Does this look too costume-y?

60s Nance 10 31 15 - 1

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?


Filed under Retro Style

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

IMG_2534 (1)

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.


Filed under Ethical Fashion, Secondhand Worlds, Sewing, Vintage Clothing

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.


Filed under Uncategorized

Travel in Search of Vintage

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.14.34 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.15.16 PM

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.

Leave a comment

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

Jumble Dressing, Pastiche and Androgyny

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

1980s Google Images of Androgynous Dressing

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 5.38.28 PM

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).


Filed under Feminism and Fashion, Retro Style, Vintage Clothing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Vintage, the First 40 Years


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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Fashion Trends, Retro Style, Vintage Clothing, Why We Wear the Past