things in the camera in traditional ways) because it's the real thing and the original method. Just as people pay more than their house is worth for a shelby ac cobra compared to a modern recreation @ 1/10 the price, people will also continue to like making photographs using original means, even if it's a little more work.
Soft focus has enthusiasts who have differentiated between what is kitsch and what is authentic and inspiring regarding styles. Examples regarding soft focus on modern commercial portraits to disguise zits and wrinkles is the kitsch they don't get enthused about. The authentic era of soft focus was 80-100 years ago.
I forgot to say in my previous post that in many of the dedicated SF lenses you can make the choise of making a tack sharp image. OR a soft one - the amount of softness is also your choise. (hardly a one trick pony).
I respect your dislike in SF images. But stating that they has worn out their welcome is hardly right...your welcome maybe.
you said earlier: "Suspect those who buy them really don't know what they're getting."..
I suspect you don't really know about SF lenses, but you don't like the SF look(s), (which is fine by me)
Your experience sounds like it doesn't go beyond the 70's and cokin soft filters. The effects of large format soft focus lenses are complex and variable as gandolfi mentioned--nothing like one-dimensional photoshop tricks. These lenses were made between the late 19th and mid 20th centuries and their prices have been skyrocketing as photographers rediscover them.
The OP brought up the issue of SF portraiture,its long gone heyday in the 70s, and why it passed in favor of hyper-sharpness. I see greater inventiveness and creative latitude made possible by PS in capable hands than was ever enabled by a lens alone--whatever the format. I love analog capture but it's often only the first step to a final image for me.
We're not debating the utility of photoshop--but it's ability to displace the effect of lens and process. This thread expanded beyond the misguided notion that the 70's was the pinnacle of "soft-focus" photography. You can use a soft focus lens or photoshop to turn out kitsch, but your dismissive tone to gandolfi's points seems to ignore both Pictorialism and the facts on the ground regarding soft focus lenses.
There's one element I'd like to add to this discussion. It's format size and its relationship to soft focus images.
Frankly, I don't think 35mm soft focus photographs can approach the quality of a large format soft focus print.
A 35mm soft focus print will still have sharp focus grain. To blur the grain pattern requires the picture itself to be blurred and there is a world of difference between soft focus and out-of-focus.
This sharp grain/soft image creates, I think, a discordant image. The viewer is confronted with seeing a soft focus image and simultaneously a sharp grain pattern.