“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.
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!
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.
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!
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).
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.
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).
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.
What I found most interesting was the breakdown of my wardrobe by country of origin.
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:
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!
Hey there Twin Cities Vintage Fans!
I will be giving a talk, Forever Vintage: Why We Wear the Past this coming Saturday (October 26th) at the Northtown Library from 2:00 – 3:00pm. I’m speaking as part of Anoka County Library’s Hair, Handicraft and History of Beauty Series.
I will be discussing how wearing vintage clothing became trendy and why we love secondhand clothes today! I’ll bring some of my own vintage garments. Please come and share your love for vintage!
Here are the details:
Forever Vintage: Why We Wear the Past
When: Saturday, October 26th from 2:00-3:00pm
Where: Northtown Meeting Room, Northtown Library
707 County Road 10 NE
Blaine, MN 55434
“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray……” Actually, the sky might be gray right now, but the leaves are a bright mix of green, yellow, orange, red and brown. This week, the telltale chill and crispness entered the breeze, signaling it’s truly fall. Here in Minnesota we have four distinct seasons dictated by the weather, and most inhabitants who are able shift what they wear with each season. Yes, we layer summer’s t-shirts, but the sundresses and tank tops vanish. Out come the long-sleeve t-shirts, sweaters, caps, jackets, scarves and darker colors.
Today I ushered my closet through its seasonal shift from summer to fall. I got up from breakfast, coffee in hand, feeling energetic and ready to undertake the task. I put on some music, bring out the storage containers and start sorting through what can be packed away and what will stay, awaiting supplemental layers. I will complete this task by lunch, and then move onto others on my to do list. This is the attitude with which I always begin a seasonal sorting of my closet – ready to go, resolved to efficiently undertake the task with enthusiasm.
And then I notice that it’s already 2:30, the cat is desperately trying to get my attention because I’ve forgotten his lunch. When I notice his cries, I realize I’ve been staring into space for 5 minutes, a heap of clothes piled over my arm. Where did the time go? Why am I unable to efficiently move forward and complete the task at hand?
It occurs to me that this has happened every single time – every season. It’s never as simple as putting away the sundresses and replacing them with sweaters. The sorting process is not as rational as establishing one pile for clothes that need repairs, others that need a wash, a third that will go to Goodwill.
Why does the seemingly simple process of sorting through my clothes become so emotionally fraught? As I contemplate my lost afternoon, I finally realize this is an inherently emotional task.
There are the moments of regret, when I think “What was I thinking? Why did I buy that?” These items are the easiest to dispose of, the offending item pulled off the hanger and into the pile for a local charity.
I get a deeper stab of regret and loss as I realize some garments are at the end of their “life cycle,” (at least in their current form). I ripped my beautiful blue Hawaii’ian shirt on a tree branch this summer – I don’t think I can repair it, so do I cut it apart and incorporate the fabric elsewhere? If I put it in the sewing room, will I be able to bring myself to take the scissors to the shirt? It now makes me a bit sad.
Sorting my clothes into different piles also leads me to occasionally hop aboard the guilt trip express. I encounter garments that represent failed aspirations. I intended to repair that dress, but here it hangs, in need of mending. This 1940s peplum jacket from Dayton’s still fits, but I’ve never had a skirt to match it; I’ve been intending to find or sew one since, well ………maybe 1986.
And it hangs next to this blue silk swing jacket that I purchased in the late 80s because I loved that it had such a specific geographic location on the label, “Just Opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay” Like the 40s peplum jacket, I have never been able to match the silk jacket. I don’t have the heart to give either jacket away; they are last two examples I have of the first vintage clothes I ever purchased. So here they remain, old friends that haven’t received their fair share of attention, still waiting for me to find them appropriate acquaintances so that we can all hang out together in public.
And speaking of guilt, what do I do with gifts? Some clothes I acquired through the thoughtfulness of others but they really don’t fit that well or suit my tastes. Wouldn’t it be wrong to put them in the Goodwill pile? And what if gift-giver goes to Goodwill and sees it hanging there? I pack the item away for now, ensuring that I’ll be taking another little guilt trip in spring when I re-encounter this particular storage bin.
Sorting through my closet also leads to wistfulness. As I make my way through my closet, I inevitably encounter ghosts of bodies and selves past. The dashed hopes that one day I will lose enough weight to fit back into my beloved mod arrow dress. Even some of my newer clothes fit in all the right places a season or two ago, but now I must face that age and gravity have taken their toll.
Thankfully, not every emotion of entering the closet is negative. As I near the end of my task, things begin to look up. In storage bins, I rediscover favorites of my fall wardrobe and smile, as if encountering old friends who are dear to me and make me feel good when I’m in their presence. It is these familiars who now move to front and center, giving me a nod of reassurance whenever I open the closet door.
It’s almost late afternoon now, the laundry nearly done, the newly cleaned clothes that survived summer are now packed away. There’s a grocery bag full of items ready for a local charity shop. I’ve put my torn and stained clothes whose fabric I loved in my sewing room – perhaps I will learn to quilt and they will once again bring me a smile in a new form.
I sit with a cup of hot tea, looking out at the October gray sky, finally feeling emotionally settled, my closet encounter perhaps having helped me, for now, to come to terms with bodies and selves of times present.
– Nancy L. Fischer
photos by Nancy Fischer
One August day back in 1987, I was spending part of the summer in a house with about 8 roommates. I knew everyone at acquaintance level, got along fine, rent was cheap. I was downstairs one sunny morning, washing dishes, thinking with excitement about my impending travel to France for a semester of study abroad. I would be leaving in just over a week! In a haze of daydreams about what wonderful new French adventures awaited me, I left my mother’s gold high school class ring next to the sink. I treasured the ring – Mom and I had graduated from the same small town high school exactly 30 years apart.
I was in my bedroom for no more than a half hour when I realized the ring was not on my finger. I went back down to the sink and it was gone. I knocked on the door of the guy whose bedroom was right next to the kitchen – the only other person at the house in the middle of the weekday. No, he hadn’t seen it – I must have lost it somewhere else. There were rumors about the house that he had a cocaine habit, and that things of value tended to disappear when he was around. I told him how important the ring was to me, how it was my mother’s. I tried to give him the honorable way of returning it by asking him to help me find it. I even had another friend scour his room whenever he went to the bathroom. But to no avail. My roommates told me that my ring was probably in a local pawnshop, a casualty of his coke addiction.
I weighed up visiting the local pawn shops in search of the ring. I had a vague idea that in the days after the theft, the ring would not yet be in a display case and that I would have to ask each pawn dealer about the ring. Would they even tell me if they had purchased it? Why would it be in their interests to do so? I imagined seedy places run by corrupt shopkeepers. With hundreds of tasks to complete before boarding the plane to Paris, I decided to give up on the ring, and that is the unfortunate end to the story.
That stereotypical image of the pawnshop – as a place that fences stolen goods run by less-than-honest shopkeepers – remained with me. So when our home was burglarized last month, I asked the police officer who came to take the report whether I would most likely be able to find my stolen items in local pawn shops. “No,” he explained. Pawn shops need proof of ownership to accept goods, and the goods they purchase are all uploaded into a database for police to check whether they match the descriptions of stolen goods. Pawn shops were selling things on the up and up. I later learned that in fact pawn shops have been improving their image and expanding their services to appeal to more customers.
The police officer speculated that Craigslist was mostly likely the place to find my stolen goods – no requirement to list serial numbers, no way of verifying whether the person selling is the actual owner. In the days that followed, I thought about how in the past I had raised my eyebrows when someone had mentioned buying used bicycles at local pawnshops, but I never batted an eyelash over the years at similar stories of “great deals” found on Craiglist.
Of course, stories of people finding their stolen goods on Craigslist abound – my favorite is the one about the girl who went to go “buy” her stolen bicycle that she saw posted on Craiglist. She asked to test ride it, and simply rode away. Payback (though this approach is not law-enforcement recommended)!
I did a little internet research on how to try to spot stolen goods on Craiglist. According to this ABC News Story, “Is Your Stolen Stuff on Craiglist?” check Craiglist frequently in the days following a burglary. Watch for descriptions of items like those you lost being sold by one seller – very suspicious if the seller’s location is somewhat close to your home. If you suspect your items are being sold there, you can try expressing interest and request more photos to hopefully obtain confirmation that it is indeed your stolen bicycle, computer, etc. And then call law enforcement to follow up if it is likely that it is indeed your goods being sold (rather than risk potential violence in an angry confrontation with a thief).
The ABC News Story also gives buyers some red flags to note in order to avoid purchasing stolen goods on Craiglist such as the use of stock photos rather than actual photos of the item in question, poor descriptions, and sellers who want to meet away from their residence (though, with that last one, I think a seller might want to protect themselves from a shady buyer by meeting in a public place).
This made me think about other on-line sites where I buy secondhand goods, like e-bay or Amazon Marketplace. Do stolen goods also show up there? I even found a website that gives tips for selling stolen goods that recommends thieves use Craiglist and ebay (though warns to watch quantities on ebay). Amazon Marketplace is apparently less desirable for thieves because they ask for tax information from their sellers (they would have to report sales as income to Uncle Sam).
Earlier this year, a Sacramento man was arrested as part of a shoplifting ring that had sold thousands of stolen items on ebay. I did some more poking around the internet on the warning signs for shady e-bay auctions. While not all on the lists seemed fishy to me (seller with multiple items, for example), some made sense, like: sellers with many NWT (New With Tags) items; the same seller with an item in different sizes and colors; a seller with products that match description of recently stolen goods located in the same area from which they were stolen; and auctions that do not use paypal (because paypal apparently makes it easy for investigators to follow the money). Now I can think of situations where there are innocent reasons for any of these red flags, so unfortunately, there is no sure way to tell.
Personally, I primarily use e-bay to find vintage items, so I’m not going to lose sleep over whether I’ve inadvertently purchased stolen goods – I’d be shocked if there’s market for fencing stolen vintage sweaters. And even with newer items, most sellers provide ample photos and descriptions which suggest they are quite familiar with the objects they are selling.
Are there any happy endings here? I do have a more favorable image of pawn shops. As for the burglary, we did not recover any of our stolen goods. However, if anyone reading this happened to have purchased a 1955 gold high school ring in the Twin Cities back in 1987, drop me a line. So far no luck on ebay.
– Nancy L. Fischer