Like vintage? Say why for a chance to win gift certificates!

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Hi there vintage fans!

I’ll continue with regular blog posts after Feb 15th. In the mean time, if you haven’t yet had a chance to complete my survey on why you wear vintage, then click on the link below and get started! If you complete a survey, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win 1 of 3 $30 etsy.com gift certificates, where you can find a huge selection of vintage clothing. You can find more info on the survey by clicking the link or by checking out my December 2015 blog post. Thanks and have a groovy day!

Click here to start vintage clothing survey

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Why do you wear & buy vintage?

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Hey vintage clothing wearers: Here’s an opportunity to win one of three $30 etsy.com gift certificates by answering this survey I’ve been working on.

click here for survey on why you wear vintage

“Why a survey for those who wear vintage clothing?” you might ask. I have been researching vintage and secondhand clothing in some way for the last five years. I’ve interviewed vintage clothing store owners in the Twin Cities, and I’ve researched when wearing vintage first became a mainstream trend in the United States.  Augsburg Now, the Augsburg College alumni magazine, recently interviewed me about my ongoing vintage clothing research, in case you’re curious.

I’ve read a ton of the academic literature about vintage, retro and secondhand over the last five years. I’ve enjoyed reading the vintage guides and coffee table books as well. It turns out there are a lot of assumptions about vintage and retro clothing enthusiasts in that literature! I’m a sociologist, so my approach is “Why just assume? Why not ask people?” So based on all that I’ve read, the conversations I’ve had with folks, and my own experiences with vintage, I’m now asking, “Why do you wear and buy vintage clothing?”

I’ve put together a survey for people who wear and/or buy vintage clothing. I’m hoping you would like to help out with this project. As an incentive to take the time to complete the survey, after the survey closes (on February 16th, 2016), I will conduct a drawing to choose three winners of $30 Etsy.com gift certificates.  Just click on the link above to take the survey. And if you know other vintage clothing wearers – whether they wear it occasionally or all the time – please send them the link to this page. The more folks who share their thoughts, the better!

Thank you – I really appreciate your help and look forward to hearing more about why you wear vintage!

Update Dec. 18th: Thanks to those of you who let me know there was a glitch in the survey. I’ve fixed it. You can let me know at fischern@augsburg.edu if you encounter any other problems.

-Nancy L. Fischer

 

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Back to the fifties…I mean eighties

It’s been a relatively mild November here in Minnesota (today is our first real snow) and my go-to coat for the month has been this black-and-white houndstooth swing coat.The swish of the fabric as I walk  feels flirty and luxurious. The swing coat’s open front is perfect when a chilly morning turns into a more temperate fall afternoon.

Because swing coats were originally designed to cover those voluminous 1950s full skirts, they are also easy coats to wear with today’s layers. Swing coats also wonderfully offset the slim designs of tight-fitting wiggle dresses and suits of the 1950s. This is the look featured in the November calendar image on my Style 2015 wall calendar.  Of course this elegantly sketched model carries off the post-war style with a bit more panache. After all, she has the Arc de Triomphe within walking distance.

How many decades has this coat seen? How many floral, full-skirted dresses with flouncy tulle petticoats has it covered? What skinny wiggle dresses or fitted smart suits has it complemented? Did it once grace the shoulders of a 1950s secretary strolling on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis?

Well, it’s more likely that this particular swing coat just covered a tulle petticoat worn as a skirt, a la Cyndi Lauper. Or perhaps it covered an oversized t-shirt paired with stirrup pants and pointy-toed ankle boots (remember that 80s look?)

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Just as we recently witnessed a 1950s revival under the influence Mad Men (which premiered in 2007), movies and television shows (like Happy Days, which ran from 1974-1984) set in the 1950s inspired a “Back to the Fifties” fashion revival in the 1980s.

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Thus my “Fifties Swing Coat” is a reproduction – a bit of 1980s retromania where clothing companies released 50s styles  in the hope of cashing in on the Back to the Fifties trend. Perhaps the former owner of my swing coat might have been passed on the street by 1980s vintage afficionados who thought “You should have bought a real 1950s swing coat. They are cheaper and better made!”

This raises the question of how did I know the coat was from the 1980s and not the 1950s? It was just an intuition when I picked up the coat – something about the fabric and the shoulder pads, that Hayley, the shop owner of Lula Vintage, confirmed. Chronically Vintage has a great blog post on how to tell genuine 1940s and 1950s clothing from the Eighties-does-Fifties reproductions. The surged seams on my coat, and the fact that it’s a size Small, for example, are dead give-aways.  Nonetheless – now that my swing coat has 30 years under its lapels – it’s “authentically” vintage and I love it, even if I don’t have the tulle petticoat as skirt to wear it for its full 80s effect.

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Does this look too costume-y?

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I’ve had my moments of vintage clothing buying when I want everything from the era for a certain look – the right 60s skirt, top, and then even hat, gloves and purse. But anyone who reads vintage styling tips knows, if you wear them all together, you run the risk of looking like you’re wearing a costume, rather than being stylish in the here and now. I can get away with a vintage skirt, and definitely a vintage purse, but a hat too? Definitely looking like I’m going to a theme party.

That’s why I love Halloween. Other than having a Mod 60s Party to attend, it’s the one night of the year I can put together the whole look – hat, gloves, top, bottom, and purse – and get away with it. And it’s great fun to be out in public, wearing a 60s pillbox! People who find the look odd think I’m in costume, and those who like vintage dig seeing the whole look together.

So vintage lovers, I hope you’ve taken advantage of Halloween as a chance to push the style boundaries a little and wear that entire Mad Men look tonight. Happy Halloween!

Is that a Halloween costume or how she normally dresses?

Is that a Halloween costume or how she normally dresses?

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Ethical Dilemmas in Refashioning Vintage Clothes

vogue jacket

My mother was an excellent seamstress when I was in high school. I didn’t have much incentive to learn to sew myself since I could never make anything that was as high quality as what my mother could produce. It was a love of vintage clothing that eventually brought me into the world of sewing decades later. I was walking by St. Paul’s awesome fabric store Treadle Yard Goods and noticed a 50s style dress that bowled me over. It turned out to be the diamond dress pattern from the retro pattern company Decades of Style. I went in and bought the pattern even though I didn’t even own a sewing machine. I’m now on my second sewing machine (a vintage Bernina) and I have accumulated a mini-library of vintage patterns (ironically, I still haven’t made that diamond dress!).

Learning to sew has expanded what vintage items I can buy and successfully wear. I regularly make routine alterations such as hemming, letting out or taking in seams. I think of these alterations as uncontroversial. I never even cut the hem when I take up a skirt so that if the next owner is taller, she’ll have something to work with. And I normally avoid trimming seam allowances I’ve taken in for the same reason.

Where things get a little more ethically uncomfortable for me is when I’m permanently altering the garment in ways that it can’t return to its original state. I’ve altered a maxi into a mini. And if I really love a long vintage skirt that has a tiny waist (I comfort myself with the thought that they wore girdles back in those days, right?), I’ve cut off the waistband and re-sewn it with a contour waistline (mark the new waist-line using a pattern if you’re trying this at home). The contour style waistband-less skirt is not authentic to the time period, but it fits me comfortably.

And re-shaping a waist is one thing, but what about a complete re-fashion? I adore Charity Shop Chic or Jillian Owens’ blog Refashionista where fantastic seamstresses take thrift store finds and makes them into cute clothes for a night out on the town. They, of course, work with cast-off clothing. What about cutting into a vintage garment and refashioning it into something more contemporary? I’m probably treading on vintage ethical thin ice, but I’ll admit I’ve done it. I love 1950s novelty print skirts like this brown one below, but they usually have the tiny waists I was referring to above.

Venice skirt 3

This leads me to the story of my first novelty skirt I found. It was a lavender novelty print skirt with a 23-inch waist. When I cut off the waistband in order to create a new one and shorten the skirt, I discovered over 2 yards of fabric tightly gathered in that tiny waistband!  I ultimately decided not to make it into another skirt – I had enough fabric for an entire dress and made the one you see below.

1950s skirt is now a dress

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And the jacket at the top of this blog post? The herringbone section made up a bulky skirt that I watched hang unloved in a local vintage shop for two years before I bought it and turned it into the 1960s Vogue jacket pattern.

But should I have made the cuts and re-worked the skirts?

I never really thought about the ethics of altering vintage until I had a conversation with a Ph.D. student from the University of Minnesota’s Design-Apparel Studies program. With her training in textile conservation, she brought up how altering vintage clothing posed a real dilemma – the conservationist in her wanted to leave the clothes un-molested, but the fashionista wanted to alter and wear. Re-fashioning old clothing to re-shape it into new styles is an old practice. Patricia Allerston in Reconstructing the Second-Hand Clothes Trade in Sixteenth- and Seventeen-Century Venice reasoned that there are few surviving examples of Italian Renaissance clothing because the fabric remained valuable after a particular style faded, and old garments were re-worked into new ones.

So does that mean (gulp) that when I remove a genuine 1950s tiny waistband that I’m contributing to a world where no one will know what these waistbands look like or how small 50s young women once were?

It’s possible. That’s why I’ve felt a little nervous about my past vintage refashions.  Yet, I will say that losing examples of 1950s skirts seems less probable than the loss of surviving 16th- and 17th-century Venetian dresses. The Venetian textiles remained valuable because they were rare, painstaking handcrafted by expert weavers, and so they were sewn into something else. The 1950s fabrics are high quality but mass-produced – not the same type of high quality as Venetian brocades. Finding examples today of 1950s textiles is thankfully not that difficult. Moreover, because we are more fascinated by our recent past than the Renaissance Venetians probably were, people keep their high quality old clothes. Museums and historical societies regularly collect antique garments – from haute couture to everyday wear – as part of their conservation efforts. And today’s grand dames of fashion are willing to ensure that the iconic clothing of past decades is conserved (for example, I recently watched the documentary Iris about Iris Apfel, who was donating her clothing to the Peabody Essex Museum).

I definitely haven’t taken the ethical high road of conservationism when it comes to making my vintage clothes work for today. I do keep alterations to a minimum rather than frequently engaging in a full-scale re-fashioning. And I should note that the designer garments I own are off-limits for anything but hemming – their value is retained through minimal to no change. But in the end I rationalize that re-fashioning old styles into new garments is also a part of our Western heritage and is a tradition that I’m carrying on, for better or for worse.

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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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Filed under Fashion and the City, Secondhand Worlds, Vintage Clothing