Selective Memory

Picture a 1920s dress and hat, trying to imagine the style, fabric and color.

What comes to mind as you picture the dress? Does it have a drop-waist? A hemline that stops just below the knee? Is it sleeveless? Is the skirt fitted, gathered or pleated? Does it have a straight hemline or an uneven one?  Is the dress fabric you’re picturing rather light-colored (pastels?) and floaty, like silk chiffon? Or maybe black, adorned with beads or embroidery?

How about the hat? Did you picture a round cloche? Was it a summer hat made of straw or raffia? Or a winter hat made of wool?

Where did your image of the 1920s dress and hat come from? Did you draw from images from the film The Great Gatsby (and then, 1974 or the 2013 version?) or maybe the HBO series Boardwalk Empire?

Did the dress and hat you imagined look anything like this?

 

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I’d like to have something to wear to a 1920s-themed event, like the Jazz Age Lawn Party or to a speakeasy bar.

The pattern pictured above is a genuine 1921 pattern. The hat is a 1920s hat that I’ve had for years, displayed in my sewing room in a clear hat box. I’ve purchased linen fabric in the yellow-cream and light orange that matches the hat’s embroidery.

Yet I find myself hesitating to cut out the pattern pieces. I keep thinking, “Does the pattern really look 20s enough? I mean, aren’t those exaggerated wavy lines in the design more mod 1960s or 1970s than 1920s? And what about that skirt on the dress? Doesn’t it read more 1930s? And isn’t the skirt kind of frumpy? Does the hat look enough like a cloche?”

And here I am caught up in the irony of having genuine 1920s articles, and wondering if they look “authentically” 1920s.  I’ve been thinking of making the pattern with a different skirt style – maybe pleated or handerkerchief – in order to give it a more “20s look.”

I’ve been reading Heike Jenss’s book Fashioning Memory: Vintage Culture and Youth Style and it’s helped me understand why I’m questioning the “20s-ness” of my pattern. It turns out we have a selective cultural memory of what 1920s (or any past decade’s) style is. My 20s patterns doesn’t look 20s enough because I’m drawing off only the most iconic images of how that era has been reproduced in popular culture in films like Midnight in Paris or the television series Downtown Abbey.  Costume designers regularly allow present styles to influence how they reproduce the past. So, for example, the 2013 version of The Great Gatsby features much more fitted versions of flapper dresses than actually was the style. It’s no surprise – every vintage store owner I’ve ever talked to about wearing 20s  has told me that most women look terrible in the flat-chested, straight-sided, sack-like dresses of that era. But like most vintage enthusiasts, I’m highly influenced by the present in my imagining of what constitutes “the look” of the past. And so, just like a costume designer, I’m highly likely to alter the pattern’s style to give it a more shapely look that I can more easily wear in the present day. And then my altered “authentic” 20s dress will continue to shape how we today imagine the 1920s.

 

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“We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”

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“Thinking about how we mourn artists we’ve never met. We don’t cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.”

Thus Juliette@ElusiveJ on Twitter so eloquently put it. I’ve been thinking about this quote all weekend, as I binge-listen to Purple Rain and favorite songs like “7” and “Raspberry Beret” (the kind you find in a secondhand store). I listen and remember how Prince and the 1980s Minneapolis scene rocked me through my young adulthood.

I won the Purple Rain album at my high school senior prom. I remember dancing with abandon to “Let’s Go Crazy” in a peach-colored lace tea-length dress (a retro 1950s-style). When I saw the film Purple Rain (movies came later than soundtrack albums to rural North Dakota), I was fascinated with the urban scenes – First Avenue, Lake Minnetonka (actually, Cedar Lake playing the role of Lake Minnetonka), and the Crystal Court of IDS Center. When I arrived in Minneapolis in Fall 1985 for college, I was so excited to explore the city. I’d go dancing with friends at First Avenue. I’d scan the dark edges of the club, hoping to see Prince for the first 10 minutes I was there, and then I’d forget all about celebrity sighting. The multi-colored lights flashed, the beat pounded,  and I would dance with friends, feeling like we were somewhere.

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The 1980s Minneapolis of my memory has a lavender glow. The neighborhood around First Avenue had more character then with its dive bars like Moby Dicks, or nearby Shinders with its comic books and enormous magazine section. We would visit the Chain of Lakes in the wee hours of the morning (usually Lake Calhoun), whispering and giggling, feeling transgressive. I would also go on urban explorations alone, walking in the early morning from Augsburg College in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood to Nicollet Mall in downtown. I walked along the Mississippi almost daily, and to the old Dinkytown (before it became a sea of student housing) on a weekly basis. I’d check out nearly every free concert and local festival. I learned how to be an independent, curious, confident young woman then, and part of what inspired my urban and personal exploration was the fantasy Minneapolis depicted in Purple Rain.

The Minneapolis vintage scene has always been great, but in my memory it was a wonderland then. Just blocks from Augsburg was a funky store called Intermezzo with rubber duckies, vintage clothing, and odd apartment furnishings. Tatters opened a record shop and vintage store further down on Cedar. The Tatters location in Uptown was often graced by visits from his Purple Highness. The Ragstock Warehouse was a bit further away on Washington Avenue (when Washington was filled mostly with empty warehouses rather than today’s colossal condos). I’d rummage through barrels of clothes, pulling out satin pajamas, silk kimonos, 40s peplum jackets, old military uniforms, acrylic sweaters adorned with ribbons. Vintage was about trying on different characters for me then. I could be a 40s secretary, a 50s sock-hopper, a 60s go-go girl, a 70s bohemian. Did I want to be smart? Sweet? Assertive? Blase´? My wardrobe was eclectic to reflect my changing moods and identity experiments.

I’ve been realizing this weekend that I haven’t been anywhere near as adventurous in exploring the city I live in as I was back then. And that situation needs to be rectified because life is too short to not appreciate what’s around you. Prince’s death has reminded me that it’s important to stoke that sense of wonder and curiosity. I’m sad our favorite hometown boy is gone and that I’ll never experience a Prince sighting. But I’m thankful that he put Minneapolis on the international map as a place where cool could happen and that he’s inspired me reconnect with that place and with my younger sense of self.

 

 

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The World of Clothing

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Every semester in my Introduction to Sociology course, we read the book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. I ask my students to count their clothes and list the countries from where they came. In Overdressed, Cline focuses mostly on clothing production in three nations: The United States, China and Bangladesh. Above are the results from my Fall semester students and you can see that these three countries feature prominently (China in dark purple, the US in light purple and Bangladesh in marine blue). Perhaps what’s more interesting is that there were so many countries that accounted for just a tiny slice of clothing production that they all were lumped together in “all others” and that’s the second biggest piece of the pie (in apple green).

In this semester’s results (below) China still has the largest wedge of the pie chart, and Bangladesh, Bulgaria and Vietnam are close behind. I wasn’t surprised by China, Bangladesh and Vietnam. China is where garments that require more complex sewing is done (like sewing coats), and Vietnam and Bangladesh are known for T-shirts and other cheap knit clothing. I was surprised by Bulgaria having such a large wedge. I was unaware there was so much clothing production there, but a quick google search revealed that Bulgaria is considered “the sewing sweatshop of Europe” with low-paid workers sewing many American brands like Lee jeans or Calvin Klein.

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It’s an interesting task to count one’s clothes and note their origins. I always learn more about how global clothing-making geography is shifting through my students’ projects.

 

 

 

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Spring Forward into the Past

Spring 16 Fashion

March is almost upon us, and the hefty spring fashion magazines are out.  As a vintage aficionado, I like to page through and see which vintage looks are making a comeback. While some looks are perpetually in style, such as 1960s shift dresses (see the latest from Kate Spade below), other revived looks don’t hang around for long.

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Vintage store owners also make a point of looking at the latest in the fashion mags and change their storefront looks accordingly. In Alligators, Old Mink and New Money, fashion-model-turned-vintage-store-owner Alison Houtte tells how she always made sure her Brooklyn store was stocked with the “latest” old versions of new looks. Why buy a fast-fashion reproduction if you can have the original look?

The last time I was paying attention to fashion magazines looking at the “new” styles, I noticed the return of some 1970s looks that are not frequently revived. Will I be wearing my 1970s knee-length tapestry vest (a look that was all over stores this summer) or is it back to storage for this groovy vest?

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Paging through the March issue of Elle and Vogue, it appears the 1970s are still in. I’m particularly fascinated with this Gucci model from the Spring 2016 ads who appears to be channeling a young Elton John, minus the visible chest hair. And is this ad marking the return of the pageboy haircut?

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This spring 2016 suede cut-out dress by Bally also has an early 1970s look.

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From wide-leg trousers to the persistence of the maxi dress, it appears that the 1970s are still in. It makes me want to sell my house and purchase this fabulous 1970s Chicago apartment! Yeah baby!

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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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