Category Archives: Secondhand Worlds

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

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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

Travel in Search of Vintage

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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.

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

The Dark Side of Buying Secondhand

pawn america photo for blog

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


Filed under Secondhand Worlds