Last weekend I attended one of my favorite vintage events in the Twin Cities: Retrorama at the Minnesota History Center. It’s the one night of the year when I blend into a crowd, wearing a vintage 1960s black lace cocktail dress and my ice-blue cat-eye glasses!
Retrorama has me thinking about some questions that I am frequently asked: What makes a garment “vintage”? Does “vintage” differ from other types of secondhand / used clothing? And does “retro” mean the same thing as “vintage”? I’ll use some photos from Retrorama to answer those questions.
What does “vintage” refer to? My own general definition is that “vintage clothing” refers to garments that are at least 20 years old that have a recognizable look that communicates the style of an earlier decade. The key to this definition is that the garment is really 20+ years old rather than a newer reproduction of an older look. Thus, “vintage” as a concept is closely linked with authenticity. If you buy a vintage dress or necktie, it’s probably because you find it rewarding to wear the genuine article. These fabulous 1970s orange vinyl boots (from this year’s Retrorama) are authentically vintage:
But that’s my definition. Hayley Bush, the owner of Saint Paul’s Lula Vintage informed me that, for the purposes of obtaining a business license, the City of Saint Paul defines “vintage” as clothing that is 25 years or older.
Why, you might ask, would a city bother to define vintage? I suspect the answer is to distinguish vintage clothing stores from ordinary secondhand and/or thrift stores, which have less cultural cache. It turns out cities regard secondhand clothing stores as a possible indicator of urban blight (and perhaps they associate vintage clothing stores with gentrification or urban revitalization). For example, the City of Minneapolis has an ordinance that regulates that pawn shops, homeless shelters and secondhand clothing stores must not be located close together. Is it fair to assume all secondhand stores will encourage a downward spiral of a neighborhood’s economy? Probably not. But I digress.
My digression brings me to the next question: What is secondhand? Secondhand clothing is the umbrella term for all used clothing, whether 20+ years old or younger. So “vintage” is a special type of secondhand clothing. So ordinary secondhand is the dress from H & M that you found at Buffalo Exchange. It’s also most of the apparel that populates thrift stores and, on the more upscale end of the continuum, the clothing at consignment stores.
This leads me to another digression – a pet peeve. The word “vintage” sounds more exotic than “secondhand,” so some stores and media photo shoots call a garment vintage when it’s really a recently-used garment. I will look at the shirt and think, “I saw this in the stores a few years ago – this is not from an earlier decade and it’s not vintage!” No wonder I am frequently asked what “vintage” means – the label increasingly is employed to describe all used clothes. Anyway, here’s an example of a cute secondhand dress from Vita’mn’s photos from Retrorama:
Finally, what does “retro” mean? Now that’s more slippery. Merriam-Webster’s on-line definition illustrates the slipperiness: “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.” See? Retro can refer to something that “relates” or “revives” or actually is a fashion from the past. With this definition, vintage and retro can be the same thing. And in Europe, I’ve noticed, “retro” is usually the favored term over “vintage.”
However, I prefer Wikipedia’s definition of “retro”: “Imitative of a style, fashion, or design from the recent past.” The key word here is “imitative,” thus suggesting that “retro” is “repro” – it’s a reproduction of a past fashionable look. I prefer this definition because it keeps “vintage” and “retro” distinct.
Why am I so fussy about “retro” versus “vintage”? It’s the authenticity issue – vintage is a genuine artifact from the past. For example, when I pick up a vintage dress, I can tell something about what colors were once in vogue. I can tell how clothes were made to have a different fit reflecting earlier ideas of what a body should be doing (for example, armholes were higher, encouraging straighter posture for the wearer). That’s why I think it’s important to know what is vintage versus what is a reproduction.
Don’t get me wrong – I love retro clothes. The advantage of retro over vintage is it’s easier to find your size, and the fit reflects today’s expectations of what a body does and thus gives the wearer more ease of movement. It’s fun to go into a retro store and see older styles in so many colors and sizes. So not surprisingly, at “Retro”rama, there are fine examples of retro:
But, I’ll admit, the real-deal vintage gives me a thrill. Here was my favorite vintage look from this year’s Retrorama – dig the matching lace pants to that empire-waist tunic!
Want to see more Retrorama fashion? Here’s a link to the Retrorama Runway photo stream. Enjoy!
– Nancy L. Fischer