The “Uniqueness” of Vintage

1960s yellow dress

My favorite 1960s yellow dress

Meet my favorite yellow dress. I photographed it on a cloudy day, so the picture might not fully communicate how sunny and exuberant this dress is. It’s like running through a field of wildflowers on a July day! I wear my yellow dress whenever I need to wake up and/or cheer up. It’s impossible to feel down when you’re wearing hot pink flowers with bright green stems on a sea of lemon yellow. Whenever I wear my yellow dress, people smile at me and sometimes ask me where the dress came from. They ask, “Is it vintage?”

details on yellow dress

I wore my dress this past weekend in Chicago, where I had a conversation with an anthropologist friend, Veve Lele. He wondered, What is it about the dress that communicates that it’s vintage? Is it the print? The color saturation? Something about the texture of the fabric that communicates it’s older, more worn? Its silhouette? We had a great discussion about how vintage dress is both an artifact of the past and material objects of the here and now.

Today my yellow dress is unique and stands out because we – as consumers – don’t see these prints or exact colors anymore. I love 60s yellow clothing – the yellows vary from sunny lemon to darker goldenrod. I rarely, if ever, see those exact yellows today. I’ve noticed that today’s bright yellows in fashion almost always have a greenish/chartreuse cast to them, and the goldenrods a slight dull orange cast.

Older clothing reflects the technologies available in clothing manufacture at a particular time period – the types of weaving machines, knitting machines, fabric dyes, etc. For example, there’s a reason that 1950s tweeds look different than today’s. They were manufactured on weaving machines that no longer exist, and unless someone has an old tweed weaving machine around, they cannot be made again.

It is these aspects of vintage clothing that makes them appear unique today. And surveys of vintage consumers have demonstrated that uniqueness is one of the biggest draws of vintage.

But is my yellow dress really unique? It’s only time and context that make it so. When I bought my dress (at lulavintage in St. Paul), it had a friend – a wide-brimmed hat in the same print, which was unfortunately too small for me. I also seem to recall that I saw this print when I was a child – in fact, I think I had a reversible parka of nearly the same print with green as the background color instead of yellow. My yellow dress no doubt once hung on a rack with its siblings of different sizes. They were purchased, worn, perhaps stained, torn or donated away years ago, leaving my yellow dress the last one standing (at least in its immediate geographic area), so that now it appears unique.

In anthropology and sociology, there’s an approach called Rubbish Theory which explains this process. Once mass-market items only become prized antiques/vintage after going through a period of time when most people who encountered them regarded them as rubbish, and discarded them. This makes the remaining items that were forgotten in attics or the back of closets scarce, and therefore more valuable – at least provided that the right kind of people come along and declare such items worth reviving (like how Martha Stewart revived milk glass bowls and dishes as valuable). Thus it’s sort of a survival-of-the-fittest-or-forgotten happenstance that someone held onto my dress rather than turning it into a rag that has made it appear unique in today. And for that I’m thankful.

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Travel in Search of Vintage

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My grandmother Edith used to buy a set of salt & pepper shakers in every place she traveled. It was an eclectic collection, with some sets reflecting the specific place (like Mexican sombreros) and others not (like the set shaped like two stalks of celery). Her children and grandchildren also started sending her sets from where they traveled. The shelves where Grandma displayed the salt & pepper sets were right at eye-level for us grandkids, and I would always peruse the shelf for new ones, asking where they came from, who brought them. I would pick them up, turn them over, and examine them with interest thinking about the place from where they came.

I think many of us want to bring back something specific from the places we visit that reminds us of our travel, something that reflects the particulars of a place. We want to find gifts for our loved ones that can’t be found anywhere else. And doesn’t everyone still have that excited thought (leftover from being a kid) when a family member comes home, “What did you bring me? What did you bring me?!” And it’s not the latest from Target that we’re hoping for; we’re hoping for something we can’t find here, at home. Travel is supposed to give us a break from monotony and routine, including the clothing, objects and foods we bring back.

But finding something specific to a place has become harder to do. While there are always local food items – spice mixes, a fancy olive oil, rhubarb wine – with airline restrictions, even that is getting harder. Clothing is also difficult. Stores in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have pretty much the same items as they do in Twin Cities. An H & M in Paris might have slightly different shirts than one in Minneapolis, but really, who cares?  And even if I buy an I Love NY T-shirt, it’s still likely to actually be made in Bangladesh or India.

This state of affairs is not new – I remember when I studied abroad in the late 1980s I was surprised to find Benetton, Esprit  and look-alike department stores in every major European city. It was then that I discovered that shopping secondhand is key to finding local or at least unique items while traveling. I first discovered this at the Waterlooplein Market in Amsterdam. I came home with aging Dutch lace curtains like the ones I saw in nearly every window, a short olive-colored Dutch army jacket and a crisp white cotton lace-trimmed nightgown, which I intended to belt and wear as a dress. The secondhand markets have been a something I look forward to on every trip.

And the vintage stores. I’ve learned that looking up city streets and neighborhoods where vintage shops cluster is key to discovering the part of town where more local, unique shops in general can be found. There’s a reason. When geographers Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe studied where vintage and secondhand shops cluster (for the book Second-Hand Cultures), they found that retro shops are found in urban neighborhoods with more edge than the “high streets” occupied by franchised stores. This occurs because such areas have lower rents. Vintage stores clustering with businesses that attract a similar crowd do best; thus the tendency for vintage shops to be located on streets with coffee shops, tattoo parlors, funky breakfast-all-day diners, t-shirt screen printing shops, and local designers trying to make a go of bricks-and-mortar retail.

I was recently in Vancouver, British Columbia and looked up where the vintage shops cluster. Sure enough, Main Street not only produced a fun vintage store tour of Vancouver (C’est La Vie Vintage, Woo Vintage, F as in Frank), but also shops that sold the work of local Vancouver designers (Twigg & Hottie Boutique, Two of Hearts Boutique, Devil May Wear or Motherland). I actually came home with some cool things that contain a “Made in Canada” label.

Making vintage stores a must-do for travel has also helped me see overall “trends” in vintage. While not as homogenous as H & Ms, there can also be a certain sameness to vintage shops. For example, it seems like the majority of vintage clothing stock is polyester. I think of this as an evolutionary process – a sort of “survival of the fittest” in used clothing, the Triumph of Polyester – because it, like other plastics, lasts forever. Vintage stores almost always have a certain whimsy, carnivalesque quality to them – mannequins dressed in wild hats, garish patterns, bright colors. And there’s usually a certain messiness – a sense that one has to hunt a little to make the great find (in fact, Gregson & Crewe found that making customers forage a bit was often key to making customers feel like they’ve found a bargain).

Vancouver vintage store mannequinsVancouver vintage store door

And of course, I observe regional variations in vintage stores. For example, forget trying to find nice vintage sweaters in cold-climate stores – people here won’t give up a good sweater, even in the afterlife. Los Angeles vintage stores are impeccable – only perfect-as-a-Hollywood-costumes are on the racks. Places where it rains a lot (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) have more leather coats in stock.

After years of making vintage shopping a much-anticipated part of my travel experiences, I’ve got a closet full of clothes that remind me not just of other times (distant from my own life), but of places and trips that have had meaning for me.

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Jumble Dressing, Pastiche and Androgyny

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

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Google Images of Androgynous Dressing 2015

A couple of days ago I was looking through photos from the late 1980s. When I first started to wear vintage, androgyny was cool. I would wear men’s trench coats or suit jackets and over-sized shirts over a pair of leggings or a black pencil skirt, a necktie in my hair as a headband. I felt both whimsical and confident in androgynous vintage looks like these.

What comes around goes around, as far as gender-bending looks go. Seeing the 80s photos reminded me of a recent New York Times article “Women Who Cover Up (Even as the Temperatures Climb).” Fashion & Style reporter Amy Sohn interviews young New Yorkers who “choose not to dress for a man’s gaze”. The article features a slide show of the 20ish set dressed in black, tights, loose-fitting shirts and coats, maxi skirts and dresses, wide-legged trousers. Said one New Yorker, “Sometimes I feel like dressing up like a boy, pretty androgynous, and sometimes I feel like dressing like a girl,…I don’t follow one particular trend or subculture. I just kind of jumble it all together.”

This “jumble style” was also how vintage style was initially interpreted in the 1980s. 1980s vintage was influenced by Punk subculture – ripped tulle skirts, topped with a black jacket, and torn men’s long underwear, dyed black (the original leggings). Similar to the sartorial savvy person in the New York Times article Angela McRobbie described late 80s vintage style as “pure pastiche,” that “plays with norms, conventions and expectations of femininity, post-feminism.” McRobbie also discussed 1980s androgynous style as “never unambiguously butch or aggressive, it was slim, slight and invariably ‘arty.’” When I look at 80s images of androgynous style (featuring pop culture icons like Grace Jones, Boy George or even Annie Lennox) I see parallels to the androgynous dress featured in Times. Both time periods feature colorful hair, loose-fitting coats, black stockings, bow ties and vintage items. Compare for yourself in the photos above (from Google images).

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Cheap Fashion on Last Week Tonight

John Oliver on Fashion, Last Week Tonight

John Oliver on Fashion, Last Week Tonight

“Get out! You bought that dress for only $19.95? How do they do it?” How do they do it, indeed. John Oliver explains with some laughs on Last Week Tonight’s episode on Fashion.

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Vintage, the First 40 Years

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I’m back! Where have I been? It turns out I have been reading about one thousand magazine and newspaper articles published since 1950 on secondhand and vintage clothing. I wanted to uncover the history of the vintage fashion trend, and find out how wearing secondhand clothing shifted from being viewed as rather pitiful to vintage chic in the United States.

It was an interesting journey. I learned that (at least in the United States press) the word “vintage” was first applied to clothing in 1957 when the Chicago Tribune referred to new clothing that recollected 1930s looks as “vintage.” Then the meaning of “vintage clothing” was that the 30s-looking clothing, like well-aged wine, reflected good years for style. Ten years later, the New York Times reports that a 1966 London trend of wearing old clothing as street style has crossed the pond. This category of fashionable old clothing came to be called “vintage clothing.” I also learned that fashion magazines considerably trailed the newspaper press in announcing the vintage clothing trend. While New York clothing dealers worried that there was going to be a shortage of vintage clothing because the market was so hot through the 1970s – even department stores were selling it – it wasn’t until 1979 that Vogue magazine rather dismissively announced a “boom in vintage clothes.” Not surprisingly perhaps, I discovered that 1970s vintage consumers were looking for the same qualities in vintage that we love today – unique, high quality clothing that is sourced in a more eco-conscious way than newly made clothing.

If you’re interested in finding out how vintage clothing was talked about as it emerged as a trend, you can read my article, “Vintage, the First 40 Years: The Emergence and Persistence of Vintage Style in the United States” in the journal Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research. The article is part of a special issue on Circulating Stuff through Second-hand, Vintage and Retro Markets. I’d like to thank the editors Staffan Appelgren and Anna Bohlin for putting together a great issue!

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2013: Accentuate the Positive: A Year in Ethical Fashion

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Macklemore & Ryan Lewis at a Thrift Shop

 Maybe it’s the New Year’s Eve champagne talking, but I must admit that I feel somewhat hopeful about the direction discussions about fashion and clothing production have taken this past year. For New Year’s, a list seems appropriate. Here are some stories from 2013 that have given me reason to hope that the fashion industry and our own patterns of consumption are changing as we head into 2014.

1. Trendsetter of 2013? Goodwill.  I appreciate Guy Trebay’s insight about the relationship between secondhand shopping and internet culture from his end-of-the-year assessment of pop culture in fashion, “We live in a thrift shop culture, compelled by daily, hourly and constantly refreshed trips to the Goodwill outlet that is the web. There we find all the stuff for assembling the “curated” selves who experts say are the new American trendsetters, D.I.Y. solipsists. Like Macklemore, we repurpose, we mash up, we grab things off the sale rack and try it on for size.” Trebay is referring, of course, to the Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the music video that celebrates secondhand culture.

Trebay goes onto say, “It was as though, in the past year, beleaguered consumers decided to take back fashion, to follow Macklemore’s lead and scour the cultural sale rack for what’s already hanging around. In the process they rediscovered the durable qualities of Made in U.S.A. labels like Filson and also only-in-America garments like Daisy Dukes.” And what’s great is the more we satisfy the shopping craving with secondhand, the less that goes into the landfill.

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students' clothing

Pie chart of country-of-origin of my students’ clothing

I observed this tendency of appreciating secondhand and re-discovering clothing made in the USA in the project we conducted in my Introduction to Human Society course of counting our clothing. Here’s a pie chart of the country-of-origin for where my students’ clothing comes from. We weren’t surprised by China (in purple) taking up the largest wedge, but we were surprised that USA (in granny-smith apple green) was the second largest piece of the pie. The reason, we discovered, is that most of us were not participating in the fast fashion trend of impulse purchases and quick disposal. We were holding onto our clothing, including older items that were made in the USA, purchased when retailers like Urban Outfitters had more such options.

2.         Clothing Production Returning to the United States. In 2012, the story that the US. Olympic team uniforms were outsourced made news (for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they will be made in the USA). In 2013, the New York Times has been reporting that at least some clothing production – even if it remains priced at the luxury end – is returning to the U.S.

In fact, here in Minnesota, there are not quite enough trained garment workers to meet the new demand as a wave of sewing jobs pile up at U.S. factories. Why I find this hopeful is not really a matter of patriotism– I’m happy to see clothing production return to wherever its home consumers live. What matters to me is that this should mean clothing is being produced in better working conditions and for higher wages.

3.         Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project.  National Public Radio’s Planet Money produced a short video series that tracked the production of a Planet Money t-shirt from start to finish. The series begins with the harvesting of cotton in Mississippi to the weaving of cotton into fabric to the sewing of the t-shirts in Bangladesh and Columbia to shipping the t-shirts back to the U.S. I found the chapter on those who sew our t-shirts most compelling, and was intrigued to learn that some believe garment industry wages can only go up because Bangladesh is as low as a company can go in trying to attain well-enough-made cheap clothing. Planet Money also reports that no one – not even Bangladeshi workers’ rights advocates – want the garment industry to leave Bangladesh.

4.         H & M commits to more sustainably produced fashion. It’s great that small producers and luxury brands are able to return production to the U.S. But as I noted in The Conscientious Consumer and the Guilty Closet, it’s difficult for most people to have a completely fair-trade closet. That’s why it’s so important that the big brands of fast fashion get on the sustainability path. I’m sure H & M has a long way to go, but I appreciate that they’ve started the journey.

5.         I’ll end with a wish for 2014. My wish is that fashion brands become more accountable to their workers in terms of paying livable wages and requiring them to work in safe conditions, wherever their brands are produced. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that companies are dodging responsibility for their contribution to the fast pace that led to safety concerns being ignored before the Rana Plaza factory collapse. Here in the U.S. there is talk about raising the minimum wage  and providing workers with more livable wages– whether they are those sewing the clothing or those selling it in the malls. My wish for 2014 is a tall one – that higher wages and safer working conditions becomes a reality, worldwide.

Happy New Year!

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Taking A Count of What We Already Have

 

fiber labeled

I’m not a big fan of Black Friday. I’ve never been one to get up in the morning and take part in a shopping frenzy. In fact, I’m not a fan of early morning at all, so perhaps my aversion to Black Friday reveals that I believe retailers should give me expensive electronics and cash to get me out of bed on a holiday weekend before the sun is shining. That still might not be enough of an incentive to leave my cozy warm bed for vicious crowds and over-the-top consumerism.

Here’s what I did instead for Black Friday (after a late brunch, of course). I counted my clothes.

I’m taking part in an assignment I also gave my Intro to Sociology students. We are reading Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where Cline begins her exploration of the fast fashion industry by counting her own clothes that she had accumulated through years of bargain-hunting. She had 354 items of clothing, most of it cheaply-made fast fashion produced in Asia.

In order to not make the clothes-counting task overly burdensome for my students on Thanksgiving weekend, we are only counting our clothes that are currently in circulation – if it’s in a drawer, hanging in a closet, piled on the floor or hiding in a laundry basket, it gets counted. If it’s in a storage bin, it doesn’t get counted. Ditto for underwear, accessories, shoes, scarves, mittens, hats. That means our clothing counts are conservative. Besides just the total count of clothing items, we are also keeping track of what country of origin each item came from, for the sake of appreciating the laborers who made the shirts we wear on our backs. For my own personal interest, I also recorded brand, fiber content, whether I purchased the item locally or from a national retailer, and whether it was vintage or non-vintage.

Part of my motivation for giving this assignment over Thanksgiving weekend is I proposed it could be a fun family activity if my students could convince parents, siblings or cousins to help with the count.  So with my honey filling out an Excel spreadsheet while I went through drawers, closet, and laundry basket, the count began. The results were interesting.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ll present my results with pie charts. Pie charts are like little festive Christmas ornaments for sociologists. Feel free to print them, cut them out, and hang them on the tree!

Here is a pie chart illustrating the different types of clothing items in my closet, the grand total of which was 186 items of clothing (and that’s a conservative number, given I didn’t count storage).

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I was curious to see what proportion of my clothes were vintage. I have a passion for vintage, yet my vintage garments have to compete with the many t-shirts, jeans and skirts that form the staples of daily dressing. Indeed, I found that the non-vintage items dominated my wardrobe.

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A breakdown of my closet by brand and/or origin of purchase reveals why non-vintage makes up the largest proportion of my closet (by the way, this would be the prettiest of the festive pie-chart Christmas ornaments if I were judging purely on an aesthetic basis).

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I also checked the proportion of garments I had purchases locally, in non-chain shops. I thought my results were respectable, though non-local purchases did dominate.

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What I found most interesting was the breakdown of my wardrobe by country of origin.

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The largest proportion of my clothes were made in the U.S.A., followed by China, and Scotland (huh, Scotland? Yes, Scotland).This is where my wardrobe tells a story about the U.S. fashion industry that Cline details in her book. The high proportion of USA-made items in my closet mostly comes from garments that were made before 1990. Combined with new clothes I sewed, and a few pairs of USA-made jeans and leggings, this explains the strong showing for USA. Made before 1990 also explains the curious position of Scotland in third place. I live in a cold place, and I have a thing for vintage cashmere sweaters, almost all of which were originally made in Scotland.

But all my new t-shirts with their various sleeve lengths, in a rainbow of  colors, my cheap pants and dresses from various fast fashion retailers were produced in Asia or Latin America. Embedded in this data is a historical story of how the fashion industry moved from being located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere before 1990, to moving into the Southern Hemisphere due to companies outsourcing for the sake of finding cheap labor and lax regulations on working conditions. Recoding country by Northern or Southern  hemisphere in my closet, here’s the proportion:

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I’ll be curious to see what the results of my students are for this same exercise. I am guessing that China and other Asian countries will account for a larger proportion of clothing in their closets. And I am sure it will generate a discussion about the labor conditions in the countries where most of our clothing is produced, as this is an compelling theme in Cline’s Overdressed.

And I also hope that by counting clothes over Thanksgiving weekend, everyone felt thankful for what they had and maybe Black Friday held less enticement than in previous years.

– Nancy L. Fischer

All pie charts created on SPSS by Lars D. Christiansen. Thanks!

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