Many people, when secondhand/vintage clothing hunting, look first (well, maybe second, after seeing an interesting print on the rack) at the label. There are labels that perhaps we are delighted to see, associating a particular designer’s name or clothing company with quality, comfort or as “our” style. Labels often play a bigger role in determining the price of the garment than its actual condition. I’ve seen secondhand Chanel or Prada still command a hefty price, even with stains or the stitching coming undone.
Why the fascination with labels? According to Dana Thomas in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster the valuing of labels in fashion may have gotten its start in 1888 when Georges Vuitton (son of Louis) put the label “Marque Louis Vuitton deposee” (registered trademark Louis Vuitton) in one of its signature traveling trunks to mark it as authentic from those of copying competitors. A label of a trusted company meant authenticity and high quality. By the early 1950s, Parisian couture designers like Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin were licensing their names to hosiery producers, American department stores and clothing manufacturers so that the newly prosperous middle classes could afford a piece of luxury, albeit if mostly in name. The association of a designer label with social status remains today.
Of course most labels in one’s closet may not have a luxury association. When I look through vintage clothing, what I love about the labels is the sheer diversity of the clothing companies, stylists and designers who, at one time, produced clothing. Some have quirky names, use funky fonts or quaint imagery.
Whenever I look at this Kenny Classics label in my 1960s yellow gingham dress, I always wonder, “why did the company use a wood-burning stove on its label?” Perhaps they thought that yellow gingham went with home and hearth.
What I really love seeing in vintage labels is the regionalism. When I look at secondhand clothing that I’ve acquired within the last 10 years, the bulk of the labels say “Made in China.” But in my clothing from the 1980s or earlier, I don’t just see “Made in the USA” but “Styled in Philadelphia,” “Cleveland,” “Minneapolis,” and “Dallas.”
The Vintage Fashion Guild website is a great resource for learning more about the labels inside vintage clothing. There are 16 pages worth of photos of labels and brief histories of companies that produced them. It can be a useful resource in dating an item of clothing, using the photos of designer labels from different decades.
I looked through each page of the VFG’s guide, perusing the histories of the designers and companies. I noticed a general pattern. For labels like Edward Abbott, B. Altman and Co, and Bonwit Teller that are no longer on the market, it seemed as if they closed or were purchased by larger companies in the 1970s or 1980s.
The 1970s and 1980s were a period of intense change in the American textile and fashion industry. Through most of the 20th century, clothing “Made in the USA” was common. The United States had textile mills, knitting mills, and many small clothing companies who hoped for a hit from a “hot little number” each fashion season. The variety of labels and their regionalism in my closet reflects the structure of the pre-1970s clothing industry.
But in the 1970s, U.S. clothing makers increasingly encountered competition from foreign imports from places like Hong Kong. U.S. clothing manufacturers began to close textile mills, laying off workers and seeking cheaper labor and lower production costs overseas. The well-known “Look for the Union Label” television ad campaign was launched in 1975 by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union to stem the tide of loss. In this 1978 version of the ad, the explicit plea to Americans to not buy imports is plain.
As I look through my contemporary clothes, I see label variety, but sometimes each label only represents a particular clothing line or limited style run from a larger company. Merona, Converse OneStar, Liberty of London for Target. Banana Republic, The Gap, Old Navy. And the fact that all are imports shows how the ILGWU’s Look for the Union Label Campaign didn’t convince enough American consumers to buy American.
As with the vintage clothing, the newer labels represent the way the larger clothing industry is now organized, with a smaller number of large, conglomerated companies who produce clothing on a “fast fashion” cycle using mostly Chinese labor.
There are also alternatives to this mass-produced, “fast-fashion” model that characterizes most of the industry today. We are witnessing increasing interest in “buying local” “fair trade” and making more eco-friendly clothing decisions (such as buying secondhand, clothing made from recycled products, or buying US made clothing that has traveled fewer miles as part of its carbon footprint). The website Ecouterre produces a daily newsletter on the latest in clothing that is made in the USA, fair-trade fashion, and eco-friendly textiles. And the show Project Runway has helped call attention to the efforts of local designers by featuring a new cohort each season.
In terms of Made in the USA, I have been captivated by the story of Seema Sudan, the American designer of LiaMolly knitwear whose story I learned about on Kickstarter. When a Chinese manufacturer ended her contract producing sweaters she designed because her orders were too small, she decided to produce her creations at home. Her Kickstarter fundraising brought a new high-tech digital knitting machine to New Orleans and she is about to begin making sweaters again.
Such changes are welcome, giving us more labels to love.
[All photos in this essay were taken by the author, Nancy Fischer]